The Good Funeral Guide Blog

You say it best when you…

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

At yesterday’s funeral I invited people in the audience to have their say after they’d listened to tributes from the family. I tried to make it easy. I gave them time to think about it in advance, acknowledged that speaking in public is hard, invited them to speak from where they were sitting and reminded them that the only thing that mattered was getting it right for their dead friend.

Hardly anyone spoke. I had made an elementary error: I had supposed that their primary medium for expression is words.

Like many secular celebrants, I set great store by words. For me, they say it all. I also know that they often come over as so much blah-blah-blah – and that that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Blah can be just what people need so long as it is served soothingly warm – ask any Anglican vicar. “Death is nothing at all…” is warm blah. So is “Do not stand at my grave and weep”. To me, they’re blurry and worthless – but that’s my private problem.

For those times when words are likely to fall short, there are eloquent alternatives. There’s

· saying by doing.

· music

· dance

· saying by doing nothing

I remember planning a funeral with a family, fruitlessly trying to get them to tell me about their dead mum. Very little came until they explained that, as a family, talking was something they just didn’t do. Words, to them, were just so much blather. After some thought, I suggested lighting candles. They weren’t at all the sort of people who like lighting candles, I reckoned, but they leapt at the idea.

On the day of the funeral, I set up my stand, lit a tall candle in the centre and called people forward to light a satellite tealight. Normally, only a few come. On this occasion, everyone did – maybe thirty of them. The array of flames looked very pretty beside the coffin, where they spoke more eloquently than words.

Later in the ceremony, as I recited the solemn words of the committal, I heard a loud, alarming clunk, followed by chuckling in the audience. Afterwards, I discovered what had happened. The heat given off by the massed tealights had toppled the tall candle in their midst. Near-disaster for me but, for those there, the memorable, hilarious highlight of the funeral. It was typical, they said, of their mother to do that.

Words are unlikely ever to court disaster so long as they have been checked for precision and cleansed of ambiguity. Saying by doing, though, can be tragic-comically perilous. I’m thinking of the deplorable incident of the dove (symbolic of the soul of the dead person) which, when released, flew inside the crematorium for warmth, could not be chivvied out, and had to be shot. I’m thinking of another dove which, when released, was all at once attacked by a sparrow hawk. As the horrified mourners gazed up, bloody feathers fluttered down on them. I am thinking of the balloon which settled, miles and miles away, in the horns of a £50,000 prize bull. Enraged, the bull burst its fence, charged into a road, was hit by a car and had to be destroyed. These are all true stories.

A piece of music can be eloquent, but only when it is exclusively associated with the dead person. Music so often fails to be effective because those listening to it have their own, private relationship with it.

Dance could be eloquent, but mostly not in embarrassable Britain. Hippy-dippy. Toe-curling.

“It’s amazing / How you can speak / Right to my heart / Without saying a word” sings Ronan Keating. Silence can be defined as saying by doing nothing at all. Quakers do this very expertly, but hardly anyone else. If you invite people to sit in silence and contemplate, all they’ll do is wait. To remedy this, the custom is to fill the silence with music and invite people to do two things at once: think and listen. Doesn’t work. They still mostly wait.

Presently, funerals give the eyes little to do. Innovation is afoot. We now have Colourful Coffins, which I love. On its way, with us soon, is the multimedia review/celebration of the dead person’s life – words, music, slideshow, film clips. Louise Harris is doing pioneering work at Sentiment Productions. See her work here. I believe that the multimedia presentation is going to have a transformative effect on the way we do funerals once crems and other venues have installed screens, projectors and sound systems. I can’t wait.

Back in the here and now, I am chewing over the second lesson I learned from my mute mourners. I had wholly overlooked the fact that they had already done the most eloquent thing they could do for their dead friend. It was this: at some inconvenience to themselves they had made the effort to come to his funeral.

All the bells and all the whistles in all the world cannot speak more meaningfully than simply being there.

Making a killing

Thursday, 18 September 2008

There’s a lot of eco-angst out there as the banks go bust and the economy takes on the aspect of a clown car. At times like this I thought bankers threw themselves out of windows, the useless idiots. What’s stopping them?

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. House prices are freefalling and prospective first-time buyers are revving their chequebooks.

Spare a thought for sellers as they mourn their lost equity, poor wee thingies.

Message to sellers: there’s always someone worse off than yourself. Yes, really. Like people who have sell a house after someone’s been murdered in it. Nothing depresses prices like notoriety.

To people at this disadvantage I can recommend this blog. It’s a testament to the power of positive thinking, full of good tips. Here’s one:

When a potential buyer reports being upset about the fact that a person was murdered and the body thrown into the closet, comment instead about the ample space inside the closet; how there’s lots of room for shoes and accessories.

Here’s another:

A negative comment concerning how no one responded to the victim’s screams can be answered by showing how much privacy there is in the home and how playing loud music is unlikely to disturb the neighbors.

With undimmable optimism, our blogger even proposes a Plan B in the event of insuperable reluctance among buyers:

Rent the death house to a family of Satanists so they can improve their social standing amongst other devil worshippers.

In general, positive thinking is delusional. It can’t conquer cancer; it can’t even find you a parking space.

It may well, though, be efficacious in the littler matter of selling your house. Make up a murder. Demonstrate how that highlighted its best features. You may even get all your equity back.

Good grief!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

A ceremony to mark the end of a marriage. A funeral for a marriage.

What do you think?

The concept comes to us from (I think) Australia, the country which pioneered the secular funeral ceremony. One practitioner in this field is Jennifer Cram. I wonder how may others there are?

Of course, if you’re into the business of celebrancy, it makes sense to expand your portfolio by devising as many sorts of ceremony as you can dream up. Jennifer does ceremonies for: ‘the loving commitment of partners who are not marrying; the naming and welcoming of a child into the family; renewal of marriage vows for couples celebrating staying married; the end of a relationship; reaching puberty or maturity (wise-woman ceremonies also known as croning); launching of businesses or other ventures…’ She even does relinquishment ceremonies for parents giving a child up for adoption. She’s staked out her patch.

Obviously, it’s funerals for marriages that interest us. And, do you know, whatever your incredulity is telling you, there’s actually lots of symmetry with funerals for dead people (she’s jolly clever, is Jennifer). Without using the word liminality once, here’s what her marriage funeral addresses: ‘issues of endings, separation, and letting go (disappointment, anger, sadness, fear and trying to achieve closure); issues of acceptance, forgiveness, becoming open to new beginnings and new possibilities.’ To get the whole picture, click here.

For what other emotional thresholds might you devise a funeral ceremony?

The death of youthful dreams and ambitions, perhaps…

Do say!

Uber undertakers 1: Carl Marlow

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The first time I spoke on the phone to Carl Marlow his voice was drenched with adrenaline. He’d just got back from cremating a Hindu on an open-air pyre.


He got away with it. Just.  It’s against the law.


That’s the way Carl is.


The first time I saw him, at his office in Wallsend, he showed me bits of bone he’d just that morning retrieved from the pyre’s ashes. He then went on to give me all the time I wanted. He drove me round and we talked and talked. He carries a wicker coffin in the back of his car. Whenever he sees a nice field he poses it in it and photographs it.


He does things differently, does Carl. He does things so differently that other funeral directors in his area regard him as a cowboy and a joke. They say joke, but they’re not laughing. Carl is no respecter of ‘tradition’. He says, “I’m not here to be liked by the funeral industry, I’m here to change it. It’s just a weird industry. I think there’s a lot of arrogance within funeral directors. I don’t even know why they wear a uniform. I don’t know why they walk in front of the car with a big hat and a cane – what’s that all about?”


He says, “I’ve never been in a more bitchy industry in my life.” Well, even his most appalled critics will agree with him there.


Carl doesn’t do things differently for the sake of it. He’s a huge character but he’s not a huge ego. He really does put other people first. He wants to do what’s right for them, what’s best for them. He says, “We all live our lives as individuals, but when it comes to funerals we all go the same way, and that’s what I do not like about the industry; they do not offer choice.” He wants people to do what they believe and what they dare. He doesn’t want poor people to have to spend a penny more than they have to. “Did you ever buy him flowers when he was alive?” Carl will ask a widow. “Do you really feel you have to buy him flowers now he’s dead?”


He’s incredibly good value for money.


Carl empowers people. That’s how he got to take one dead man to the crem wrapped in his duvet with his feet sticking out, just as he wanted. More than once he’s filled a 54-seater coach with mourners and sent it off to the crem with the coffin in the luggage compartment and everyone singing. Cheap. Cheerful. He taps into that peculiarly British vein of anarcho-hilarity.


He looks after people. He buries ashes in cemetery plots for nothing. He digs the hole himself, saving the family around £300. The council doesn’t necessarily know about this.


You could say that Carl plays fast and loose, but always and only in a good cause, where his big heart leads him. Sure, he may flatten a fence or two on the way. Ah, well.


If Carl is a daring, dashing dreamer, his mercurial spirit is counterbalanced by the tranquil demeanour of his right-hand man, Billy Spencer. Billy is classically trained, a safe pair of hands, a lovely guy. Together, they make a brilliant team.


The case for open-air cremation goes to the High Court on 10 November 2008, brought by the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Carl wants pyres for all who want them, not just Hindus; he reckons there’s a lot of demand for them. Yes, and sky burial, too, if that’s what people want.


Whether you reckon his vision and demeanour to be revolutionary or reprehensible, there’s no denying that Carl is a serious man.


See him at work here.


See the open-air cremation here. As Carl and Billy put the body in the coffin, watch Carl. You can see that the body was, well, not in the best condition.  

Bring on the empty hearses

Friday, 5 September 2008


What effect does the sight of a hearse have on you? Does it make your spirit soar? Does it put a spring in your step and a song on your lips?


Or does it throw a Hammer Horror chill around your heart?


What would be the effect on you of the spectacle of a procession of 100 hearses? Would you think that the Black Death had broken out?


The British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD), at its annual conference, is hoping to break the world record for the number of hearses in a parade by doing just that: sending 100 of them through the streets of Croydon. Is there, you splutter, a world record for this sort of thing? Yes, there is a world record for everything – and that includes, of course, anything.


But there is more to this enterprise than boldly going and conquering pastures new on virgin summits. The BIFD’s president, Adrian Pink, says: “The BIFD wants to open up the profession and its suppliers to their market, to make the whole process less intimidating.”


Less intimidating?


He goes on to say, “My motto is MAD – make a difference – and I’m sure with this record attempt we will be able to do so.”


No, Adrian, mad means mad.


All this puts me in mind of my friend Geoff.


“I’m seventy-five,” he said to me a while ago. “It’s time I made arrangements. I’m looking for a good undertaker in my local area.”


Geoff knew as little as most people about how funerals work and, when he tried to find a simpatico undertaker by scanning the display ads in his local paper, he found himself no nearer his goal.


“Why on earth do they advertise,” he exclaimed testily, “if they’re all going to say nothing about themselves?”


Geoff made a good point here. Conventionally, businesses spend good money on marketing in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and declare a USP. The new breed of green and alternative funeral directors does this. But most of the trad majority stand in line and share the same descriptive vocabulary. They offer a service which is ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘caring’, ‘respectful’. Excellent. Just what we all want. But then they throw in ‘dignity’, and that’s where Geoff and many like him take a step back. What is this dignity? It sounds formal and distant. Pompous. It sets up a barrier.


Geoff is an adept silver surfer and he persisted in his researches, this time on the internet. What did he reckon? “They can’t use the English language!” he expostulated. “Full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, misplaced apostrophes.”


He’s right. There’s a lot of semi-literate text up there and it disparages the professional competence of those it represents. Geoff might have added that the design of many funeral directors’ websites is crude, cluttered and clunky. Horrible.


Geoff’s researches eventually dumped him back on square one. Dismayed, he gave up. “I’ll ask around, see if anyone knows a good one.”


Adrian, here’s some helpful advice for you and your fellow funeral directors: the purpose of marketing is to offer a relationship of warmth and trust with potential clients – to draw them to you.


They don’t want spiky gothic typography in your ads. It is ecclesiastical and anachronistic. It carries associations of gloom, wretchedness and Dickensian melodrama. Your other favoured graphic design elements similarly mystify or repel – religious symbols, horsedrawn hearses, stained glass windows surrounded by clustering roses. Your trade association logos look impressive – but does anyone actually know what they mean?


Most people glance at your ads, shiver, and hope they’ll never have to go anywhere near you.


Adrian, they say that death is the last taboo. It’s not. People want information. They want to be able to drop into your funeral home informally and indulge their curiosity, chat, read and find out.


You talk about the public service element of your work. The quality of that service would be greatly enhanced were you to offer accessibility and empowerment, warmth and trust.


What has choking the streets of Croydon with hearses got to do with that?

FuneralCare shame

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

When I blogged about FuneralCare derecognising the GMB union I invited the press officer at FCare to respond in the interests of fairness and right to reply.

Phil Edwards of FCare duly responded by email: “This deserves a reply. How much time do we have?”

I told him to take his time. But this was on 21 August, almost a fortnight ago.

I subsequently asked the GMB for any response they would like to make.

Now, the Good Funeral Guide is not a campaigning or a mischief-making publication. But this blog needn’t be quite so buttoned up and well-behaved. Where there is a case to be answered it will fearlessly seek answers, not be brushed aside as if it were a busy flea.

So, Phil, let’s be having you.

While we wait, did you read about Scott Ralston, FCare funeral director in Glasgow with 16 years’ unblemished service, sacked for driving a van with four dead bodies in it, without regard for dignity or respect, at speeds up to 7mph? He’s just won £30,000 at an industrial tribunal, which commented that it could not accept that a reasonable employer would consider this one isolated incident would justify dismissal.

Tsk tsk.

Death porn

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Here’s an interesting and not unconfusing series of pics from today’s Guardian. Entitled ‘Behind the Last Closed Door’, the photos are by Laura Peters and are on show at the Lighthouse Gallery, Wolverhampton, from 3-18 September.

‘What,’ asks the Guardian, ‘happens behind the scenes at crematorium [sic]? A new exhibition of photographs solves the mystery.’

Mystery? What mystery? What could possibly be mysterious about a place where anyone can go? There’s no need to peek at someone else’s photos of it, as if through your fingers from behind the sofa. If you want to know what goes on up at t’crem, stride boldly in and ask if you can have a look. They’ll be pleased to show you.

That the business end of a crem should be capable of being reckoned a mystery serves to illustrate the euphemistic way we burn the bodies of our dead. At the moment of committal the curtains slowly close in front of the coffin. It’s a high-drama ritual which normally elicits sharp sobs, cries, even, from the congregation. If you’re the celebrant, trust me, you feel a bit like an executioner as you push the button on the lectern. People’s uninformed imaginations then conjure up all sorts of outlandish pictures of what happens next.

If only they knew the bathetic truth: that the coffin sits there patiently until everyone’s gone, and may not be cremated for several hours.

There’s no mystery for Sikhs about what happens behind the scenes: they customarily go and witness the coffin going into the cremator (or furnace, as the Guardian has it; a term somewhat discredited by the Nazi death camps). There is no mystery, either, for those too-few others who wish to see the process through; who need to see that everything is done properly. The last time I, as a celebrant, arranged this, for three brothers (who had previously stood behind the lectern and, together, pushed the button) the crematorium technician had kindly and thoughtfully allowed the cremator to cool sufficiently so that the coffin containing their mother did not spontaneously combust as it went in.

Ms Peters’ photos are not especially revealing, truth to tell. But pic number 3 is very alarming: it shows lots of empty coffins standing on their feet. So it’s true, is it? They do pull the dead people out of them before they burn them, and re-use them? That’s terrible!

Further research reveals that Ms Peters has actually also photo-ed another mystery no-go area: behind the scenes in a funeral home — the coffin store and the mortuary. Hmmn, it’s really a very clean mortuary. And look, the funeral director is wearing rubber gloves. Full marks, chaps. Things are not ever thus, not in every mortuary by any means.

The real mystery, it seems to me, is that the place where a dear, dead person is cared for and kept should be reckoned a mystery. It’s only a mystery because people dare not ask to see.

Is that really so surprising?

Yes, when they gaze instead on Ms Peters’ photos.

If you want a much more graphic and informative picture of what goes on behind the scenes at a crematorium, have a look at this clip from the Australian Museum Online. It could be anywhere in Britain.

Marking the spot

Monday, 1 September 2008

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there…

Here’s an instruction more honoured in the breach than the observance. These, the opening lines of one of Britain’s favourite funeral poems, highlight the contradiction inherent in our complex psychological need to mark the spot where the body or ash of a loved one is laid or strewn.

Most people, whether religious or atheist, agree that, wherever their dead person is now, he or she is not there, not at the spot that they memorialise. Yet still they feel, nevertheless, strongly impelled to mark that spot.

Can you explain this?

Dr Johnson asserted that “grief is a species of idleness”. If he was right – he was a lifelong depressive so he may have a point – then one remedy for grief is activity.

A memorial certainly offers opportunities for therapeutic activity. It gives mourners
· somewhere to go
· something to do

If there’s anything in this theory, then it’s the physical rituals and observances associated with journeying to and tending a memorial or a grave which are emotionally nourishing. They enable you to do something about how you feel, and something for the dead person.

You can mark the spot in all sorts of physical ways, as you know, whether with a headstone, a folly or a tree.

But have you come across the virtual way: the online memorial site? Yes, now you can memorialise a dead person in cyberspace.

I think there’s a great deal to be said for the idea behind the online memorial site. It is zeitgeisty, closely related to social networking sites like Facebook. It can bring together a community of grieving people who may be widely scattered geographically. It gives you somewhere to go and something to do.

Are these sites tasteful or tacky?

Here’s a question which applies to everything funerary. Views polarise. One person’s meaningful is another person’s maudlin. A willow coffin is either a thing of rustic loveliness or it is a giant picnic hamper. A horse-drawn hearse: is that heritage or gangster?

There’s no distinguishing between what is seemly and what is sentimental.

Online memorial sites are evolving fast. Some have already fallen foul of natural selection. Some have fallen foul of entrepreneurs: looks set to make millions from digitised tears worldwide: it hosts online obituaries for more than 650 newspapers, including The Times, and its database contains every dead American since 1937.

Two really good sites out there are, in my (it’s only my) opinion, GoneTooSoon and, best of the lot, MuchLoved. Both are free. Highly recommended. Check them out.

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