The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Gridlocked in Ross-on-Wye four days before Christmas

Monday, 1 December 2014

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Guest post by David Hall

Christmas is an important time of the year for Vintage Lorry Funerals as all of the 450 Funeral Directors, who display pictures of the 1950 Leyland Beaver, receive a Christmas Card in the second week of December. The process starts in July when David Hall’s wife chooses the most appropriate card for the year. Throughout the year the customer database is updated and during November David is tasked with telephoning everyone on the list to check the details as some people move on, some ladies change their surname and some older people sadly pass away. The exercise is worthwhile enabling David to update Funeral Directors about developments and often work has resulted directly from Christmas Cards.

This was the case during December 2007 when a Vintage Lorry Funerals Christmas Card landed on Ann Bevan’s desk just before she met a Lorry Drivers Family and David’s second funeral for William Bevan (Ross-on-Wye) was the result. Normally with Ross-on-Wye being only 65 miles from Bradford-on-Avon, David Hall, in order to save a family some money, makes an early start and completes the journey without a night out. However, with the incidence of December frost or fog in the early morning Ann Bevan suggested to David that he should travel up the day before, park in their garage and stay in a local hotel. David uncovered a problem as just like Christmas 2000 years ago, there was no room in the Inn. Every hotel was either fully booked or closed early for Christmas, but luckily Ann knew a local B&B that had a spare room, otherwise David may have had to find a stable!

David arrived in the late afternoon before the funeral and met one of Ann’s sons, Stuart, who looked at the wooden exhibits on the deck in great detail. As the Deceased had started his driving career moving steel coils from Ebbw Vale Steelworks with an ERF lorry, David created a replica 1950 ERF Cab Front and a Steel Coil. Stuart watched David reverse into the garage, moving coffins out of the way to create space. David asked Stuart if he was intending to lock the garage and Stuart replied, ‘If I lock this garage tonight, it will be the first time in 40 years. This is Ross-on-Wye not Knowle West (A less affluent part of Bristol).’

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Ann’s son Philip conducted the funeral and just as the lorry was about to leave Ann came running out of the office with a box of chocolate biscuits for David’s family for Christmas. Ross-on-Wye has no by-pass, no ring road, but a one way system that becomes clogged up with vans making deliveries to shop fronts, a scene unchanged from the 1950s. It was only four days to Christmas and the roads were busier than normal. The location of the Funeral Director, house, Church and Crematorium meant that the cortege had to pass down the one way system three times. On the way to the church David experienced very heavy traffic which came to a halt on the roundabout outside Morrisons, whose car park was full and cars were queuing into Morrisons from three roads converging on the roundabout. Normally when traffic is gridlocked, people waiting on roundabout leave space to allow through traffic to pass over the problem unhindered. The 1950s Leyland Beaver’s progress came to a sudden halt caused by a lady driving a green estate car, obstructing the lorry’s route, being stationary on the roundabout queuing into Morrisons. David Hall got out of the cab to remonstrate with this thoughtless driver who was holding up the whole cortege. The lady, who was oblivious to David’s plight, wound down her window and said, ‘I’ve got to get to Morrisons for my sprouts. I’ve been in this queue for 15 minutes.’ David said, ‘The man on my lorry has only 15 minutes left on this earth, and the lady just shrugged her shoulders. Luckily at that point one car came out of the car park, the green estate car shot forward and other drivers in the immediate vicinity were sympathetic to David’s problem and remained stationary, allowing the cortege to progress.

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When the vintage lorry was parked outside the church whilst the service was taking place an American tourist took interest in the wooden structures and the flowers on the deck. He approached David and said, ‘Oh Gee, when does the carnival start?’ and David replied, ‘When the coffin comes out of the church.’ As the crematorium was half way between Gloucester and Chepstow David elected to go south and take the Old Severn Bridge home. Drivers coming from the west pay no tolls, which are taken on the other carriageway and David had an interesting thought as he trundled along with the Christmas lights of Bristol in the distance. For once at Christmas the wise men didn’t come from the East, Frankincense and Myrrh would be no good to the drivers travelling into Wales, however, they would need plenty of Gold as the toll for a lorry is three times that for a car.

Sadly in 2010 Ann Bevan passed away. She is deeply missed by her family and also David Hall who will never forget her kindness.


Revealed: the one and only fix for funeral poverty

Monday, 24 November 2014




The problem: 

The circumstances of the death do not admit of any effective competition or precedent examination of the charges of different undertakers, or any comparison and consideration of their supplies. There is not time to change them for others that are less expensive, and more in conformity to the taste and circumstances of the parties … The survivors are … seldom in a state to perform any office of everyday life; and they are at the mercy of the first comer.

Might not the funerals of the labouring classes be greatly reduced without any reduction of the solemnity, or display of proper and satisfactory respect?

The above was written by Edwin Chadwick in 1843. As you can see, people have been banging on about the price of funerals year in year out since long before our grandparents were born, rehearsing the same old same old arguments and getting nowhere. 

Now it’s the turn of Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields. She is going to present a Bill to tackle funeral poverty on 9 December. There’s quite a lot of excitement about it. You may have had a round robin from Church Action on Poverty, a member of the Funeral Poverty Alliance got together by Quaker Social Action, urging you to support the Bill by writing to your MP.

Edwin Chadwick was a very thorough Victorian and he drilled down into things rather more than Ms Lewell-Buck seems to have done. Chadwick calculated that funeral expenses for the poorer sort could be halved:

“It appears from the detailed enquiries, made of tradesmen of experience and respectability … that the expense of materials at present supplied to funerals admit of a reduction under normal arrangements of, at the least, 50 per cent.”

No such target for Ms L-B. She calls instead for a committee or somesuch to review “funeral affordability”, and report in Sept 2015. Yawn. She calls upon the DWP to generally get its arse in gear. 

And… (this may induce an attack of deja vu) she proposes a, ta-da, simple funeral.

“But there already is one!” you cry.

Not so fast. Was. Have you had a look at the new NAFD Code of Practice yet? Well, have a gander. It’s gone.

Whaaat? I vaulted into my car and rocketed up to NAFD HQ to find out why from ceo Alan Slater himself, no less. He told me that the simple funeral had become meaningless. There was no uniformity – every undertaker’s simple funeral was different — eg, do you allow viewing or don’t you allow viewing? It bred anomalies. It wasn’t policeable. It stigmatised poor people. Like a lot of simple fixes, it simply didn’t work. I think he may be right. 

And come to think of it, do we expect The Ivy to include in its menu a Simple Meal of egg (58p) and chips (65p), total £1.23? 

Lewell-Buck also proposes:

1)  A funeral director must provide to a customer an itemised price list for a Simple Funeral Service before selling that customer any funeral service.

2)  The individual components of the Simple Funeral Service must be provided to the customer at the listed price if the customer requests them.

3)  The components of a Simple Funeral Service may be established by the Secretary of State through regulations.

You can spot the snags. Please let off steam below. Is this Simple Funeral a package? I don’t know. I mean, bereaved people can already choose from itemised lists from a great many good undertakers, whether or not those undertakers are members of one or both of the two trade associations, which already require lists. And that’s exactly what growing numbers of bereaved people are doing. They are choosing what they want from an undertaker’s menu and sourcing other stuff — coffin, flowers, service sheets — from elsewhere. It’s been described as a cafeteria approach. 

As for 2) what on earth does that mean? Do undertakers customarily hand their clients a menu with prices and then charge them more? I’m sure I’m missing something here. 

As for 3), well…

Given the great and increasing number of ‘Aldi’ undertakers these days, you’d expect to see Ms Lewell-Buck calling for price lists on websites. But no. Opportunity lost.

There’s a principle here. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics? No? Then why expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service? It is for the market to decide whether or not they are any good and whether or not they offer value for money. 

There are already hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.

It is folly and distraction to require undertakers to take one for the poor. Folly and distraction because the problem is not of their making. This is a political problem caused, not by undertakerly greed, but by the refusal of government to increase the Funeral Payment. The solution therefore has to be political.

It’s cheap and lazy to go after the undertakers. Ask anyone at the Dog and Duck and they’ll tell you that they’re predators who feed off grief, exploiters of the vulnerable; they’re jackals, they’re hyenas, they’re vultures. Scavengers. Rip-off merchants. All of them… except for those lovely people who took care of our Nan’s funeral. 

Sure, there are some bastards out there. But for all their reputation for rapacity, even Chadwick conceded (in 1843) that:

“Notwithstanding the immensely disproportionate profits of these persons in some cases,  and the immense aggregate expenditure to the public, there appear to be very few wealthy undertakers. They are described by one of them, “as being some few of them very respectable, but the great majority as men mostly in a small, grubbing way of business.”

Plus ça change. 

We are uncomfortable with a commercial model, it seems. As we were back in 1843. As one of Chadwick’s consultees expressed it:

“One may be excused for thinking and speaking strongly in reprobation of a system which degrades the burial of the dead into a trade. Throughout the whole scheme and working of this system, there is an exclusive spirit of money-getting, which is revoltingly heartless.”

But Chadwick had more imaginative solution to this than Ms Lewell-Buck’s waffle-shop-cum-undertaker-tax gesture politics. As a member of the Labour Party, Ms Lewell-Buck ought to approve of it. Chadwick proposed that:

If there be any sort of service, which principles of civic polity, and motives of ordinary benevolence and charity, require to be placed under public regulation, for the protection of the private individual who is helpless, it is this.

For the abatement of oppressive charges for funeral materials, decorations and services, provision should be made … by the officers having charge of national cemeteries, for the supply of the requisite materials and services, securing to all classes, but especially to the poor, the means of respectable interment, at reduced and moderate prices.

Yup, nationalise them. Nationalise the cemeteries. Get cemeteries to look after the dead.  Get rid of the undertakers. All of them. Bring the whole shooting match in-house. Pay for it with a public insurance scheme. 

It didn’t happen.  And yet, 171 years on, Chadwick is bang on the money. If you want to solve funeral poverty, whether or not you leave undertaking to the private sector, you do it with two letters. The first of these is N and the second is I. End of. 

Saif’s code of practice still has a simple funeral.

Read Ms Lewell-Buck’s Bill here: Funeral Poverty Bill



All fine by who?

Thursday, 20 November 2014



Here’s something that’s been bobbling in my mind for ages. Finally, spurred by a newspaper story announcing that Grimbsy crematorium is going to fine funeral directors £159 if a service overruns, I sprang into action. I wrote to the crematorium manager:

I see that NE Lincs Council has announced a surcharge of £159 in the event of a service overrunning at Grimsby crematorium. It is my understanding that this charge is to be levied on funeral directors.

Inasmuch as it is the applicant for cremation who is the client of the crematorium, may I ask why the charge is not to be levied on applicants? A funeral director is, contractually, no more than the agent of the applicant, who is the lawful possessor of the corpse and responsible for its disposal.

Here’s the meaty part of the reply. The bold is mine:

It has been discussed with Funeral Directors and Service Users at meetings that the fine will be passed to the Funeral Director, as they are our client and it is their responsibility to pass it on to either the person taking the service or the family.

I consulted learned authorities in the industry. With whom does a crematorium have a contractual relationship, the applicant or the undertaker? There was no unanimity of response. However, it rapidly became clear that crematoria in general consider the undertaker to be their client.

This puzzles me. The undertaker doesn’t pay the damn bill.

Let’s go one stage back and examine an undertaker’s contractual relationship with the applicant.

This is where we need to get up close to the meaning of words. Specifically, does an undertaker act on behalf of an applicant for cremation or on the instruction of the applicant?

It looks like hairsplitting, I know, but there’s a difference. If the undertaker were empowered to act on behalf of the applicant, he/she would represent the applicant in the role of substitute.

But (and it’s a huge but) in all important aspects of an application for cremation an undertaker is not empowered to act on behalf of a client. An undertaker cannot assume lawful possession of a body, nor register the death, nor undertake responsibility for disposing of the body in accordance with the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This is why an undertaker cannot apply for cremation on behalf of a client — cannot sign the application form pp. The law holds the lawful possessor of the body (ie, the client) to be exclusively responsible for all these things.

This being so, the job of an undertaker is to attend to those parts of the process which the lawful possessor doesn’t want to do and is allowed by law to depute. The law does allow an undertaker to take the completed application form plus other paperwork to the crematorium, which amounts to no more than an errand.

Did I say that the undertaker doesn’t pay the bill? Of course s/he doesn’t. The undertaker merely advances the money from his/her own pocket before reclaiming it from the applicant for cremation.

Undertakers like to boast of how they voluntarily advance thousands of pounds of unsecured credit to their clients. Don’t feel sorry for them: it’s a rod they’ve made for their own backs. The reason they don’t require an applicant for cremation to write a cheque to accompany the application for cremation, and then drive out to the crematorium themselves and deliver it, is because their business model depends on relieving a client of all burdens, the better to create work for themselves and make themselves indispensable. In the matter of paying the crematorium bill it is a risk they run voluntarily. It is self-inflicted.

This suits crematoria, obviously. Minimal admin, no bad debt to chase. Has it made them lazy?

It has certainly led to anomalies. For example, why do cemeteries always send a grave deed direct to the personal representative? Ans: Because they don’t think it right for the undertaker to be given the deed and, potentially, retain it against payment of the funeral bill by the owner.

Let’s not get sidetracked. If crematoria were to recognise who their real client is and act on it, what difference would it make?

It would likely have a very great and wholly beneficial influence on their service culture. Bereavement Services staff tend to be passive hosts of funerals, yet they are the ones who play the greater enduring role by facilitating commemorative observances through the provision of memorialisation options — Garden of Remembrance, Book of Remembrance, plaques, benches, services of remembrance, etc. A crematorium carries on being of value to many bereaved people long after the FD’s work is done. A more proactive hospitality role at the funeral stage is both desirable and appropriate, together with a full and proper focus on the needs of the bereaved. Crematoria need to announce themselves to applicants as soon as they receive the paperwork.

I could develop this. Another day, perhaps.

A good cremation funeral depends on a cooperative relationship between the applicant, the undertaker, the celebrant and the crematorium. It’s important to say that.

But, sorry, any fine for overrunning needs to be sent to where the buck stops. The client. 

As is proper in a blog post I have presented an unbalanced and incomplete argument. Please put me right below.

Remembering the dead

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


The Women’s Land Army statue at the National Memorial Arboretum


Older readers will recall that, by the 1970s, observance of the two minutes’ silence on 11/11  had declined in the civilian sphere to such an extent that a great many people paid no heed to it whatever and carried on doing whatever they were doing.

There’s been a big revival of observance in recent years.

In an article in The Times shortly before this year’s Remembrance events, Michael Binyon (Laurence was a cousin of his grandfather) asked questions likely to enrage many people who visit this blog. Are we, he asks, “in danger of becoming mawkish in sentimentalising the suffering of our grandparents and great-grandparents? Is Remembrance Sunday in danger of turning into a spectacle of synthetic emotion, paraded in a way that those who actually fought in two world wars would have found distasteful?”

Citing the Wootton Bassett phenomenon and the National Memorial Arboretum, Binyon suggests: “The danger is that we are creating something of a remembrance industry. There are, of course, historic injustices that can today be rectified: the “Shot at Dawn” memorial at the arboretum, for example, mirrors the quiet addition of names of men shot for cowardice to First World War memorials. But now there seems to be a passion to commemorate everything and anything. Dogs and donkeys and horses in the front line are getting their own memorials. Every region, factory or association that sent men to the front will be individually recognised. And to swell the number of those who actually fought, more and more auxiliaries are now included in the parades: nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, mechanics, farmers and land girls — indeed, one could conceivably allow anyone who lived in wartime Britain to take part.”

You can read the whole of Binyon’s challenging article here(£)

Remembrance in Germany is, by contrast, more muted even than, possibly, you supposed. Barely 200 people turned up this year to honour the 1.7 million who died in the First World War and the  5.8 million who died in the Second World War. The act of remembrance was held this year on 16 November at Germany’s equivalent of the Cenotaph, the Neue Wache in Berlin (below), an austere former guardhouse containing an unknown soldier, an unknown concentration camp victim and a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz titled Mother With Her Dead Son. Gebhardt von Moltke, a former ambassador to London, said: “It is a day of recollection and mourning but it is not a day of pride. In the UK the mourning is always related to pride. So you have a nation-building type of commemoration while we, with our history, commemorate the price we paid and all victims during the wars.” He did not attend.

First funeral at historic Plymouth venue

Tuesday, 18 November 2014




Posted by Wendy Coulton

This week 200 people attended the first non religious funeral at Devonport Guildhall in Plymouth — see previous blog post here. The funeral ceremony was 35 minutes duration followed by a private committal service at the crematorium.

It absolutely reaffirmed my belief that the bereaved in the city should have more choice of venue where there was no limit on time, no one standing outside in the winter weather because space was an issue and where the ambience of a majestic historic building positively added to the experience.

Independent funeral directors Walter C Parsons should be congratulated for matching the needs of their client with this beautiful venue and Devonport Guildhall for having the foresight to agree to being a venue when I asked them earlier this year. Most importantly the family couldn’t speak highly enough about it.

Bring on the empty corpses

Monday, 17 November 2014



Book review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty, graduate in medieval history and author of a sunny thesis entitled The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory, rejects a promising career in academia in favour of one as a corpse handler and incinerator of the dead.

Anticipating bewilderment she asks, rhetorically, “So, really, what was a nice girl like me working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” And she goes on to tell us what drew her to it. She describes a traumatic childhood trigger event. I won’t reveal what it was, of course; you need to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for yourself. Her theory is that she dispelled the consequent denial that insulated her from the traumatic event by confronting her fears and getting on down with corpses. As a result of this self-prescribed and gruelling CBT she is now at peace with the “stillness and perfection of death”.

More than that, Doughty is now the world’s leading cheerleader for death: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives,” she says, “but in fact it is the very source of our creativity.” This is just one of many debatable assertions she makes in this book. Death may inspire urgency and thereby rouse latent creativity, but it is doubtful whether it can put in what God left out.

Doughty is the leader of a clever, charismatic and acclaimed corpse cult, the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” You’ve seen the Ask A Mortician video series — you have, haven’t you? She’s sassy, funny, outrageous and very likeable. She’s a brilliant performer. She spills and splashes behind-the-scenes secrets with a mischievous glee that appals and infuriates industry insiders, who firmly believe that there are Things It’s Best We Don’t Know. To this day, despite a great and growing following, she remains shunned by the National Funeral Directors Association. Her preparedness to bring down, in Biblical abundance, the murderous fear and loathing of old school funeral people takes guts. She’s outrageous because she’s also passionately seriousness.

Like so many progressives, Doughty is essentially retrogressive — in a positive way. Her prescription for the way things are is to get back to doing them the way we did. Nowadays, when someone dies, we call the undertaker and have them disappeared. This, reckons Doughty, is a symptom of a “vast mortality cover-up … society’s structural denial of death … There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.”

The way to restore society to emotional and psychological health, Doughty believes, is to engage with the event and get hands-on with the corpse. She believes that “more families would choose to take responsibility for their own dead if they knew that it was a possibility.”

This is what working in a crematory teaches her: “Westwind Cremation & Burial changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.”

I’m not so sure. I have in mind David Clark’s 1982 paper, Death in Staithes. The older inhabitants of Staithes, a fishing village on the east coast of Yorkshire, could easily recall the way things used to be: “When a person passed away the first thing they did was go for the board – the lying-out board,” which was kept by the village joiner. The lying-out itself was supervised by women qualified by skill and experience. These same villagers had lived through the commodification of death and the arrival of the Co-operative. To them the hands-on past is no paradise lost and they display no desire to return to it.

I question Doughty’s assertion that we suffer from “structural denial of death.” If we were to think about death some more, would it really do us any good? Yes, she says: “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.” Elsewhere, she writes: “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by the bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?'”

Philip Larkin felt sort of the same until he hit 50. In Julian Barnes’ words, “our national connoisseur of mortal terror … died in a hospital in Hull. A friend, visiting him the day before, said, ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’” Pretty much the same can be said about the death of another connoisseur, Sherwin Nuland, the man who wrote with spooky prescience “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die.” He was that frightened, too.

“Let us … reclaim our mortality,” exhorts Doughty headily. But does the dearth of corpses in our lives really distance us from death? Death was big in the lives of everyone in the past because people died at any age. They don’t do that so much now, they mostly die old, and that’s less tragic, less sensational. But death is arguably bigger in our lives than ever before because the dying spend so bloody long about it. There can be very few children who are not acquainted with a tottering, muttering relative, and very few adults who do not spend years despairingly caring for dementing, degenerating parents. They are in no doubt about what their parents are doing: they are dying a modern death, a slow and beastly death. That’s why there’s such an intense national conversation in so many countries about assisted suicide — come on, how mortality aware is that? Far from being a time of death denial, the present age has focussed our attention on mortality at least as urgently as any other because the distressing dilapidation of legions of almost-corpses starkly and terrifyingly prefigures our own end times, leaving us in no doubt that the home straight is going to be unutterably horrible. If we don’t feel we have much to learn from corpses, we learn as much as we feel we need from the living dead (ever seen a stroke ward?) and from self-deliverers like Brittany Maynard. They teach us the allure of Nembutal. We talk about this. A lot.

What people believe also plays its part in modern attitudes. Religious and spiritual-but-not-religious people are, pretty much all of them, dualists. There’s a soul and there’s a body. It’s a belief reinforced by the appearance of any corpse they have ever seen. Gape-jawed and evacuated of all vitality, a corpse speaks of the absence of self. Whoever it once embodied has gone. The corpse is not the person, so what value is there to be gained from cosseting it? This isn’t a new thing. Radical Protestantism has always taught it. Calvinist settlers in America became very careless of the ‘dignity’ of their soul-less dead and drifted into just hauling them into the forest or pushing them into rivers. In some places it got so bad that neighbours were appointed to oversee next door’s disposal arrangements and held responsible for making sure things were done properly. For these settlers, direct cremation would have been a godsend.

If I take issue with Doughty’s thesis, it is because someone’s got to. For Doughty, the contemplation of the corpse is “the beginning of wisdom.” If you are inclined to believe that, she says, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant.’”

What does morbid mean, exactly? It is Doughty herself who has pointed out that it has no antonym. Yes, what is the word for a healthy interest in death and dying? How does it express itself? Doughty and her fellow members of the Order of the Good Death express their wisdom exotically, sharing delight in much that others would regard as macabre — transi tombs, taxidermy, mortabilia and of all sorts. All a bit goth for my taste; I think there’s more than a dash of innate morbidity here. It would be idiotic to question the charisma of the cause, because it has attracted a huge worldwide following. How does it play to Mr and Mrs Everyday-Person? It remains to be seen. All I can say is that, speaking as a detached and jaded dullwit, after 6 years of hanging out with funeral people and their charges I remain unconvinced of the value of the corpse in death rituals, and while I acknowledge matter-of-factly the inevitability of death, I hate it as much as I ever did.

If by now you need some remission from my grinding and joyless pessimism, you need to buy this book. It it touches all the right bases — funny, shocking, sad, wise. Above all, it is full of hope and purpose. It is also highly readable. It was only when I re-read it that I became aware just how beautifully constructed it is. This is the work of a highly intelligent person who has got the inspiration-perspiration balance right (1:99). What she has to say is the product of experience, a lot of it penitential. She has captured the zeitgeist. This is a manifesto for today.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

Onsite SEO for Funeral Directors

Friday, 14 November 2014




Posted by Mark Sharron

For the third part in this series on SEO for funeral directors I’m going to explore onsite SEO. The goal of this post is to give you an understanding of how the major search engines view your website’s funerary focused content.

If you think back in time before Google existed, the internet was a disorganized unsavory place. Many of you will probably retort the internet is still an unsavory disorganized place.

Before Google, if you wanted to find a website you either had to know its address or you used search engine directories e.g. Yahoo, Altavista, Lycos Dogpile and many more that have since faded into oblivion.

Search engine directories depended on webmasters to submit an honest description of their websites and place them in an appropriate category. This system was open to abuse and it made it difficult to find anything of value.

Google arrived in the mid 1990’s and quickly became the dominant choice as it was a lot better than its competitors at returning relevant results. The way Google achieved this feat is as follows:

Google used a crawler/spider to index the actual content of a website.

Google’s algorithm would then parse the text on the page and judge the relevance of a site vs the relevance of similar sites based on its actual content and assign a search engine rank position.

Duplicate content was identified and demoted within the search index.

Google then reviewed how many links were directed at a site using an algorithm called Pagerank and determined sites with a greater number of links were more reputable and again reward them with a preferential rank.

I will explore links/Pagerank in a later post. For now my intention is to focus on the mechanics of creating a strong ranking signal using the text/content on your website alone.

Onsite SEO Basics:

The most important part of any SEO campaign is keyword research. Once you have identified which keywords you want to rank for, Onsite SEO becomes nothing more than a labelling exercise.

As a funeral director the trick is to identify terms that potential customers will search for. Running an Adwords campaign can be a great help to this end.

The obvious “funeral director + location” will be your core keyword however there will be a range of terms such as “cheap funeral director” or “no-fuss funerals” that will be equally desirable.

If you want to rank for “Funeral Directors in Brighton” or a similar keyword your site needs to contain references to “Funeral Directors in Brighton and lots of them though out the website.

Keyword Stuffing:

Please do not take this last sentence as a direction from myself to drop “Funeral Directors in Brighton” into every other line of your website. This technique is known as keyword stuffing and WILL NOT WORK.

The first problem you will encounter is the text on your site will become awkward and unreadable by potential clients. This will turn off prospective customers away from your brand.

The second and equally undesirable effect; Google will quickly identify the content on your site is low quality, an algorithm called PANDA will then penalise your site causing it to drop in rank.

Latent Semantic Indexing:

To avoid incurring a penalty, SEO’s like myself use a technique called latent Semantic Indexing. Google makes use of natural language processing and understands associations between words/language/entities. When writing content for your site the trick is to use variants of keywords, inflections, synonyms and related terms and seed your text with them.

Start with Variants:

* Funeral Director Brighton

* Brighton Funeral Director

* Undertaker

* Funeral Parlour

* Funeral Home

* Celebrant

Identify associated words:

* Death

* Cremation

* Burial

* Funeral Service

* Coffin

* Urn

* Bereavement

* Grief

* Tribute

The advantage of using this approach is your website’s content will read naturally, you will avoid a potential penalty and be rewarded with preferential placement within Google’s search index.

Writing Tip:

When I start creating content I compile a thorough list of keyword and associated terms. I then set the list aside and write the content without giving the list of keywords a second thought. After I have written the content I read through and slip keywords into sentences where possible and effecting minor re-writes if necessary. This approach saves time and the content reads naturally.

Page Structure:

Structuring the HTML on your page helps your website get noticed.

Heading Tags: Money keywords and variants are placed within unique HTML heading tags through each page.

Keyword Density: Money keyword/variants should be placed in the first paragraph and every 100-150 words.

Title Tag/Meta Description: The money keyword for any page should be the first word of the meta title and should be placed at least once in the meta description. Please note, title tags and meta descriptions should be unique for each page on your site.

Image Alt Tags: You have the option to place a text description. Again use this opportunity to work in your keywords.

Site Structure:

When building a website, I let the search engines and keyword research determine the structure. I mentioned earlier that SEO is a labelling exercise; I match each keyword to a client’s services where possible and create one page dedicated per keyword. e.g.

This approach ensures that the website will acquire a ranking signal for a broad range of keywords and creates a foundation that can be built upon.

Internal Linking:

Linking between pages on your site will again re-enforce the relevance of each page as Google recognises relationships between similar pages with similar content.

Once I have built a series of landing pages targeting specific keywords, I build a set of supporting pages and link between them and back to the page I am trying to optimise. Not only will this improve your search engine rank for the target keyword you will also start ranking for a variety of long tail variants of keywords you were not originally focusing on. The trick is to complete this process in a non-uniform manner using a variety of keywords/keyword variants and conversational anchor text as the basis of each link.

Screenshot 2014-11-14 at 07

This process is known as Silo’ing. If you would like to read more about it I would recommend this article:

Content Arms Race:

The more content your site has, the greater the number of keywords it will potentially rank for. Think about creative ways to add content to your site, eg, FAQ, glossary of terms, blogs, testimonials.

Exact Match Domains:

Using a domain that matches your primary keyword (exact match domain) e.g. doesn’t guarantee ranking but it certainly makes it easier coupled with lots of original content. Not having an exact match domain means significantly more effort needs to be placed on high quality content and relevant links.

Google Webmaster Quality Compliance:

Google will periodically conduct a manual review on your site. They have a set of quality guidelines websites should adhere to. These include:

* about page

* contact page

* terms and conditions

*private policy

* address and telephone number

* social profiles


* Exact match domains make life easier.

* Use original keyword rich content.

* Do not keyword stuff, use variants of keywords.

* Dedicate specific pages to each keyword.

* Build supporting pages and heavily interlink content on your site.

I will cover online branding in my next post including social profile integration, schema and the Google Knowledge Graph.

As always if you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll aim to answer within 24 hours.

Local and community

Monday, 10 November 2014



Guest post by John Porter

My first job was in a local grocer’s shop. They boiled ham in their kitchen – hmmmm, I can smell it now – and would cut three special slices, carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper for Mrs Rogers who came in every Tuesday. She chatted for a while, nobody huffed and puffed if there was a queue. The shop was stacked with huge range of products – a small quantity of each. The tinned stock was kept in the garage and I would go back and forth with a wire basket to fill and line up the items like soldiers at Trooping The Colour! It was not a village, just a typical suburban town in the south east of England but you did not have to go far to meet someone who would say hello.

Wind forward to November 2014. The two crematoriums where I lead funeral ceremonies as a celebrant seem a million miles away in spirit from the town I grew up in. Despite the many souls that have been burned or buried there they feel soulless places. As hearses glide up each drive I have seen bemused faces, surprised to meet a stranger in black, donned with hat and cane. The family’s shock at seeing the coffin for the first time (the dead person was kept miles away) creates tears. With no limousine bringing the chief mourners the out of town funeral director tries to work out who the client is. They often have to ask. How different when the person who opened the door of the funeral home is the person who processes in front of the dead!

I’m not harking back to some mystical sense of community but death certainly magnifies the lack of cohesion and tensions within families and communities. Families meet almost as strangers at hatching, matching and dispatching ceremonies. As so many of us know the letters, cards and telephone calls dry up after a few weeks and those left behind can suffer from a crippling loneliness, often left to cope on their own. No wonder people die of a broken heart. Families may live many miles from each other or in other countries that can prevent them from attending a funeral ceremony. This is a fact of modern living, often for economic reasons. Economics (okay, the will) often attracts them back and not always for the right reasons! The worst indicator of lack of community is when someone dies and no-one knows until the smell of rotting flesh becomes apparent or harbinger flies announce the fact. How awful!

As a celebrant I am in a strange and privileged position. I will definitely spend at least two hours with a family, often more, and usually in their own home. I will also speak with them on the telephone and via email before the ceremony to finalise the ceremony script and let them know everything is prepared. I’m there on the day before the funeral director arrives so can greet people and close family if they are not in the cortège. I will offer to return for a chat and coffee – not grief counselling! It is, and is most definitely not, “my” show yet I’m the guy at the front leading and supporting people who contribute. All this, of course, assumes a typical (on my patch) 30min slot at a crematorium chapel – less if a burial. Of course I am still a stranger. I do not know the person that died. I come from a different part of the country. It is extraordinary that families trust me to create and lead a funeral service for their dead loved one. I’m part of their community yet am not. I nearly always decline to attend gatherings afterwards. Does this make me a contradiction? No, but it is something I ponder on now and then.

When I started I visited the funeral directors on my patch. I soon realised that what I considered to be my local area was not shared by all. Only twelve miles away I was asked “Why have you come down here?… we use local celebrants and have done so for over 20 years”. I’m not going to unpick that very loaded statement but I must listen to what was being said. Walking in the high street I could sense that many people knew each other and I loved the villagey feel. In fact when I watch a Christmas True Movie from the USA something in me longs for the cosy community and the history oozing from the roads and buildings. Sentimental twaddle or is something else going on? Local cemeteries are a wonderful doorway to a town’s history. It is amazing to listen to older people tell stories that have been passed down through the generations. Here I go again getting all starry-eyed and soppy but a little bit of me longs for it. I really struggle to answer this question: “where are your roots”. I am a sojourner. I have friends scattered across the UK and the Globe.

As our poppies crumple and fall and we race towards Christmas I know that many funeral directors put up remembrance Christmas trees, write to clients and are involved with activities such as carol services etc. Others support local charities throughout the year. This helps them to feel part of a local community and may be good for business. Close communities can be great for repeat business if the service provided is good. Many people go with what they know and do not usually buy a funeral in the same way they would a car – looking at the market and researching before buying – though, hopefully this will change. This is where the independent family business has an advantage over the corporates. It is also risky in sustainability terms when business founders die and children or other family are not interested in funeral directing.

You may ask where is this blog going? I really cannot answer that… yet. I would like to start a conversation about this theme and will close now with a final thought. One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Lion is summarised as “Familiarity breeds contempt”. This is a well-known saying. There is truth in it. If a funeral director or funeral celebrant only operates in a way that they are familiar and comfortable with then both they and clients miss out in the end. I recently saw a minister lead two funeral ceremonies one after the other – same poems recited perfectly and from the heart without reference to the text, same welcome and closing words. The tribute was different but each had a familiar ring to it – maybe mine do too!? The problem is that dying, death, funerals and grieving are generally unfamiliar to us until we are forced to engage with it. The cosyness, that feeling of belonging, being familiar with and part of a local community may breed contempt but if we are watchful and motivated to serve then it is something, I believe, we should work towards.

Are you a charitable body?

Thursday, 6 November 2014



Posted by Ken West 

Have you thought about the scrap metal value of your body? It began with metal hip joints but as we live longer and spend more time falling over and head butting the skirting boards, metal bone splints now outweigh the hips. Body piercing has added tongue studs and navel rings, not to mention those bits dangling in the erogenous zones. A little bite is added by gold molars and, a fact that surprises me, all that jewellery people still leave on the body. Following cremation, this metal remains in the ashes, but do they tell you what they do with it?    

About half of the UK crematoria, often those who have adopted the Charter for the Bereaved, send the metal residue for recycling through a scheme organised by the Institute for Cemetery & Crematorium Management (ICCM).  Much of it is unrecognisable as aggregate, usually the gold and silver, all of which melt when the temperature reaches 1100C. But alloys, like hip joints and plates, retain their shape and uniformity. There are few firms capable of smelting this residue, which is taken to a very high temperature and the various metals skimmed off as appropriate, the ingots being sold back into the metal market. After collecting the waste metal from participating crematoria, the contracted firm pay an agreed price per kilo to the ICCM and this is distributed to charities nominated by the participating crematoria. The sum will be around one million pounds in 2014. 

What happens at those crematoria who do not participate, half of the total, a further million pounds? Many of these are the private sector crematoria, the ones who say nothing about metal residue on their websites. Worse, do they still bury the metal in the crematorium grounds, which was usual until a few years ago? If so, this is a potential pollution hazard.

Be a charitable body, and ask your local crematorium whether your bits will benefit society.



A tragic and terrible miscarriage of justice?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014



Click the pic to make it bigger. Story reported in the same paper we contacted when the Southend One opened the Mary Mayer Funeral Home after escaping from Burnley. We told them to investigate and get rid of him. Isn’t that what newspapers are for? 

So far, no VO has arrived for the GFG from HMP Slammer. 

Story not yet online. 

Hat-tip JG & MS


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