In a report published today the Work and Pensions Committee says the UK Government should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and conduct a broad review of burials, cremations and funerals, with a view to making changes that have a long-term impact on funeral inflation and reduce funeral poverty.
The Committee also says evidence it heard in its recent inquiry into publicly funded bereavement support suggests the funeral industry may not be operating in a way that serves bereaved, vulnerable people well. This evidence on the operation of the funeral industry has been passed to the Competition and Markets Authority.
Frank Field MP, chair of the Committee, said: “We did not set out to inquire into the funeral industry but it soon became apparent that the interaction between an opaque and outdated public system of bereavement support and a market in funeral services which simply does not operate “normally”, is causing problems.
Two new academic studies are likely to engage the interest, and may influence the strategic planning, of undertakers and celebrants.
The first tracks the decline of religious belief in America together with the decline of those who identify as spiritual. It discovers, in spite of this, that increasing numbers of Americans believe in an afterlife. Here’s the hypothetical explanation:
“In comparison with those from earlier years and generations, American adults in recent years and generations were slightly more likely to believe in an afterlife. Combined with the decline in religious participation and belief, this might seem paradoxical. One plausible, though speculative, explanation is that this is another example of the rise in entitlement—expecting special privileges without effort. Entitlement appears in religious and spiritual domains when people see themselves as deserving spiritual rewards or blessings due to their special status.”
The second study offers an explanation as to why more men than women are atheists:
“In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious. That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men. Atheists, the researchers found, are most closely aligned with psychopaths–not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others.”
All of a sudden the media has started to take an interest in direct cremation. It’s the death of Anita Brookner wot done it. Here at the GFG we got calls after Bowie was whisked into the flames but little was written. I guess Bowie wasn’t reckoned sufficiently representative of mainstream people to be regarded as a sign of the times.
Will the upcoming Government consultation – here – take account of the needs of direct cremationists, we wonder, and consider abolishing the charge for the ceremony hall (chapel), and institute a dropoff service (also useful for home funeralists)?
What’s interesting about direct cremation is that it has come about without the benefit of advocacy by funeral reformers, who have been mostly (ironically) chattering about the desirability of more corpse-centric sendoffs. No one in the death biz saw direct cremation coming. How brilliant is that? The GFG has been, as in everything, way off the pace. In 2008 we wrote: “In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change?” In 2009 we wrote “We never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. In 2010 we had second thoughts: “It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores.”
Land on our shores? From where? Why, America, of course. But is direct cremation a transplanted practice – or did it arise here spontaneously? I’ve come to favour the latter theory. Increasingly, death announcements tell us, people are separating the disposal of the corpse from the memorial event, as in “Private cremation followed by a celebration of life to be held at…” The corpseless funeral and direct cremation are brother and sister.
What bothers the media is what may also bother you. Isn’t it emotionally injurious to deny people the opportunity to pay their respects and say a ritual farewell to the person who’s died? No point in debating that question, it has already been answered. For certain people, certain deaths are best marked by a direct cremation or a corpseless funeral. End of.
Which doesn’t mean to say that the consideration of the needs and feelings of others has evaporated. David Holmes reminded us of this a couple of weeks ago when he was involved in a death not as an undertaker but as a family friend. He wrote:
The driver for them all is DOING THE RIGHT THING. This is to be a cremation, with traditional coffin and hearse, we will wear less formal clothes …They want to do it this way because they all think this IS the way it should be done. There has been time for me to gently suggest alternatives, and frankly, their emotional state made me hesitant to suggest much at all as an alternative. When I have, they have usually closed me down.
This chimes with a recent correspondence we had with a person of extremely limited means. She was inclined to do it all from home affordably and decorate a cardboard coffin bought on the internet. Then, all of a sudden, she wanted a formal funeral with a horse-drawn hearse. She was wrenched one way and the other by what she felt to be a need to show the world she cared.
This was in contrast to the man, a few days later, who wanted to be put in touch with a direct cremationist. At 94 he was a bright as you like and wanted to talk about the issues. He is affluent, educated and freethinking, so he is socially fearless. More than that, he feels that even in death he has a duty to set an example to less confident people. He wants to give them ‘permission’ to make the same choice as him and do what they are inclined to do, not as they feel expected to do.
Here’s the point. Increasingly, people go to a funeral these days with no idea what to expect now that liturgy, even in religious ceremonies, has been replaced by a mash-up. When you don’t know what to expect, you’re open to… anything.
Wednesday’s Budget contained the above intriguing announcement. What’s going on here?
There may be a clue in the small print of the 2015 Budget (which we clean missed) when the Chancellor announced:
The Government will conduct a review into the size and provision of crematoria facilities to make sure they are fit for purpose and sensitive to the needs of all users and faiths. The Government will also review cremation legislation and coroner services.
“All users and faiths.” Is this something to do with provision for Hindus and Sikhs?
Or with the rising cost of funerals, much commented on by the media in the summer?
A much needed new funeral home was opened in Sutton Coldfield by local MP Andrew ‘The Pleb’ Mitchell and NFFD MD William ‘Safe Hands’ Eccleston. The new business has adopted the strapline “here to care for you and your loved ones now and forever”, a reflection, presumably, on the size of its mortuary facility – http://bit.ly/1U1h0nb
The Guardian wrote about death apps like Everest (above): “Everest is just one of a wave of apps and digital services that are emerging to help millennials plan their own #authentic mortal passings, right down to Instagram-worthy funerals. Last fall, rival apps Cake and SafeBeyond were released within one month of each other, and both hope to streamline end-of-life planning into one simple app.” – http://bit.ly/21W1duC
If you were sealed alive in a coffin you’d last about an hour, new research shows – http://bit.ly/1R9qLiJ
A Hampshire woman died aged 104 in the house she was born in and which she had lived in for her whole life – http://dailym.ai/1Xff6NP
Staff at Taunton Deane crematorium took a tough line with memorialised grave: “The memorial was placed without the necessary permit or permit fee being paid, and without the grave owners’ permission. Therefore the crematorium staff removed the memorial.” – http://bit.ly/21l3idS
Times columnist Janice Turner had a chat with her florist: ‘She told me of a woman who every day had to take a loaf of bread to her difficult mother. It was always wrong: burnt, stale, too soft, too hard. And when she died, the daughter had a floral tribute made of a loaf. The florist calls it up on her iPhone, garnished with Babybels. Its implicit, passive-aggressive message was: “So is this bread OK for you, Mum?”
‘Then the florist beckons me into the back room: “You have to see this.” Her colleague is busy making a wreath featuring a silver ashtray. “Apparently this lady really loved a smoke.” Did she, um, die of cancer? “Dunno. But we’re doing the fag so it lights up at the end. It’s all in the details.”’
A US evangelical Christian blog carried this observation about funerals: “Our anti-sacramental impulse isn’t well-suited to an occasion that calls for sacrament. This is an occasion that calls for liturgy and ritual, and those just aren’t things evangelicals are inclined or equipped to supply.” http://bit.ly/1LWgq7u
An insurance company that sells over-50s life insurance funded a survey that, among other things, discovered that “family and friends in the UK have spent collectively £4.8 billion on funerals for their loved ones over the last 5 years. And the research shows that to fund these funerals 2.7million peoplehave taken out some form of finance (credit cards, personal loans and payday loans) spending £1.6 billion.” There are other funeral cost findings in the report – Creative campaign FINAL (1)
The Times warned its readers against over-50s plans: “The problem is if you live an average lifespan you will lose out, paying in significantly more than you get out. Heather Morrice wrote to say that her parents always said that their funeral expenses would be met. When her mother became ill a year ago she was given the plan for safekeeping and was ‘aghast to discover that they would only get a fraction of what they paid in.'” (Article paywalled)
In Puerto Rica a dead man attended his funeral sitting in a chair with his eyes open (pic below) – http://bit.ly/1RginIc
How contagious is a corpse? “Contrary to commonly held beliefs, corpses are very poor sources of contagion. It doesn’t matter whether they are fresh or stinking, bloated, green and covered with mould – http://bit.ly/24YwpZa
Iraqi gravediggers are counting their blessings as civil war rages. One said: “To be honest about it, it makes us happy to do this job. We make a lot of money.” Suicide bombers are especially good for business. Another undertaker said “Many are incomplete. It depends what the family find. Sometimes we get just a leg or hand to bury. A couple of days ago I buried just two feet from one guy. “Saddam helped us a lot,” said another. “If he wasn’t at war he was always hanging people. Sundays and Wednesdays he’d hang men, Tuesdays he hanged women. So if other business was slow, at least we knew which days of the week to wait for the bodies of the hanged.” http://thetim.es/1prmsD7
In the Sunday Times Beatles biographer Hunter Davies wrote about his wife’s funeral. He wanted the minimum of fuss and was pleased with the Direct Cremation package offered by Leverton’s at £1900. The family designed and printed the service sheets and led the funeral ceremony – “I’ve always hated it at funerals when the person in charge has clearly never met the deceased”. The music was recorded on CD by Leverton’s and the final song was a cover version, not the real thing. Leverton’s rang and apologised and made a donation to Marie Curie. Leverton’s publish their prices online, setting an example all undertakers should follow.
I was rung up last year by a newbie undertaker who wanted the GFG to endorse his business. He had opened up in a small market town which already has a respected and established undertaker. Was he aiming to do anything different? No. Had he worked out the size of the market? No. It wouldn’t have taken him more than the few moments it took me. His town has a population of 13,000. The death rate is presently 9.34 per 1,000. So that’s 121.42 funerals a year. Throw in some local villages and you might get that up to 150. Divided between 2 undertakers, one with a big competitive advantage. I asked him why he had set up on his own. Usual story: he’d worked for an undertaker and always dreamed of being his own boss. He hoped it would work out. Why should it?
A little bit of market research goes a long way. We see very little of it in the funerals business, which is why there is such an oversupply of undertakers. The undertaker above is no one-off.
You can possibly help me here because I’ve been AWOL for months and I’m playing catch-up. Has there been any survey by, say, the NAFD or Saif in response to the social trends which account for the ongoing slow death of the traditional funeral as consumers increasingly opt for private funerals or direct cremation followed by a corpseless commemorative event – a celebration of life, a FD-less memorial service? Has anyone conducted a survey to find out what consumers are thinking and why? Considering that the business model of a full-service funeral home depends on people buying the complete suite of services, you’d think a little bit of existential angst might have prompted some market research.
Can any funeral director point to any market research, ever, which shows that bereaved people will beat a path to your door if you buy a new fleet of cars? That they think the marque and newness of your cars is a signifier of excellent personal service? That they give a toss about your cars?
We have regular surveys that tell us what consumers are doing – for example, what music they are choosing to play at a funerals. But precious few asking what they want. None that I can think of.
Progressive funeral people are no better. They think they know what’s best for bereaved people. They work from preconceptions. They like to say things like “Those trad FDs are the reason why funerals are so bad.” Where’s the evidence that these businesses are not giving people exactly what they ask for? “Funerals have been stolen from the people.” Is this what’s happened or did the people willingly hand over the whole shooting match to the undertakers? “I want to help families reclaim the care of their dead from the undertakers.” Is this what families actually want to do? How any of them? “People should be able to arrange a funeral that works for them.” Oh nice, what does that look like? “I want to open a funeral home that does things completely differently.” What’s the market need for that? How big is that market? “I want to help disadvantaged people arrange funerals they can afford.” Is there a living in that?
An element of hit-and-hope is always going to characterise any enterprise that seeks to break new ground. But you can only calculate risk if you have taken the trouble to get to know your market first and estimated the likelihood of being able to bring round waverers to the merits of what you’re offering. You leave as little to chance as possible, so you do the hard yards first.
More surveys, that’s what we need. More focus groups. A lot more marketing savvy. Above all, a lot more humility. Funerals are not the preserve of those who know best (and have nothing to learn) whether they’re old-school types with nothing to learn or middle-class so-called progressives.
A lot of people have set the world to rights on this blog, very cogently and persuasively. But it’s amounted to no more than preaching to the choir. The people we need to reach are the people who don’t take a continuous interest in death and funerals — the ones who check in to this website when someone dies and they need to act faster than they can think. Normal people. We need to ask them what they think.
Dignity has just published its results for the 52 week period ending 25 December 2015. You can study them here.
Headline figures for readers of this blog are:
Profit per funeral: £1045 – a margin of almost 42%. This was in spite of the fact that: “Approximately 24 per cent of the funerals performed in the year (2014: 23 per cent) had previously been prearranged. This proportion is anticipated to continue to increase over time. Whilst these funerals represent substantially lower average revenue per funeral, their incremental nature means they are a positive contributor to the Group’s performance.”
Profit per cremation: £600 – a margin of nearly 63%
Our thanks to our number-cruncher for doing the math. The figures above are calculated by dividing underlying operating profit by the number of funerals/cremations carried out. The GFG team congratulates Dignity plc on what appears to be another robust performance.
We recently wrote to BBC R4’s Last Word programme suggesting they include more ordinary people – local heroes, we called them – here.
We said: “The stories of those of our fellow-citizens who have lived and struggled and won some and lost some are moving and inspiring. All priests and funeral celebrants know this, as do many undertakers. Every day their life-stories are recounted in crematoria and churches and at gravesides up and down the land, and what stories they are. They celebrate the extraordinariness of ordinary people.”
The producer of Last Word agrees and would like the GFG community to help him out. Here’s what he said:
Dear Mr Cowling,
In answer to your comment I agree, we should do more ordinary people, (whatever that may constitute) and we do try to; take the case of Mick Murphy the cycling brick layer for example.
I believe that for an obituary to be featured on Last Word there must be a story, and the story must be either entertaining or moving in some way, and that is not easy with both the famous and lesser known people.
You may imagine that we have vast resources at the BBC but sadly we do not – in fact it is just me – and often we are dependent on listeners for suggesting people, ordinary or not, to appear on the programme.
I do hope that you will suggest people to me in the future, I cannot promise anything but I will always do my best to oblige.
Spread the word!
Neil George Producer BBC Last Word. Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London, W1A 1AA