Charles Cowling

The world of death has given birth to very few websites of any value or beauty. Most undertakers are technodunces; many do not even rise to email.

What’s more, there is very little discussion of death and dying going on in this country (the UK) just now. I have far more responses to this blog from the New World than from the Old. Wake up, Blighty! Wake up, Natural Death Centre!

If one were to award a prize to a deathly website – let’s call it the Good Funeral Guide Website of the Year Award – one would award it unhesitatingly to green fuse. Full marks for design, clarity, navigability and overall loveliness. Honourable Mentions to The Green Funeral Company and Family Tree.

The Best Read Award goes just as unhesitatingly to the Suffolk Humanists and Secularists. This is a cheat, really, because this site is not dedicated exclusively by any means to mortality. But what it says about funerals is written with such a marvellous blend of matter-of-factness and emotional good sense that you don’t stop there. The design is superb, too.

It also contains a brilliant celebratory masterstroke, a card you can (if you are godlessly inclined) download, print off and send to your atheistical friends on Darwin Day. I love it.

Go get it.

Charles Cowling

I was emailed last night by someone who wants to visit their dead parent at the undertaker’s. The undertaker won’t make an appointment. The client thinks the undertaker is prevaricating. The undertaker tells the client that the customary time to visit a dead person is the day before the funeral. This is not soon enough for the client. The email concludes with the client asking me what their rights are.

Leaving aside the matter of rights (it’s quite clear what they are), anyone who knows how the funeral industry works will know what’s probably going on here. Let’s hazard a guess.

The undertaker is part of a chain operating out of a satellite branch. The dead parent is not, as the client may fondly suppose, at that branch. No, the parent is in a central mortuary some distance away with, perhaps, a hundred other bodies from other satellite branches. It’s difficult for the undertaker to arrange for the body to be brought to the satellite branch because businesses of this size operate with the fewest staff they can. At this busy time of the year it is impossible to find spare manpower to bring the parent out to the satellite.


The bigger the business, the more incapable it becomes of flexibility and, therefore, of personal service. There ought to be a trade-off here. The big businesses, with their car pools and central mortuaries and staffing rotas to keep everyone frantically busy, enjoy economies of scale which ought to enable them to undercut their competitors. But that’s not the way it works. Economies of scale are not passed on to the consumer. In the case of, say, Dignity that’s not surprising. They’re in it for the money. Their shareholders expect. In the case of Co-operative funeral homes, however, there’s a case to answer.

Let us not deplore this state of affairs too loudly. It is because the big beasts, the Dignitys and Co-ops, charge so much that the little independent businesses are able to thrive despite their higher overheads. Not only are they able to thrive, they are even able to undercut the big beasts. The law of the jungle is not working here. Long may it not.

I decided to find out how widespread is this practice of deterring people from visiting their dead (‘viewing’ as they call it in the trade, a peculiarly repellent word). I made some phone calls and asked undertakers how much notice they required. Here are my results.

Co-op Funeralcare, Aylesbury: Later the same day.

Arnold Funeral Service, High Wycombe (independent): None. Walk in off the street. If the chapels of rest are full you may have to wait for up to an hour or so.
Midlands Co-op, Stirchley, Birmingham: None, but best to ring first.
Henry Ison and Sons, Coventry (independent): None – unless busy.
R Morgan, Dudley (a satellite branch of Dignity): Will try to make an appointment for you to visit when you make your funeral arrangements. All bodies stored in a mortuary in Birmingham where they are embalmed (optional), washed, dressed and coffined. You can visit before the body goes to the mortuary: they will put a dead person on a trolley and make him or her as presentable as possible.
T Hadley, Halesowen (independent): None – unless busy.
T Broome and Sons, Baguley, Manchester (United Co-op): Prefer appointments but around an hour’s notice usually enough.
Haven Funeral Services, London (independent): None
Co-op, Hammersmith: None, but prefer you to make an appointment when you make arrangements and hope that’ll be the day before the funeral.
AW Lymn, Nottingham (many satellite branches): None. All bodies kept at city centre mortuary, or at Long Eaton. Either pop down there, or the body can be sent up to the satellite. They have a bed with quilt if you prefer that to visiting your dead person in a coffin. If they’re really busy and no one’s available to drive a body out to a satellite, “management will step in and do it.” Oh yeah? “YES!”

I stopped ringing. The picture is clear enough. Small, independent funeral homes are very responsive. Members of chains aren’t, with the exception of Lymn’s, quite so willing: most would rather tie you down to an appointment made when you make funeral arrangements. That’s a heck of a lot of big decisions to make in a very short time!

My emailer’s undertaker would appear, thankfully, to be a rare exception.

While ringing round I made a discovery I ought to have made ages ago about transparency of ownership. This is a debate which rages and will go on raging. When a big beast buys out an independent it goes on trading under the old name in which all the good repute is tied up. There’s nothing unusual about this. No one demands that Harrods change its name to Al Fayeds. But in the case of a funeral home it can be misleading to those who are looking for an independent funeral director.

Here’s a scenario. Someone has died and I am looking for an independent, family undertaker close to me in Moseley. What do I do? I google funeral director birmingham moseley. What do I get? tell me about N Wheatley and Sons. Good-oh! So does And And And And And And And

That’s only for starters. There’s oodles of help on the internet. But what none of these sites tells me is that N Wheatley and Sons is, actually, in the ownership of the Midlands Co-operative Society.

I need to know that.

Charles Cowling

In December 2006, Boyd Evans, 20, a talented, stylish, popular hairdresser, died after a car crash along with his partner, Nathan.


Boyd’s mother, Teresa, set about trying to get his clothes and things back: “I had wanted every last thing close to Boyd in his last moments.” The hospital prevaricated, then told her they had been disposed of. Later, after Boyd’s funeral, Teresa discovered that the undertaker had stuffed a bag containing Boyd’s bloodied clothing, together with she knows not what else, underneath him in his coffin. Thus was he buried.


Outraged, Teresa sued. Eventually she prevailed. The experience has forged her into a campaigner for consumer education, consumer rights and funeral reform. She is an unstoppable force, a thorn in many sides. She is presently laying down challenges to an array of government bodies, demanding a joined-up approach to consumer education and empowerment. She is challenging the status quo where funeral directors – whom she implacably calls funeral undertakers – may ply their trade unregulated and self-policed – this in a country where you have to have a licence to run a cattery. In any case, she says, ”Should it not be the bereaved that ‘direct’ the funeral?” It is the bereaved who are the funeral directors. The undertakers – “labourers in suits” she calls them – are their servants.


Teresa says: “Whilst I hope that there are many funeral undertakers that serve the public well, there are also many, I am sure, that forget that they are a service to which they are paid and depict an arrogance that I was presented with…There is an apparent reluctance to explain to a potential client that they may conduct a funeral independent of a funeral undertaker.” I feel very proud when she goes on to say: “To date I have sourced one that is content to do so!” That one is my esteemed friend James Showers.


The law allows consumers far more rights than they may suppose. Teresa would have liked to collect the body of her son herself rather than give him up to strangers. All mothers, in particular, will know how she felt: this was her boy. She was given to suppose that only an undertaker can do that. Hospital bereavement staff customarily tell the bereaved that they must engage a funeral director.


Fact is, there’s nothing in law to compel you to acquiesce in surrendering the body of someone who has died to strangers. There is nothing to stop you, if you are the next of kin, from taking the body home with you, there and then, in your car, if you wish, yes, propped up in the passenger seat — so long as the coroner is happy. And, of course, you can conduct all the funeral arrangements yourself.


But I didn’t know until, earlier on this week, I talked to doughty campaigner John Bradfield, green and home burial pioneer, and learned that you don’t even have to dispose of that body. All you have to do is prevent it from becoming a public health hazard. The law is much, much more permissive than you might think, something officialdom would really rather we didn’t know.


Funeral professionals will, mostly, reckon Teresa a pest. Not all of them. Other people may be alienated by the intensity of her singlemindedness. But no one ever brought about change without possessing Teresa’s species of singlemindedness. I applaud her. She is a hero.


Find out more about Teresa’s experience and her campaign at her website, here. I’m pretty sure she’ll leave a comment, too.

Charles Cowling

There – just over there. See them? That conspiratorial huddle, furtive, watchful. Burglars? Satanists? What are they up to?

Chances are they’re only bereaved people waiting for the coast to clear before they can scatter some cremated remains.

It’s difficult to do that in public, openly. It might distress people. It’s not yet a socially okay thing to do.

But the impulse to scatter ashes in a place beloved of the personification of those ashes is strong and it is growing. And the chances are that the dead person’s favourite place was, at any given time, a favourite place of lots of other people, too.

The scattering of ashes is a ceremony often marked by awkwardness and secrecy. A pity.

It is also where to buy tadalafil powder often done shamefacedly, in the wrong place. The adverse effect of ashes on the ecology of uplands is well attested, yet people go on doing it. Staff at Jane Austen’s cottage in Hampshire regularly encounter piles of ashes around the writer’s home and garden. This puts ash scattering right up there with dog fouling. It’s a poor way to commemorate someone, turning them into a bio-hazard. It’s not the sort of thing you’re going to feel good about.

There’s probably a very straightforward rule of thumb for choosing an appropriate location: if you can’t do it safely, openly and vocally, don’t.

The Observer ran a piece on this on Sunday. Read it here.

Charles Cowling

One more post about how we should speak of and to our dead people.

All of us, probably, cling to the superstition that we should not speak ill of them — not too ill, anyway (just mildly critically, perhaps). To do so could have calamitous, possibly supernatural, consequences. Hush and awe hold us in their sway.

The YouTube clip above shows someone speaking very critically about a dead person — very critically indeed. How must his parents have felt?

I am indebted to Pam Vetter for pointing me to it. Thank you, Pam. How do you find them?!

Charles Cowling
A funeral is theatre. Yes? The protagonist is a dead person in a box who hogs centre stage and utters not a word of dialogue throughout. Unusual theatre as theatre goes, but theatre all the same, I think we can assert. To what genre does it belong? Tragedy, of course (for all that, in conventional tragedy, the protagonist waits till the end to die). But comedy, too, in many cases. Tragi-comedy. Tears and laughter, the essence of a good funeral. The essence of a good tragedy, too, come to think of it.
Woe betide anyone who tries to upstage the star of the show.
People delivering a tribute can easily fall into this trap. They talk about the dead person as someone who orbited their own life. This is how I felt about him/her; this is what he/she meant to me, did to me, said to me; I remember that time when… Me, me, I, I, me, me. Audiences don’t like that.
It puts one in mind of the occasion when a bowler, to his great glee, dismissed WG Grace first ball. WG refused to budge. In the face of the bowler’s remonstration, WG responded stonily: “They came to see me bat, not to see you bowl.”
A funeral is for the dead person and it is for those who mourn. But it is about the dead person and the dead person only. Minor characters are allowed, of course, but in peripheral roles only.
The other day I read a tribute which seemed to break this rule but which, paradoxically, did precisely the opposite. It was delivered at his mother’s funeral by blogger Abra Cadaver (how we wish we’d thought of that!). It is beautifully written and I commend it to you. It really is as good as it gets.

Read the entire post here.
Charles Cowling
Photo by KQED QUEST on Flickr

Kathryn Flett wrote in this Sunday’s Observer about a funeral she went to. Her account is testimony to the value of a funeral. She says:

“The send-off was standing room only, with moving speeches, singing, essential tears, equally essential laughter and a cardboard eco-coffin covered in stickers and scrawled personal messages from family and friends which looked like the graffitied sarcophagus of a very cool king, which James was… is… remains… “

Sounds like a good one.

She goes on to reflect on the pulling power of funerals compared with the pulling power of other rites of passage — weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs. These latter it’s easy enough to invent an excuse to skive, and still keep a clear conscience. But the funeral of someone we love is an unmissable event. Why is it that we feel so drawn to a funeral? A mere sense of duty wouldn’t suffice.

Ms Flett brilliantly pinpoints it. The reason we go, she says, is because of our “need to connect to those who will understand,” a need, she adds, which is “not to be denied.”

Yes, that’s it!

She concludes:

“It is a cruel irony that we are, if we’re lucky, only likely to attract all the friends we’ve dreamed of gathering together under one roof when we’re not even there to witness it.”

It is somewhat of a crazy irony, too, if we have greater pulling power dead than alive. But doesn’t it just say everything about the value of a funeral?

Read the whole account here.
See George Melly’s coffin (and read about his funeral) here.
Charles Cowling

I’ve been mentoring a fledgling funeral celebrant. The occasion of her first funeral was quite an event. She had formed a relationship of warmth and trust with the wife of the man who had died and she had written a good tribute, full of personal touches. She is nothing if not a hard worker, and hard work is our only sure insurance policy against failure. I don’t know which of us was more nervous, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Afterwards, she reflected ruefully that the deliciously funny story she told had elicited no laughter. I reminded her that a funeral audience is like no other. Rarely at a funeral does anyone hang on your every word, sit on the edge of their seat and begin to chuckle well before you get to the punchline. People at a funeral tend to gaze at you in a way people only gaze when they’re at funerals. You can’t read their minds any better than they can read their own minds. The funeral gaze is a gaze suffused with multiple thoughts, crowded emotions.

We meet that gaze with words — fine words, meticulously crafted sentences, high thoughts offered up in exactly the right verbal wrapping. But sometimes it feels like pouring words into a void, only their sonorities serving, in some way, to create a sense of occasion.

Words target the brain, an organ in which, at many funerals, bitrate is low. Words have their purpose and, for certain tasks, no substitute. But they have their perils, too. Words are what we use to exert reasonableness and they tend to be reductive. A funeral is no time to be wholly reasonable. The heart, the senses, must also have their day.

Words can tell life stories and so, too, can a montage of photos set to music. Put them alongside each other and you’ve got a marriage made in heaven. Over in the US the DVD tribute is well established. In the UK its use is hampered by lack of multimedia equipment in crematorium chapels and by the time and expense involved in preparing one.

Which is why I have been delighted, this week, to stumble upon Animoto. What they offer is a stylish, cheap and rapid. You simply feed your pics and music into its software and, minutes later, the result is back with you. Click on the YouTube clip at the top to see how it works.

The Animoto website is incredibly helpful and easy to use. And you won’t just want to use it for creating funeral tributes, either. It’s fun! You can make videos of anything you want — a holiday, a day out, a birthday party — and post them on YouTube or Facebook. It’s addictive! I made one about the Isle of Portland. See how the photos move to the beat of the music. Watch it here.

Is it as good as a video crafted by a human? I discussed that with craftsperson Louise Harris over at Sentiment. She reckons the process does a good, basic job but, because it does not know what are the most important parts of the photos, fails to focus and linger on them and, thus, loses emotional impact. She reckons to spend a good few hours perfecting the way a photo moves.

I don’t know if Animoto is the future of the multimedia funeral tribute. It’s unquestionably not as good as a human. But I’m glad I found it and I urgently want to share it with you.

Charles Cowling

It’s a busy business, an undertaker’s, at this time of the year. Jan and Feb are the popular months to die, and why wouldn’t they be? Nature imparts no vitality. The spirit ebbs with the seeping daylight.

In between the bagged bodies coming in and the boxed bodies going out there are families to see, funerals to coordinate (a flurry of phone calls), doctors dropping in to certify lifelessness and visitors in the chapel of rest contemplating it.

If that schedule leaves scraps of time for undertakers to sip a cup of coffee and dunk a grateful Rich Tea, it also gives them time to savour their latest FSJ — their Funeral Service Journal.

It can’t be easy, writing for undertakers, because there’s never much news to tell them. The FSJ’s editor, Brian Parsons, does a valiant job and tries to get his readers thinking and talking. In December’s edition he presents us with some mildly contentious issues and delights us all with a new sans serif typeface.

He shows us, as ever, photos of undertakers opening new or refurbished funeral homes, undertakers standing beside new hearses, undertakers winning training awards. A director of a coffin manufacturer celebrates 40 years’ service with a new numberplate for his car: COF 1N. A man in Australia has invented an embalming machine powered by compressed air. There are ads for coffins, cremfilm, mortuary cabinets, remembrance items and frockcoats, single and double breasted. There’s a scholarly article about biers and another describing the work of Dr W Edwards Deming, “credited with one of the most significant paradigm shirts in history.” Ah, the FSJ wouldn’t be the FSJ without its typos.

There’s a good account of a meeting of Anglican clergy and undertakers guaranteed to make any insider smile. The clergy are cross. They object to undertakers trespassing on the liturgy by passing on requests for secular readings. They object to undertakers asking families what hymns they want to sing. They object to undertakers booking a slot at the crem without consulting them, planning the printed order of service and using retired clergy in favour of the incumbent.

Of course, the clergy are quite right. The funeral itself is none of a funeral director’s business. They are also quite wrong because a funeral can only happen if hearse, crematorium, organist, service sheets and officiant synchronise. Even the dead must meet deadlines. The person responsible for achieving that complex coincidence is the funeral director. If the officiant isn’t answering his or her phone, a funeral director is quite rightly (and urgently) going to find someone who will. Where requested hymns and readings are concerned, the funeral director is only acting as the agent of the family.

As a celebrant, I am always pleased to know what a family wants. It’s good to know that they have started thinking about the funeral, because time is short. If they subsequently change their mind, that’s not a problem. Funeral directors are always open to the charge of being control freaks, but almost always in a good cause. Compared with what I do, I’d describe much of their work as drudgery and I am extremely grateful to them for doing it. Only once has a funeral director tried to influence one of my ceremonies, and even then only for good, if misguided, motives.

The editor of the FSJ invites his readers to write in and say if there ought to be a code of practice between clergy and funeral directors. I’d like to think he includes secular celebrants, too. My suspicion is that not many will, but I hope I shall be proved wrong.

We all have to be ready to jump when the funeral director rings; it’s the nature of the business. The clergy will not reclaim funerals with displays of pettish self importance.

I am looking forward to another year of FSJs. I wish Brian Parsons and his journal the compliments of the season — and all readers of this blog, too.

Charles Cowling

I’m indebted to Pam Vetter for pointing me to an article about post-mortem cosmetic procedures. This is not a big issue in the UK as it is in the US (Pam lives in LA), but it goes on here all the same. Funeral directors earn gratitude for presenting bodies looking as if they quite like being dead; embalmers take enormous pride in their work, both cosmetic and restorative (say, for example, reconstructing someone’s skull after a traffic accident).

Before I tell you where to find the article, let me exhort you to watch the video on the page showing the work of the Owens Funeral Home. It’s brilliant. “I’m the guy that puts a smile on your face. Other places, you just look dead.”

Have a great weekend.

Right, go for it.