Blog Archives: December 2016

Undertakers at war

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

 

Ivor Leverton, 1961 – Image from Leverton and Sons website

The necessity to collect and decently dispose of those who fell in battle never led to  the conscription or recruitment of specialist undertakers. Undertakers wishing to serve their country in both world wars had to sign on as soldiers or sailors or airmen. There was no scope for serving as undertakers — with one exception.

Operation Mincemeat in 1943 was the exotic brainchild of British Intelligence. It was deployed to deceive the Germans into believing that a British invasion of Europe would be attempted in Greece and Sardinia, and that the force assembled in Casablanca apparently preparing to invade Sicily, the actual target, was merely a diversion. The purpose was to persuade the Axis forces not to send troops to reinforce the Sicily beaches. 

To achieve this bluff, the corpse of a Welsh pauper, Glyndwr Michael, was clad in the uniform of a fictitious Royal Marines officer. Forged top secret letters were placed in his briefcase bearing the necessary misinformation. The corpse was released from a submarine off the coast of Spain and picked up by a fisherman. The documents were read by the Germans, who believed them. The Allies invaded Sicily in the face of muted opposition. You can read all about it on Wikipedia.

The complicated process of giving the corpse its identity-makeover and getting it good to go called for the services of undertaker. That undertaker was Ivor Leverton.

Ivor Leverton had been turned down for military service – medically unfit – but he was itching to do his bit. When the intelligence officers in charge of Mincemeat needed the body of poor Glyndwr Michael moved from St Pancras to Hackney, they turned to Ivor. The episode is described by Ben Macintyre:

“Soon after midnight, Leverton tiptoed downstairs from the flat above the funeral parlour in Eversholt Street, taking care not to wake his wife, and retrieved a hearse from the company garage in Crawley Mews … The dead man was wearing khaki military uniform but no shoes. Leverton was struck by his height. Leverton and Sons’ standard [removal] coffins measured six foot two inside, but [Leverton recorded in his diary] ‘the dead man must have stood six feet four inches tall’ and could not be made to lie flat. ‘By an adjustment to the knees and setting the very large feet at an angle, we were just able to manage’.”

Macintyre describes Ivor Leverton as “a man of unflappable temperament and a bone dry sense of humour”. His brother, Derrick, was cut from the same cloth.

Major Derrick Leverton, 12th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery, was, by coincidence, among the first ashore on Sicily. An irrepressible optimist, he described the hellish sea crossing in a letter home as “a most excellent cruise”. His job was to set up a gun emplacement and engage enemy planes. As his men worked he brewed himself a cuppa. Then he was dive-bombed. One bomb fell in the sea “and splashed us with nice cool water”. In Macintyre’s narrative, “In case of further attacks the undertaker instructed his men to dig ‘little graves about three feet deep, which were very comfortable’ … And so, as the bombs fell around him, this heroic British undertaker sat in his own grave, wearing swimming trunks and a helmet, drinking a nice cup of tea. He looked ridiculous and, at the same time, bloody magnificent.”

Does anyone know of any other undertaker who had a good war?

Derrick Leverton, 1963 – Image Leverton and Sons website

Dignity in Blunderland

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

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Posted by Charles

A relatively new element of the Christmas experience is the themed winter wonderland. We’ve already had our first hilarious example of 2016 in Bakewell, Derbyshire. The Sun headline captured it neatly: WINTER BLUNDERLAND. Bakewell Winter Wonderland slammed by families as ‘pile of s***’ that is ‘so bad even Santa f***** it off’. The shocking muddy conditions saw the festive event likened to the Battle of the Somme.

Bit of a downer, obviously, but not enough to sully the good name of Christmas, a festival that remains robustly evergreen. Everyone complains how expensive it is. It has no utilitarian function. We do it the same way every year, ritualistically, so we know exactly what’s going to happen and what part we’re expected to play. Yes, it’s lovely to look at. But it celebrates an event – the birth of Christ – which to most people is of no relevance. Sure, there’s always a few bah-humbuggers who opt out, hunker down and have a no-Christmas Christmas instead, but vanishingly few, and their example is not influential. No, the overwhelming majority find the money and give it the full turkey. We love Christmas. Cheap at half the price. 

If only we could say the same about the traditional funeral. It’s got most of the same ingredients as Christmas. Everyone says it costs too much. It has no utilitarian function. Its format never varies – it’s ritualistic. Everyone knows what’s going to happen and what part they are expected to play. It is undeniably eyecatching. It was once the vehicle for a Christian funeral, but to most people now that’s of no relevance. And yet, and yet, the number of people copping out and opting for a no-funeral funeral – direct disposal – is growing exponentially. People are increasingly unwilling to find the money for a trad sendoff. Why?

I mean, a ‘traditional’ funeral is a heritage cultural artefact. It can trace its origins to the heraldic funeral of the middle ages. In a country that loves its pomp and ceremony, this is the British way of death. Where did it all go wrong?

I’ll tell you. The undertakers, finding themselves caught in a spot of commercial bad weather, had a straightforward choice to make and they called it wrong. They slashed their margins and introduced cheaper alternatives to the the product we call the traditional funeral. Hardly a creative response, nor a plucky one.

Steady the Buffs. When people say that funerals are too expensive, is this what they really mean?

Listen hard and you’ll discern that what they really mean is that funerals aren’t worth what they cost. They offer poor value for money. That’s not the same as too expensive. 

The problem is not with cost, it’s with value.

Last Thursday, Dignity bottled it and launched a direct cremation service under the branding of Simplicity Cremations. There’s a lot of the usual sales bilge on the website employing words like ‘dignified’ and ‘respectful’, as you’d yawnfully expect. There’s also a Ratneresque Cruise missile strike against the traditional funeral:

A full service funeral can be an expensive occasion that takes time and effort to arrange. You’ll often need a Funeral Director and a whole team of staff to co-ordinate the required services, vehicles and personnel, book the time with the crematorium, deal with paperwork, manage tributes and announcements and ensure everything runs smoothly on the day. And then there are also additional costs for items such as flowers, service cards, music, maybe a memorial or headstone and often a wake. It will usually take quite a few face-to-face meetings to arrange, not to mention several thousands of pounds.

In other words, yep, our flagship product is a bunch of crap. Too much time, too much effort, too much money. Don’t buy it.

Why would Dignity do that? These are clever people. Why diss the product that yields the best margin? This is industrial strength, Santa-killing insanity.

On the same day that Dignity was raising its cowardly white flag, Team GFG was, by happy coincidence, in London meeting a high-level ceremonialist with excellent connections and a strong belief that all is not lost. Because, dammit, we’re not giving up on the traditional funeral. We think the thing to do is to fix it – fix this issue around value.

What is a high-value funeral? It’s closely related to a high-value Christmas. It is something which does people a power of good. In the case of a funeral, it is transformative of grief.

For undertakers, ‘funeral flight’ represents an urgent existential threat. The business model of a funeral director is structured to provide all or most of the elements of a traditional funeral. Bankruptcy is hovering. When most funerals are private events or non-events, where will be the job satisfaction? For people grieving the death of someone, the consequences of the death of the funeral are quantified by John Birrell – here.

Christmas happens when we need it most. The days are short and dark, the weather awful. We all need cheering up. The retailers, whose livelihood depends on us splashing out bigtime, cleverly meet our needs with both the right merchandise and also cleverly pitched marketing messages – those supermarket  tv ads are all about the feelgood factor. Retailers understand that they will only sell us stuff if they can show us the Christmas is going to be a richly meaningful experience.

When commercial interests align with consumer needs you’ve got the makings of a thriving market, one in which everyone does well. Our undertakers would do well to ponder this, and so would our celebrants. Funerals happen when we need them most, too. If the public, processional, ceremonial funeral is, as we believe, the best way to deliver a high-value funeral experience – a funeral worth every penny – how can it be updated and repurposed in such a way as to accomplish that? 

 

Caring for the Dead

Friday, 2 December 2016

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Guest post by Hasina Zaman of Compassionate Funerals

There are many facets to being a funeral director.  Much of our work seems to stay behind closed doors. Are we actively shielding the public from the dead or is society choosing not to embrace death as a part of life? Death has perhaps become removed from the everyday lifecycle experience. Our aim is to bring it out into the open by explaining some of the processes we go through. 

The aim of this article is to best describe how we care for the dead.  At Compassionate Funerals we are dedicated to caring for both the bereaved and deceased. It’s very important that we work together with the bereaved so that they are at the heart of the funeral process. We believe it’s important that funerals are personalised, meaningful and empowering.

Before we collect the deceased there are a few processes that will take place. Initially, the bereaved or pre-bereaved family or friend will call us. This person may be the next of kin and in most cases will liaise with us at Compassionate Funerals.  A person can die in hospital, a hospice, at home or in a care/nursing home. If death happens accidently or suddenly in any location, the deceased is under the care of the Coroner.  They will take time to establish the cause of death. Therefore, when it comes to us collecting the deceased, we must ask where death occurred and decide what equipment is required for us to bring the deceased into our care.

We are particularly mindful when we are collecting the dead from their home. There may be bereaved family members present or children who may be experiencing death for the first time. We make sure that there is clear communication and permission from the bereaved family. This can be a very emotional and traumatic time. We do this quietly, slowly and gently as possible.

We got a call from Tina, who told us that her mum Joy had a few days to live. Joy was in a palliative care unit in a local hospital. Tina had also ordered her own bespoke coffin and wanted her mum to be buried in a natural burial ground in Essex.

Before setting off to the hospital, we made intentions to be compassionate and composed in receiving Tina’s mum. We checked that we had all the correct paper work, which is required for identification.  We also made sure that we had the collapsible stretcher and covering for Joy. As a company practice, we always refer to the deceased by their name as opposed to the ‘body’ or the deceased. We feel this is respectful and is in keeping with basic human rights.

From the start, Tina was very clear that she wanted us to support her choice of involvement from her family. Once we brought Joy into our care she was laid to rest in a banana leaf coffin, as the family was averse to their “mum being in a cold fridge”.  We suggested that Tina and her elder sister may want to help wash their mother before she was laid to rest. We facilitated the wash and fully supported them through the process. They were initially nervous, but their confidence grew. They used rose oil to wash their mum, and styled her hair.  It was beautiful to witness and an honor to work alongside the two sisters. Their hands were tender, soft and delicate.  They talked to her and re-told stories of their mum and her life.

Joy was a feminist and loved pink. Tina said that her mum would love to be shrouded in rose pink organic cotton. Joy was wrapped in five layers of cotton, similar to the Muslim funeral tradition. Both sisters expressed how they enjoyed spending time with their mum. They were able to perform Joy’s last offices and give her an honorable and loving send off.

On the day of Joy’s funeral, her children and grandchildren spent time with her. Her grandchildren had brought her gifts, letters and her favorite sweets that they placed in her coffin. We kept her room calm, cool and peaceful with subtle artifacts of all things pink.