The Good Funeral Guide Blog

In your prayers

Monday, 20 January 2014

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Some sharp comment here in Monday’s Times by David Aaronovitch:

Death prattle

Pieties are by no means always religious. I don’t know when the practice began in this country of appending “our thoughts are with etc” to any tribute to the recently departed, but it has gone too far.

No one can argue with saying that someone who has died was brave, or made an important contribution, or even that he or she will be much missed. Nor, in circumstances of traumatic pain, such as those attending, say, a massacre or major terrorist incident, does it seem insincere to mention the relatives, friends and communities from which the victims came.

But now, almost every Prime Minister’s Questions is prefaced by the phrase “today our thoughts (and sometimes our prayers) are with his/her family”, followed by a set of exchanges proving, if nothing else, that the expresser’s “thoughts” were in no such place.

When Ariel Sharon died last week, at the age of 85 after eight years in a coma, Ed Miliband made a statement noting Mr Sharon’s “impact” on the Middle East and then saying: “My thoughts today are with his family after the many years of his illness.” The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said the same thing.

I do not believe that Mr Miliband’s or Ms Solberg’s thoughts were with the Sharons. Has Ed even met the Sharons? It seems to me not impossible that that family was feeling hugely relieved — for Ariel Sharon and themselves — that this saga was finally over. So, shall we drop this unnecessary new habit?

Down To Earth is looking for a manager

Monday, 20 January 2014

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Down to Earth manager

Full time, £30,656, 

One in five people cannot afford a funeral. QSA seeks a full-time manager to deliver an award-winning project, Down to Earth, which provides independent funeral advice for people on low incomes in east London. The position includes management, planning and delivery, as well as monitoring and evaluation. 

The ideal candidate has experience of delivering community projects. Experience of related sectors, such as bereavement, is highly desirable. Knowledge of end of life issues, funerals, bereavement and debt are all desirable. The role involves working with professionals and vulnerable people, so you will also be an excellent communicator, with the ability to engage with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds.

Please download the job pack (PDF) and application form (Word document, includes equal opportunities monitoring form)

The deadline for applications is 10am on Monday 3 February 2014. 

Interviews will take place on Tuesday 11 February 2014. 

Funerals, who needs em?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

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When England first played Scotland, on 30 November 1872, both teams employed formations that would raise eyebrows today. Scotland went for a cautious 2-2-6 while England employed a more swashbuckling 1-1-8. The game was all kick-and-rush in those days.

Kick-and-rush. It’s how businesses, anxious to futureproof themselves, respond to prophecy. Some bright spark peers into a crystal ball, dreams a dream and holds up a trembling finger. No matter that their vision is little more than a projection of their wishes and values, everyone rushes towards it.

Remember the Baby Boomer Hypothesis which held that, just as baby boomers reinvented youth culture, so they would reinvent death culture? Pretty much everybody bought that, including the entire advisory council of the GFG. The theory was that these free radicals would reject bleakness and embrace creative, themed, personalised, sometimes iconoclastic celebrations of life. The good news for the industry was that there would still be good money to be made from funerals so long as undertakers made the switch from cookie-cutter to bespoke; from being po-faced solemn-event planners to bright-eyed party-planners adding value through accessorisation and offering concierge-level service and red-carpet delivery. Pretty much the package Alex Polizzi tried to sell to David Holmes in The Fixer.

It’s not happening, is it? And as we take that in, we reflect that baby boomers have, yes, always been insouciant about what went before and unsentimental in their rejection of it. They’re re-inventors, not renovators. And they’re not all going the same way.

The evidence seems to be that baby boomers are increasingly asking themselves what good a funeral would do, really. More and more of them see little or no emotional or spiritual value in the experience. They’re not all rejecting them out of hand all at once. Some are dressing trad funerals up in a gently creative way with wacky hearses, jolly coffins and startling music choices. But on the whole they’re whittling them down. The reasons are complex and we’ve rehearsed some of them here before.

Dissatisfaction with the value offered by a funeral is probably most widely evidenced in the near-universal belief that funerals are too expensive — ie, they’re not worth what they cost. The strength of this rejection of funerals is evidenced in people’s unrealistic incredulity that a basic funeral should cost much more than having an old washing machine taken away.

Read the comments under any broadsheet article about funerals. The evidence of rejection is everywhere. If the effect of a funeral is to leave you feeling, next day, beached and empty, that’s not surprising. A funeral is supposed to fill a hole, not leave a void. Here are some recent comments in a discussion forum on Mumsnet, of all places:

My MIL has said … she wants the absolute bare minimum in terms of coffin and cremation. No service, no ‘do’ afterwards. Then she wants close family to either go somewhere nice for the weekend together. 

I had it put in my will that i don’t want any sort of funeral when i die. I think the money funeral directors charge for the most simple of services is utterly abhorrent

[My mother-in-law] died recently, she didn’t care what we did by way of funeral (I think her only words on the subject were that we could drop her off the pier for all she cared…)

My uncle didn’t want a service – he just went straight to the crematorium.

I wouldn’t want to burden love ones with the cost, I have life insurance but would want the cheapest option

It is criminal how the respectful disposal of our loved ones has turned into a million pound industry!

I have left strict instructions that I am to have no funeral service and I have made sure everyone knows about it. It is written in my will and my family would never go against my wishes. They know how strongly I feel about it.

Immediate cremation, ashes in a simple box and then take me down our local and stick me on the bar whilst everyone has a quick drink. Next day, throw my ashes in the sea at the place I grew up in as a child. That will do. No order of service with dodgy photos and poems, no wittering on about my life and no-one failing miserably to pick out my favourite songs. Boo hiss boo.

I am a crematorium manager, and can confirm that plenty of people choose to have no funeral service.

I just don’t get the whole thing. I’ve only ever been to one funeral that was really a lovely rememberence and not out of duty of what they thought they had to do. I would much rather my family used money to go on holiday to our favourite place and remembered me there.

My FIL keeps saying he doesn’t want a funeral and wants to be cremated asap with no ceremony or fuss.

We chose not to have a funeral for my dad when he died. Cardboard coffin, cremation with no service. I think he would have been pleased but I tend not to tell anyone as I have some judgey reactions as if we were being cheap (was not relevant) or he was not loved (he was very much).

The Mumsnet discussion includes a few objections on the lines of: ‘To be fair, it’s not really about you. It’s about the loved ones you left behind, it’s an essential grieving process.’ But the overwhelming majority can see no good in a funeral.

This would seem to overturn the supposition that excellent secular funeral celebrants and empathetic undertakers would save the public ceremonial funeral by making it meaningful once more. But there’s a growing realisation that you don’t need to put a corpse in a box and tote it to the crem in blackmobiles, you can create a perfectly satisfying, private, informal farewell event with ashes. Direct cremation, already growing rapidly, looks set to skyrocket.

I know that there are lots of people who believe that reports of the demise of the funeral are exaggerated. They tell me to stop being so pessimistic, things are getting better. But I had lunch with Fran Hall, chair of the Natural Death Centre on Friday, and was struck to discover she thinks as I do. She said, “One day soon the industry is going to wake up and find itself dead”.

It’s possible that there’s no saving the funeral — it’s had its time. After all, it’s not just Britain that’s saying nah. But funeral people, overly focussed on commercial concerns, are putting up absolutely no concerted philosophical defence.

If the public, ceremonial funeral is worth saving, now is the time for the best in the business, from all walks of belief, to come together and be an influential voice in public discourse about funerals, much of which remains incoherent. If the emotional and/or spiritual health of the nation is at stake, who better to do it? Ans: among others, the people whose livelihoods depend on it. Come on, don’t go down without a fight. Do we really need funerals? If so, why?

Don’t all rush, I could be wrong, this may not be a Dunkirk moment. But crisis or no there still exists a pressing need to make a considered, rational and persuasive case for funerals — if, that is, you truly believe they do any real, deep and lasting good. Do you?

There are an awful lot of people out there who don’t. If you can’t demonstrate the purpose and value of your product, who’d want to buy it?

Calling all telegenic undertakers

Saturday, 18 January 2014

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A phone call and two emails shattered the tranquillity here at the GFG-Batesville Shard late last week. The gist was: we are currently developing a new project for Channel 4, which will be an observational documentary series set in a funeral parlour. We envisage the series being warm and informative, recognising and celebrating the crucial role they play in the lives of families and the wider community.

The proposed format is similar to that of One Born Every Minute. Interested? Here’s more:

We would like to get in contact with family-run funeral parlours and, if possible, businesses where several members of the same family work alongside each other. We’re also really interested in finding a place that also specialise in repatriations, perhaps they ever have an office overseas, and exhumations. I’ve included a bit more information about Dragonfly and the types of programmes we make below. 

Dragonfly Film and Television is a BAFTA award-winning, independent television production company, specialising in factual programmes.  We work across all the major UK and international broadcasters, such as the BBC, Channel 4, Discovery and National Geographic.  

We have a proven track record of delivering thoughtful and sensitive single documentaries and series. 

Dragonfly have worked with many people, places and institutions – including maternity wards, hotels, schools and families in their homes, to create celebrated access-based series like The Hotel, The Family and Extreme A&E for Channel 4. We’ve also made subject-led programmes like the highly acclaimed Channel 5 documentary series My Secret Past featuring well known celebrities revealing the painful experiences they have dealt with and the BBC One documentary June Brown: Respect Your Elders examined the way we treat older people in society. 

Dragonfly’s programmes have a reputation for dealing with important and often sensitive subject matters, with warmth and integrity. From giving birth in One Born Every Minute to crashing a plane in Plane Crash, we always tell stories in an honest, thought-provoking and sensitively handled way. 

We have a team of experienced producers who are excellent at working with the people they film with to create a mutually beneficial environment that everyone is comfortable with. They know how to minimise disruption and work with small crews and unobtrusive cameras.  They excel at maintaining a good working relationship from the beginning of filming, until the programmes have aired. They develop transparent and trusting relationship with everyone they work with. 

Dragonfly’s Managing Director Simon Dickson was previously deputy head of documentaries at Channel 4 where he was responsible for re-inventing the popularity of documentaries with a whole raft of award-winning programmes such The Hospital, One Born Every Minute, Coppersand 24 Hours in A&E. Dragonfly’s Creative Director, Mark Raphael, during his time at Channel 4 commissioned a range of sensitive projects, including The Murder Trial, Bedlam, Educating Yorkshire and 999: What’s Your Emergency?

Contact Sarah Rubin at: Sarah.Rubin@dragonfly.tv

 

Fusion funerals: Cockneys, immigrants and Hackney hipsters

Thursday, 16 January 2014

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The story of T. Cribb & Sons is one of business resilience in the cultural quicksand of London’s East End. A family-run firm of undertakers since 1881, its heritage is Cockney: close-knit, white, working class communities celebratory of both their roots and the material trappings of wealth: pie and mash and the dogs coupled with a taste for pin-sharp schmutter. Their funerals have been summarised as Victorian music hall meets Catholic High Mass: undertakers with toppers and canes, horse-drawn carriages and extravagant floral wreaths.

With its vicinity to London’s docks, the East End has for centuries attracted immigrants, from the French Huguenots to Polish Jews, the Irish to the Chinese. More recently came the Bangladeshis, Africans and eastern Europeans.

Meanwhile, true Cockneys have upped sticks to Essex. Many a London cabbie will tell you how they cashed in the terraced house in Bow for an all-mod-cons Barratt home in Brentwood while opining ‘the East End ain’t what it was’. And you only have to watch TOWIE to see former Cockneys splurging their cash on smart clobber and wheels, along with Sex on the Beach cocktails and cosmetic dentistry.

T. Cribb & Sons, which started with a single parlour in Canning Town, has also branched out into Essex, buying up undertakers in Loughton, Debden, Benfleet and Pitsea. However, of its 1,800 funerals a year, half are now for non-whites, especially Africans and Asians in east London.

It’s introduced a repatriation service for west African immigrants who prefer to be buried back home in Nigeria or Uganda. It’s also attracted the British Ghanaian community, increasingly content to be buried in England and who, like Cockneys, have a taste for flamboyant funerals, sometimes beyond their means.

Attention to the needs of a broad demographic can also be seen in details such as a Hindu/Sikh washroom at Cribb’s Beckton branch, and the way it’s mindful to bring Chinese mourners home from a funeral by a different route, in order to ward off evil spirits. It even provides limos with the lucky eight in the number plate. Again for the Chinese, it offers a wall of small vaults for votive offerings such as sticks of incense. At £750 for a five-year lease on a vault, this service is being adopted by white Brits, too, showing how cultural influences go both ways.

T. Cribb & Sons is now courting the Muslim market, currently served by a few Bangladeshi undertakers attached to mosques. The showy traits of the Cockney funeral are theologically out of step with Islam in which dead people are swiftly washed, prayed over and buried. But as with most cultural melting pots, people draw on outside influences, whether integration is approved of or not.

For more on this subject, see The Economist here.  It’s a good read, rich in colour gleened from firsthand research. What it doesn’t address is the colonisation of former Cockney turf by middle class West Enders who have headed east for more affordable housing in areas from Stratford to now-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch. As these right-on Guardianistas grow older, might we see less emphasis on Cribb’s website on black-plumed Friesans, bling limos and lavish floral tributes, and more on wicker coffins, woodland burial grounds, ethnic-chic joss sticks and vegetarian catering services at the wake?

As The Economist writer says, ‘Undertakers thrive on the loss of their clients—not on the loss of their client base’. Meeting evolving demand is key. But you can see why some undertakers favour the big spenders. Flowers spelling GRANDAD: A PROPER DIAMOND GEEZER destroy the ozone layer? Gimme a break. Next you’ll be saying wreaths depicting the St George flag might upset the neighbours.

Your number’s up and it’s 23

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

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The American writer William S Burroughes  met a seaman, a Captain Clark, in the 1960s who told him that he had been sailing for exactly 23 years without mishap of any kind. That very day, Clark’s ship was lost at sea; it went down with all hands. As Burroughes pondered this news he heard a news bulletin on the radio reporting the crash of an airliner in Florida. The pilot was another Captain Clark. The flight was Flight 23.

Ever after, Burroughes became mildly obsessed with the number 23. He discovered, for example, that the bootlegger “Dutch Schultz” (real name: Arthur Flegenheimer) had Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll assassinated on 23rd Street in New York when Coll was 23 years old. Schultz himself was assassinated on 23 October. Charlie Workman, the man convicted of shooting Schultz, served 23 years of a life sentence and was then paroled.

According to Robert Anton Williams in the Fortean Times, “Heathcote Williams, editor of The Fanatic, met Burroughs when he (Williams) was 23 years old and living at an address with a 23 in it. When Burroughs told him, gloomily, “23 is the death number”, Williams was impressed; but he was more impressed when he discovered for the first time that the building across the street from his house was a morgue.”

Is there something peculiarly fateful about the number 23?

It is, after all, the number of a psalm often sung in… funeral services.

Nirvana star Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 and died in 1994. 1+9+6+7=23 and 1+9+9+4=23

However, the number 23 seems not to have been all bad for David Beckham. He wore the 23 shirt for Real Madrid and lives to tell the tale.

The number 5 is gaining ground. There are all those lists of 5 top regrets of the dying. Here are 5 facts about Americans’ views of life-and-death matters. But it’s easier to track this one back to its source: Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief, of course. 

Do you have favourite deathly digit? 

 

Richard III’s reinterment remains unresolved

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Will Richard III’s DNA-approved descendants scupper this May’s planned reinterment of his remains during a televised, Anglican ceremony at Leicester Cathedral? Having objected to Leicester’s claim to the last Plantagenet monarch, there’s now to be a judicial review in March aiming to annul Leicester’s license. Will the case merely postpone reinterment, or result in a new venue: Westminster Abbey, perhaps, where the king’s wife, Anne, is buried? Or Richard of York’s beloved York Minster?  

In the event of victory for the relatives, will they even call for a Catholic reinterment for a Catholic king? The reason why he was discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012 is because the newly Anglican Tudors destroyed his original resting place, Greyfriars Church, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  

Several other Plantagenet monarchs have also been rudely disturbed in their resting places, resulting in their remains being lost. Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard I, were all buried at France’s Abbaye de Fontevraud in Anjou, which was sacked and pillaged by the Protestant Huguenots in 1562. Richard’s heart was buried separately at Rouen Cathedral, which survived vandalism.

Wives have, on the whole, fared far worse than their regal husbands. While Henry III lies in Westminster Abbey, his Queen Consort, Eleanor of Provence, was buried at Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, destroyed in 1539. There was a similar fate for the remains of Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, when her viscera tomb at Lincoln Cathedral was smashed by Roundheads during the English Civil War, but since rebuilt during the Victorian era.

The tomb of Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, was at the Franciscan Church at Newgate, London, which didn’t survive the Dissolution. The remains of Henry IV’s wife, Mary, were also lost when the Church of St Mary of the Annunciation in Leicester was destroyed. And the remains of Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, were scattered when Saint-Maurice Cathedral in Angers was destroyed in the French Revolution in 1794.

Back to Richard III via the murdered Princes in the Tower. The bodies of two children were discovered during repair work in the Tower of London in 1674. Assumed to be those of Richard’s nephews, Edward and Richard, Charles II had them interred at Westminster Abbey, where they remain. If Uncle Richard ends up at the Abbey, let’s hope his tomb isn’t next door to those of the young princes. 

Candlepower

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

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If you’re out in Soho on a Saturday night chances are, as you reel from one nightspot to another, that a fresh-faced young person will greet you with the somewhat discordant question, “Would you like to light a candle in a church?” 

Being idealists, these gentle, big-eyed souls are used to being rebuffed by all manner of derision, indifference and obscenity. But they keep going because they know that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say yes. 

When they do, they are conducted to St Patrick’s church where they duly light their candle and either sit in the calm for a bit or even read a bit of scripture. They pop in for a moment, all sorts of people, some maybe for a bit of a laugh, but they often stay for up to an hour. By the end of a typical evening, more than 300 candles are dancing and flickering. 

Those who come are not sold religion. The space is as soothing for atheists as it is for holy folk. For them the church is a haven of serenity, somewhere to enjoy a time out from bustle. 

The project is called Nightfever. It started in Germany in 2005 and is catching on over here. 

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You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Yes, let’s take it further. What a good idea it would be if churches of all denominations were to offer this invitation to bereaved people: Would you like to come inside and light a candle in memory of someone in our church? 

Funeral directors could offer the same invitation. 

And have you noticed how crematoria are happy to offer you somewhere to stash your flowers, but nowhere to light a candle? They should do it too.

Yes, yes, fire risks, terribly dangerous, insurers won’t have it, etc. 

But if churches can, crems and undertakers can. Do it. Lighting a candle in memory of someone who has died is a powerful thing to do. And there is fellowship in all those dancing flames. 

 

Big is beautiful

Monday, 13 January 2014

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Golden Charter just got bigger. It’s now going to be the conduit through which Sun Life will sell its over-50s life assurance plans to those who ask for a funeral benefit option. 

As Golden Charter say, this “significantly boosts Golden Charter’s market share and choice for consumers”.

The reckoning is that Sun Life Direct customers will now have access to a network of nearly 3000 independent funeral directors across the UK, which Golden Charter says will support job creation in the profession. The deal will also take its own share of the UK pre-arranged funeral market, which is growing rapidly, above 50%.

Funeral Planning Authority figures show 67,484 pre-paid funeral plans were sold in the UK in the first half of 2013, putting the market on course for growth of 12% this year on the total sales of 120,731 in 2012. The average price of Golden Charter’s pre-paid funeral is £3,100.

Ronnie Wayte, managing director of Golden Charter, said Golden Charter sales were up by two thirds in the current financial year.

All of Golden Charter’s surpluses are used to support its independent funeral director members.

ED’S NOTE: That 3000 figure looks a touch optimistic. Using surpluses to support, ie reward, undertakers doesn’t look, on the face of it, customer-facing. 

 

Seen and heard: should young children attend funerals?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Some say death is too sanitised these days, with few people dying at home where all the family can say goodbye, and with professionals now taking over the duties of preparing the body for the funeral.

Has this social development made us over-protective of children, just as they’re now sometimes even shielded from losing in a sports match or failing an exam? Or is it prudent to exclude under-10s from funerals lest they become traumatised, or distract attending adults by being loud and needy?

For the nays’ side the debate, young mother and widow Rachel West says, ‘It’s hard to imagine what my daughters [aged four and six] would have gained from attending their dad’s funeral, but very easy to imagine the potential damage. I was in absolute pieces that day, and needed to be. That alone would have caused them immeasurable distress. I have remained strong in their presence at all other times, which I believe benefits them in these early years.’

On the ayes’ side, experts say attendance can be therapeutic for little ones as long as they’re well prepared. They advise giving child-friendly explanations about death beforehand: it’s one thing to say grandpa has gone to rest in a peaceful place and won’t be coming back, and another to find safe words to explain he’s in that box and is about to be buried or burnt.  

Ann Rowland of Child Bereavement UK also says children need to be forewarned about the possibility of adults crying and be given permission to cry, too. She also recommends an adult is on standby to take them out if they get bored or can’t handle being there.

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