Charles Cowling



Sorry if you missed us. Something to do with hostile action by corporate enemies of the GFG the server. A huge thank you to Ian ‘Harry’ Harris at Carronmedia for his delicate touch with a big spanner and cold chisel. There was an uncomfortable period when we thought there might be no way back. 


Charles Cowling



“Most people in the funeral industry are servants by nature, but it’s time that we took that servant nature and put it to better use by aiding you in the process of caring for your dead. Instead of doing it ourselves, we now need to be teachers, and not just directors; we need to be mentors and not just morticians. We need to reintroduce you to the value of caring for your dead.”

US 6th generation undertaker Caleb Wilde in a TED talk here

“… caring for the dead is not neurosurgery requiring esoteric knowledge and the skills of experts. People have the social savvy and wisdom to do these things themselves, and centuries of our forebears managed to accomplish them without benefit of clergy or mortician.

When funeral directors and clergy realise that people can perform these actions quite adequately without us, ironically a window of understanding opens through which we can see what our proper roles might be and how it can be that people can do this better with us. And what is this proper role? To put it succinctly, the task of both funeral professionals and clergy is to help people do this very human thing more humanely.

That is why, when it comes to funeral professionals, the old title of “undertaker” is so apt. People do not need to have their funerals “directed,” any more than they need their lovemaking, birthing, bathing, eating, laboring and going about the trials and obligations of everyday living directed. Women in labor don’t need a birth director, they need a midwife. In the same way, people caring for and burying their dead don’t need a funeral “director”; they need people who will undertake to help them accomplish these tasks well.”

Thomas Long, theologian, in The Good Funeral

Wilde is reckoned to be on the progressive wing of the funerals business and Long is considered a reactionary. 

ED’S NOTE – Yes, the pic at the top is John Bates, the valet in Downton Abbey.

Charles Cowling



“People are also turning to alternatives to the traditional funeral. Some are holding do-it-yourself funerals, and even having to bury relatives in their back garden. A number of companies are offering cut-price funerals, including “direct” cremations that have no formal service attached to them.”

That was Emma Lewell-Buck MP presenting the Funeral Services Bill in the House of Commons yesterday and somehow managing to name-check Royal London three times in the first 4 paragraphs.  

You’ve read about this because it’s everywhere — the lurid claim that disadvantaged people are burying their dead in their back gardens. I expect you felt, as we did at the GFG, that Ms Lewell-Buck under-egged her argument. For she must know as well as us that poor people are routinely and in sharply rising numbers also disposing of their dead in wood-chippers, acid baths, on garden barbecues and in country lay-bys. 

 What’s odd/interesting/remarkable is that no one seems to have queried her claim. Anybody in possession of a right mind would, you think, have smelled an XL rat and called her bluff. 

 Nope.  The readiness of the great British public, including the great British press pack, to suspend their incredulity when presented with ocean-going baloney about funerals is amazing.

 So, well done Ms L-B, you seem to have got away with it. Well done for stigmatising DIY funerals and direct cremation while you were about it. Well done for branding a public health funeral a pauper’s funeral. And well done for distracting people from serious discussion of the issues. 

 We are sorry to hear that your Bill will lapse due to lack of parliamentary time.


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Pic of a poor person digging a grave in his garden in today’s Metro 


Charles Cowling




Jon Underwood at Death Café wants to open a permanent, community owned, not for profit Death Café in London. He says:

“Until now, all of our Death Cafes have been pop-up events in local homes or venues. This project is to set up ‘Death Cafe London’, a coffee shop in central London offering people the opportunity to engage with death, however briefly.”

Jon went to see Bernard Crettaz, the originator of the Death café format, in Switzerland to talk the idea over with him. Bernard counselled caution:

“I am scared of creating a new space that becomes a new specialist or a ghetto of death.”

Jon says:

“Though I am personally very keen to progress this, it does not make sense unless there is widespread support from those connected with Death Café — I think the project will be beneficial for society and a chance for a lot of learning and discussion. I have confidence that it will be enjoyable. I think the time is right for this and by offering a place where people can come and engage with death we’ll be doing something we’ll be proud of.   But I can’t proceed unless I know that there are at least a significant number of you with me.”

If you’d like to consider this in more detail and contribute to the discussion, you can do so by going here.

I know Jon would be extremely grateful. I think we all know how much we owe him.


Jon Underwood with Bernard Crettaz

Charles Cowling



“The ‘buy now, die later’ brand of package deal has meant a lost connection between the sale of funerals and the delivery of them, and with it the loss of face-to-face accountability between buyer and seller that used to provide reliable consumer protection. Now the recipient of the services (the bereaved) and the provider of same (the funeral director) are both perilously out of the loop of the original transaction: a deal often brokered years before, between a commissioned salesperson and the now newly deceased. In such an environment there can be little real accountability.”Thomas Lynch

Over at the Oldie magazine agony aunt Mary Kenny is talking about funeral plans: JR from South Wales warns that, even when pre-paid, there can be a hefty bill – “she was appalled by the undertaker’s charges after her husband’s recent death.”

Here at the GFG we were invited a couple of days ago by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries IFoA) to contribute to a consultation which will “address concerns regarding actuaries’ involvement with pre-paid funeral plan trusts” and “help them develop a mandatory Actuarial Profession Standard leading to members playing a stronger role in “assessing the financial viability of such trusts and in helping trustees and plan providers ensure that they can continue to provide the funerals they are contracted to provide to planholders.”

Down in Bristol, according to the Daily Mail, “Barbara Graham, 72, was left in tears after salesmen from Golden Charter funeral planners asked her if she wanted to pre-plan her own burial. Despite telling them she was currently battling cancer, the firm called back again a few days later to try and sell her the same service. 

We’ve had quite a lot of angry reaction to this, so we asked Golden Charter to respond. This is what they said:

Golden Charter do not cold call. Any agency from whom we receive leads complies fully with all relevant legislation and codes of conduct. Despite what you may have read we did not contact her after being told she had cancer. We did not call her twice in a week. We contacted her on the 20th October. Erroneously we left that lead in the list that could be called, as she informed us that she had arrangements in place. On the 6th November we called her again at which stage she informed us of her health issues. Our representative apologised and removed her from our list.

It seems Mrs Graham took part in a third-party survey and indicated that she was interested in funeral planning. A third-party survey is a survey done by a third party research company sometimes by phone, sometimes online, sometimes on the high  street or in retail shopping centres where people are asked if they are interested in a specific range of products. If they indicate they are, and the person consents to being contacted, then these companies offer those details for a consideration to organisations who sell those services.”

It goes without saying that Golden Charter deplore the Mail’s failure to get in touch and check facts.

What do we think? We think that funeral planning is inherently a vexed business. There are people passionately for and people passionately against.

Over in the US, Thomas Lynch is passionately against:

“The aggressive pre-selling of funeral wares is a late-twentieth-century invention, driven entirely by vendor interests and the cash hunger of consolidators”

Boomers “love these things. Planned parenthood, prenuptials, prearranged funerals – always this hopeful notion that we might pre-feel the feelings … the sense that these unpredictable existential events might be turned into manageable retail experiences.”

’You don’t want to be a burden to your children, do you?’ Why shouldn’t I be a burden to my children? My children have been a burden to me. Lovely burdens, every one of them … And they will be paying for [my funeral] emotionally, financially, actually. Since they have to live with the decisions, why shouldn’t they make them? … If the burden of my death, borne honourably, makes them feel as capable as bearing the sweet burden of their births has made me feel, I can do them the favour of leaving well enough alone.”

“The pie of funeral expenses and revenues, formerly distributed among providers of goods and services, rarely provided more than single digit profits. Now the slices were many more and accordingly narrower – a commission for the contract seller, a piece for the referral and finder’s fees, something for the marketing and management of the pre-need account and, of course, a profit for the financier … These transactional expenses, which paid for neither mortuary services or merchandise, came out before the funeral director and the clergy, the florist and newspapers, the soloist and cemetery, stood in line for theirs. It was money spent on the shuffling of paper.”

“The junk-mailed, telemarketed, bargain-in-the-briefcase brand of pre-sold funeral service that has turned every sadness into a sales-op and every funeral into a retail event has not been good for the funeral, the funeral consumer or the funeral director. Nor has it been good for their [professional] associations.

“… there ought to be no profit in in pre-need transactions … the buyer, not the seller, should initiate the transaction.”

Finally, Lynch quotes Howard C Raether: “If funeral directors insist on soliciting preneed funerals, they are in fact prearranging the funeral of their profession.”

Do feel free to sound off. Passionately.

Charles Cowling




I bet you’ve never seen a banner outside your local registrar’s office with those words on it.

Because the free (aka public health) funeral is, if not a well-kept secret, not something councils bang on about. Its minimalist aesthetic might make it irresistibly attractive to the middle classes.

Seriously, the public health funeral enables us to absolve ourselves of the task of disposing of the body of kinsperson for whom, for whatever reason, we feel no responsibility, whether or not they did or didn’t, could or couldn’t, put aside enough money to pay for their funeral.

The public health funeral also enables those of us of limited means to say: I haven’t got the dough and I don’t want to get into debt over this; you do it. In these days of ‘funeral poverty’ the public health funeral offers a lifeline for an increasing number of people. Here at the GFG we always invite people of limited means to consider it — so much better than falling prey to a loan shark. The overall number of people who opt for it remains strikingly low, however. It doesn’t yet present a fiscal threat to austerity-stricken councils… but it could if more people knew about it. So it has to be in the interest of a local authority to dissuade people from availing themselves of a public health funeral. More anon. Stick with it.

The legal responsibility on a local authority to dispose of its dead is contained in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 PIII S21. It states:

It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.

You notice that the Act only uses the word ‘duty’ in respect of the local authority. What about the duty incumbent on the next-of-kin? Is there such a thing?

Well, yes and no.

There is a common law ‘duty to bury’. Because it’s common law it’s not written down and its origins lie somewhere in the mists of time. In 1840 Chief Justice Denman passed this this judgement:

“We have no doubt … that the common law casts on someone the duty of carrying to the grave, decently covered, the dead body of any person dying in such a state of indigence as to leave no funds for that purpose.”

Oh right, m’lud, and who might that someone be?

“It would seem that the individual under whose roof a poor person dies is bound to carry the body decently covered to the place of burial.” 

It’s the householder’s responsibility, that’s whose. And it is as a householder within the meaning of the law, believe it or not, that a hospital accepts responsibility for disposing of paupers who expire on its premises. Does this mean that if you invite a broken-down gentleman of the road into your house and he expires in your kitchen as the kettle boils, you will be expected to fund his funeral? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

Not if you’re Brent council, it doesn’t. Brent council (Labour) has no wish to fund more public health funerals than it has to.  In its Framework in respect of the responsibility owed by the local authority to provide financial assistance and / or arrangement of Funerals (2013) it points to “the duty at common law to arrange for a proper disposal of a dead body.” This duty, it says, “falls primarily upon the executors of the deceased.”

Interesting idea. We’ll come back to that.

There’s no doubting the right of a council to reclaim funeral expenses from the estate of the deceased, if there’s anything in it. But from a living person?

Brent thinks so. It thinks it can go after people other than the executor, too. In the event of its having to arrange a public health funeral:

“the Council should notify the next of kin or anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) of the debt and refer this immediately to legal services so that consideration can be given to initiating civil debt recovery proceedings either against the estate or an executor personally if appropriate.”

The council does not intend to pursue householders, you notice, though it correctly assigns responsibility to a hospital to arrange disposal: “where the death occurs in a hospital, the hospital authority is liable, as the person on whose premises the body is situated, to arrange for the burial or cremation of the deceased patient.”

So what about those acting with Power of Attorney or as deputies? Memo to Brent: they are absolved of all responsibility as soon as the person they represent dies (doh). Makes sense, doesn’t it? No, Brent, there’s no coming after them. Nor the financial representative because that is not a meaningful term.

What about executors? Bit of a moving target, I fear. Nominated executors, sadly, cannot be held to their duty and forced to assume the legal status of executor. On the contrary, executors may resign at any time — eg, when the letter from Brent council flops through the letterbox.

Next-of-kin? I have searched high and low for any instance where any nok was ever brought to trial for refusing to accept their ‘duty to bury’. I have searched in vain. I think we can accept that as duties go it is redundant. After all, it’s not so long ago that the estate of Robert Lenkiewecz was allowed by a court of law to retain ownership of the unburied corpse of Diogenes.

Nope, the ‘duty to bury’ is obsolete and has no teeth. Prove me wrong, Brent.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems to me that the Brent has no right to pursue a claim against an executor personally, nor next of kin, nor anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) nor any other living, breathing person, not even you.

I put this to Brent council. I wrote: “An interpretation of the Framework is that it could intimidate anyone who, for whatever reason, declines to undertake the disposal of a dead person.” That was on 9 Oct. I got an automated reply: “Your request has been received and a  member of our team will respond to you within 5 working days.” On 14 Oct I was flattered by a human response: “Your enquiry has been forwarded to the Registration and Nationality Service. They will aim to respond to you directly within 10 working days.”

On 25 Nov I wrote to remind them. They replied: “We confirm that your message has reached our service today and you should receive a response within five working days.”

Did I heck as like. I’ll keep trying, though.


Charles Cowling




Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Neville Chamberlain (above) died from cancer on 9 November 1940, just six months after he resigned as Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill, his successor, paid tribute to him on 12 November despite the two men having disagreed over the ‘appeasement’ of Hitler: 

‘Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged’. 

This was no funeral eulogy but a speech at the House of Commons, the funeral not taking place until 14 November at Westminster Abbey.

But what stands out in this sequence of events is that Chamberlain was cremated at Golders Green on 13 November, the day before the funeral, and with no ceremony and just two members of his household present. See the newspaper announcement here

This break with convention is confirmed in a British Pathe newsreel showing guests arriving at the Abbey ‘to pay homage to the ashes’ of a man of peace — here

It’s easy to assume this order had something to do with London being under constant threat of German bombing raids. The distinguished funeral gathering was deliberately not publicised in advance. Perhaps fuel rations were a consideration: why waste time and money driving from Westminster to Golders Green and then back again for the interment of the ashes?

However, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey had some form in being an unlikely champion of cremation due to limited space in a building much in demand for the interment of notable figures. In 1905, the ashes of actor Sir Henry Irving became the first to be interred at the Abbey. By 1911, the dean was insisting the body of botanist Sir Joseph Hooker be cremated if he was to secure a grave in the nave by Sir Charles Darwin. Hooker’s widow declined and buried him in a churchyard at Kew instead.

The practical approach to Chamberlain’s funeral is not the only reason it compares to the modern trend for simplicity. When Churchill awarded him the Order of the Garter, he declined, stating he would ‘prefer to die plain ‘Mr. Chamberlain’ like my father before me, unadorned by any title’. His grave is marked by a modest stone, below.

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Charles Cowling

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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.


Charles Cowling




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



Charles Cowling



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.