The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Die-alogue Cafe

Friday, 11 April 2014



First there was Death Café. Then Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death. Then Death Salon.

Now there’s Die-alogue Cafe

Die-alogue Café has been developed by an Australian academic, Stuart Carter. We’ve been talking to Stuart for some time. We like and respect him very much. His purpose is not to upstage other formats, but to offer an alternative.

His starting point is pretty much the same as the others:

Living in a death denying time in human history is not delivering the good deaths we say we would like to have … in the company of like-minded people: we don’t feel so alone, we can create a good death road-map.

Self-empowerment is the thing:

We choose to not sit around and wait for someone else to do what we can do, ourselves — when we have the know-how (knowledge), the where-with-all (tools) and the friends who are willing to lend a hand (help).

So the format is purposeful, the discussion focussed so as:

* to be of practical assistance to each other;
* to build a body of knowledge and expertise that will, by extension, strengthen our families and communities;
* to build bridges across cultural divides;
* to empower people to act wisely and face the future with a positive outlook;
* to raise awareness about injustices and
* to provide a gentle nudge of encouragement as we face our fears.

Die-alogue Café is not for children, people seeking grief therapy; or people who are not prepared to use the plain English words that describe our end-of-life realities. It is not everyone’s idea of a good way to spend a couple of hours.

Meetings are themed. They comprise ‘ordinary’ people and professionals – care home staff, nurses, doctors, undertakers, estate planners, etc. Outcomes may be various: Do research, take on projects, write letters, practice meditation, play games, create art, visit, invent; in other words practice the principles and report back.

The overriding purpose is to enable people to have better ends and better funerals:

While the location, the time, the group may be different the underlying sentiments remain… open, honest dialogue as a backdrop to creating a dance with death that when played out in daily life, will reveal treasures untold and enrich all who stumble across its stage.

You can find out more about Die-alogue Café here. You can find Stuart’s dedicated website and blog here.

Poppy is hiring

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Poppy 2_medium


Poppy Mardall is looking for her young company’s third full-time employee.

Her fresh approach to the business of funerals makes this a job more suitable, perhaps, for someone outside the industry. But she is very open to applications from those within it who feel that her philosophy is also their philosophy.

She says:

This is an exciting opportunity to become a major part of growing a small company with big ambitions. As our third full time employee, you will be in an excellent position to progress as the company grows. You will be based at Poppy’s office in Tooting, but will
frequently be: meeting families at home, running funerals, at the mortuary and out and about getting things done. Like Isabel and Poppy, you will do whatever needs doing. Standard hours: 8am-5pm but expectation to work flexibly, and beyond these hours if
necessary. Full training will be given, and support and guidance whenever needed.

If you’d like to know more, you can download the full job description here: POPPY’S Co-ordinator Job Description



Tuesday, 8 April 2014




When Pomponius Atticus [a friend of Cicero] fell ill, and medical attempts to prolong his existence merely prolonged his pain, he decided that the best solution was to starve himself to death. No need to petition a court in those days, citing the terminal deterioration in your ‘quality of life’: Atticus, being a Free Ancient. merely informed his friends and family of his intention, then refused food and waited for the end. In this, he was much confounded. Miraculously, abstinence turned out to be the best cure for his (unnamed) condition; and soon the sick man was undeniably on the mend.

There was much rejoicing and feasting; perhaps the doctors even withdrew their bills. But Atticus interrupted the merriment. Since we must all die one day, he announced, and since I have already made such fine strides in that direction, I have no desire to turn around now, only to start again another time. And so, to the admiring dismay of those around him, Atticus continued to refuse food and went to his exemplary death.

Julian Barnes – Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Clarissa Tan

Friday, 4 April 2014



If you came to last year’s Good Funeral Awards weekend, you will remember Clarissa Tan. She was the journalist from the Spectator magazine. She had breast cancer. The piece she wrote afterwards inspired the name of this year’s get-together in Bournville: the Ideal Death Show.

Clarissa has died of breast cancer aged 42. 

‘I am a reporter,’ I say. ‘I’ve come to cover this event. But don’t worry, I won’t report what you share in this yurt. Also, I have cancer. I have been in treatment for one year, but now the treatment is over. I take one day at a time.’

There is silence, then hugs. I thought I would cry, but I don’t. Instead, I feel acceptance and a strange kernel of satisfaction.

I arrived expecting a weekend of black comedy. This is what I find, but there’s something else — a sincerity and straightforwardness that takes me by surprise.

It is not at all a fashionable point of view, but I believe in God — and a good one, at that. The belief fills me with healing, wonderful hope. It is the hope not that I will live. It is the hope that I am loved.

I realise that although I am frightened of dying, there’s a also a tiny part of me that’s always been scared of living. The finality of death is hard. The uncertainties of life can be harder.

Many Flowers in Carshalton (part 1)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

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David Hall, of Vintage Lorry Funerals, always speaks to the Florist who is creating the Family’s Floral Tributes at the earliest opportunity after his lorry has been booked for a funeral. David designs a layout that will feature the Family’s Tributes prominently, he makes a sketch of his ideas and emails it to the Family for approval. A salient feature in every layout is the facility to accommodate extra flowers which turn up at the Family home. Up to three Flower Trays can be pulled out from beneath the front display, filled with flowers and then positioned around the coffin, and this additional ‘pop up’ facility is ideal for funerals in the current economic downturn, however, a requirement beyond the three trays unexpectedly hit David during a funeral in Carshalton on November 19th 2007.

When David had the layout for the Late Bobby Dudley signed off by his Family, his Daughter-in-Law, Sharon, warned that there would be stacks of flowers. However, having heard this many times before, David assumed that the 8 Family Floral Tributes would become 12 or 14 based on the pattern of funerals at the time. When David parked the Leyland Beaver outside Gillman Funerals he was oblivious to what he was about to encounter.

On going through the door all that David could see was flowers. There were flowers on desks, on chairs, and on the floor with large scale Tributes so tightly packed the carpet could not be seen. It was as if a tsunami had swamped Carshalton and washed up flowers into Gillman’s shop. George Hards, Funeral Arranger, was diligently attempting to document each Tribute, identifying who had sent it, trying to segregate those he had documented whilst more and more were being delivered. When confronted with such a situation where many flowers must be loaded, the one element that can’t be changed is the time available. The only way forward is to adopt a strategy of loading the Family Floral Tributes first and using a tactic of acting like a machine, to be totally focused on the current and next tasks and not to be distracted by anything or anybody.

However, building such a large display of flowers always attracts the attention of members of the public who often ask questions. Although David is always civil and speaks to people despite the pressure, he often wishes he could hold up cards, like Bob Dylan did in the Subterranean Homesick Blues video, displaying information such as, ‘1950’, ‘No Powered Steering’, ‘No Heater’. Some people on seeing such a large volume of flowers think back to Princess Diana’s funeral. As David was climbing up his ladder with another two tributes in his hands, he felt two sharp prods in his back and he turned around to see a small elderly lady in a fur coat and hat, accompanied by a well attired gentleman. The lady with a cut glass accent enquired, ‘I say, for which famous person is this wonderful display being created?’ David replied, ‘Bobby Dudley’. The lady looked inquisitively at her husband and said, ’I’m afraid we don’t know Bobby Dudley.’ David said, ‘Bobby Dudley the Carshalton Coalman.’ The lady began to twist her face, as if she had tasted lemon juice thinking it was going to be orange juice and exclaimed, ‘Surely not for a Coalman.’ David put his arm around her and whispered in her ear, ‘You don’t need to be famous to be treated like royalty.’

David went back into Gillmans to get another two Tributes and just as he was about to

climb the ladder he felt two prods in his back. He turned around and the lady in the fur coat asked, ‘Does one have such a thing as a business card with one’s contact details?’

The interest people showed in the rear display will be detailed next month.


What’s for love and what’s for money?

Monday, 31 March 2014



If there’s one thing that really vexes people in the funerals business it’s the question of who gets paid for what – and how much.

Take the business of conducting a funeral. In England, when C of E clergy moved their fee up to £160 + travel, lots of people howled. Everyone in England is entitled to a C of E funeral whether they attend church or not. The C of E is the state church. Vicars are paid wages to lead parish worship and attend to pastoral duties. How therefore can they define a funeral as an extra? Well, up in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland is the national church, not the state church, ministers make no charge for conducting a funeral. But the C of S is running out of money and looks like not being able to afford to do this for much longer. Conducting funerals for nothing is a luxury it cannot afford. Every altruistic enterprise needs revenue streams.

In the case of secular celebrants, the contract with clients is apparently clearer cut. They sell their skills for a price the market will stand. Theirs is unmistakably a commercial service. A good many celebrants are thereby able to generate a reasonable income by knocking out up to 10 or so funerals a week, working from a template with slot-in readings, etc  – a liturgy by any other name, nothing wrong with that — comprising also a treatment of the life of the person who’s died which probably goes little deeper than rapidly gathered facts + dates + a few notable attributes.

Alongside these fast-food merchants are the altruistic adherents of the Slow Funerals movement for whom the creation of a funeral is an evolving process requiring much talk, much listening, much thought and, as a consequence, a treatment of the life lived which calls for a great deal of ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’. The result is a funeral which goes deeper and is more personal. A better funeral, in other words. But to work in this way, and conduct a very few funerals a week, requires either acceptance of poverty or the existence of another form of income, whether in the shape of a pension, an inherited fortune or a supportive partner. In commercial terms, it is an uneconomic way of working.

So: how much of the time put in by these Slow Funerals people do we count as being given for nothing? What part of their work, in other words, counts as voluntary work?

This question doesn’t apply only to celebrants. There are undertakers, too, who believe in Slow Funerals, and who may also believe in doing their best for those who struggle to find the funds for a funeral. They generate a great deal of social capital but many of them don’t bank a lot of cash. It’s the same with every vocational occupation, of course, the difference being that most vocations we can think of pay at a level that makes going the extra mile an affordable luxury. Many of our most caring undertakers, by contrast, live close to the breadline. Many, but by no means all.

Funeral shoppers have always had a difficulty with acknowledging and accepting that a funeral is a consumer product just the same as any other. That’s changing. Two factors above all are responsible. First, it’s a product which 1 in 5 people struggle to afford. Second, it’s a product whose experiential value is being increasingly questioned.

Did I say two? Add a third. Until recent years, the state enabled everyone to buy a decent one-of-those, what-everyone-has, funeral. Any notion that the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment will be restored in this, the era of the benefits cap, looks delusional. So something’s got to give, and that something’s almost certainly the way we do it now.

The time-consuming part of an undertaker’s and a celebrant’s work, which calls for high expertise and wisdom, is the emotional support of the bereaved, helping them come to terms with, and make some sense of, what has happened. The easy bit for an undertaker is the care of the person who’s died. Any good celebrant will tell you that only a small proportion of the value of their work can be judged by the script they read at the funeral.

You’ll not find the pastoral element of the work itemised and charged for at an hourly rate on any bill submitted by an undertaker or any celebrant. You can’t place a commercial value on that, you can’t charge people for kindness. If you’re an undertaker, it’s the care of the body that has to cover it. If you’re a celebrant, the rate for a template funeral. Reputation will help, too, of course. You can put your prices up a notch if everyone agrees you’re worth it — but you might not want to do that if it means making you unaffordable to people of slender means.

Whatever you think of all that, the fact remains that the what-everyone-has funeral, reckoned expensive by those who can afford one, is now out of reach to an increasingly large segment of the population. We need something more affordable.

conference held at the International Longevity Centre in February this year proposed a cheaper way forward that we’ve discussed on this blog: There is considerable potential to review the funeral service itself, separating the ritual from the committal. This could enable people to have more time to consider the ritual aspects and costs of the service, separate from the more functional aspect of managing the remains. When they say committal, they mean disposal, of course. Do read the report, it’s good.

Separate the disposal from the ritual. Take the corpse out of the funeral. Bring in cheaper cremation and the re-use of graves, and the costs begin to tumble. If, that is, the resulting ritual is reckoned timely and satisfying. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course. 

Kate Woodthorpe at the University of Bath takes it a step further and proposes that there may be roles for “public, private and third sectors in both preparing individuals and their families pre-death, and when bereaved.

That’s interesting. Third sector. Volunteers to share the work of listening and supporting bereaved people. That would redefine the roles of undertakers and ritualists. But is it really a viable alternative to the way we do things now?


Are secular rituals too churchy?

Friday, 28 March 2014

Sunday Assembly founders


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

‘Organising atheists is like herding cats’. Richard Dawkins

Every so often, civil celebrants here revive the debate about rituals in secular funerals. Some point out there’s plenty of spirituality already in a unique eulogy and individually-chosen readings and music, and enough symbolism with the procession of the coffin, the lighting of candles, and so forth.

Others say more set words, actions and visual aids could be established to enhance the ceremony—symbols that are appropriate for atheists and those people who are undecided on faith but are not members of any organised religion. The division seems to be between maximum individualism and those who think repeated ritual might help unify secular communities.

Just over a year ago, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones held the first meeting of the Sunday Assembly, a church for people who don’t believe in God. Meeting in various public venues, these gatherings offer the chance to meet like-minded people over a good sing-along, some stand-up comedy and more serious talks on subjects such as science. The stated aims include strengthening community bonds, inspiring a sense of wonder about life and promoting the loving values of humanism.

The Sunday Assembly, which a BBC reviewer described as ‘overwhelmingly young, white and middle class’, has divided people like Marmite, some attendees saying it fills a void in their life, others saying it all sounds a bit too happy-clappy.

In an interview with Reform magazine, co-founder Jones said: ‘A lot of atheists have given us abuse on Twitter, because apparently the way we don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God’.

Evans added: ‘I suppose, because we’re not campaigning for atheism, it probably feels closer to church than to atheism as we know it. When we did the first Sunday service a couple of militant atheists came along who were angry that it wasn’t like a rally. We tried to explain that Sunday Assembly is about celebrating being alive’.

This is one example of the chasm between those non-believers who see the merits of church-style community—and perhaps the benefits of non-religious ritual—and those who want as little as possible to do with such ‘ecclesiastical baggage’.

In a recent interview with the Catholic Herald, the British Humanist Association’s chief executive Andrew Copson was asked why the BHA doesn’t focus it energies on establishing Humanist schools instead of campaigning against the admission policies of faith schools, and ‘let Catholic parents, who also pay their taxes, educate their children as they see fit’.

Copson answered: ‘We don’t work for the establishment of Humanist schools because we would be concerned that, just as with religious schools, such schools would further segregate society on the basis of belief, or otherwise limit horizons, and that would be a bad outcome for all of us.’

He continued: ‘Parents have the legal right to educate their children in line with their philosophical convictions, but the state is under no legal obligation to provide or fund any particular sort of school to provide what parents want – the legal obligation on the state is merely not to interfere.’

I’m personally for the limited interference of a smaller state. But I don’t see state provision for reasonable choice in pluralist society as interference. In fact, making homogenised secularism the sole option is arguably forcing one way on all.

I’d like to know where Copson stands on the Sunday Assembly church for non-believers. Like churches for believers, including the Catholic Church in Britain, it’s self-funding with no aid from the secular state’s tax revenue coffers. Would he discourage it, based on his argument against Humanist schools potentially segregating society?

Does this stance have any bearing on the development of secular rituals, and the divisions between Humanist celebrants and those civil celebrants searching for more spiritual symbolism, and accommodating of varying degrees of faith?

For full interviews:

Reform Magazine

Catholic Herald

Don’t expect Dignity to solve funeral poverty

Wednesday, 26 March 2014



Yesterday we let the interns loose on the blog and they impulsively passed on an appeal to readers to write to Mike McCollum of Dignity plc and ask him to do his bit in the fight against funeral poverty.

What they conspicuously failed to do was identify a single reason why Mr McCollum and Dignity should feel any moral obligation whatever to alleviate funeral poverty. 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?

Sure, a great many people feel the big six energy companies should be doing more to alleviate fuel poverty, but this goes with a conviction that the energy companies overcharge because the energy market is not free, open and competitive. The funerals market, on the contrary, is free to the point of free-for-all. Dignity sells its funerals at a premium. Is a Dignity funeral the MacBook Air of funerals? Is it a high value product? Don’t answer, it’s irrelevant. People buy them, end of. They can buy cheaper if they shop around.

While Dignity ploughs its high-end furrow to the delight of its shareholders and the enrichment of Mr McCollum — that’s capitalism — there are 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.

Because, we remind ourselves, the Funeral Payment was brought in (by a Tory government) to enable everyone to buy a decent funeral. We have such a long history in this country of state subsidy for funerals that it has become an automatic expectation — a right. If that has now changed, then the government has a duty to register the change and explain it. You can’t just pull away a prop and expect people with no money to carry on as if it were still there.

Nor can you expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service. Good undertakers offer a high value service and deserve to make a decent living. It is folly and distraction to expect them to take one for the poor. If Dignity lowers its prices, does that make its funerals affordable? No. If it subsidises low-cost funerals at the expense of its wealthier customers, is that fair? Of course not. The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment. So while it may give passing pleasure to have a go at the fatcats, let’s not mistake righteous indignation for impotent fury.

And while we’re about it, let’s stop wilfully missing the point. Two factors which inflate the cost of funerals can easily be addressed. First, cremation can be carried out much more efficiently. Second, we can start re-using burial plots. To do so wouldn’t make funerals affordable for all, but it would make a decent-sized dent. Squeezing the undertakers, on the other hand, won’t make a blind bit of difference. There are enough already working for next to nothing.

The root cause of funeral poverty is political. The impact is social. The solution needs to be radical and will not be advanced by waving a bleeding stump at Mr McCollum.

It’s your line to Mike McCollum

Tuesday, 25 March 2014



Church Action on Poverty and Quaker Social Action are holding an event which will bring together charities, communities, policy-makers and the funeral industry to seek joint solutions to the growing problem of funeral poverty.

They say: “It’s really important that all sides are represented at the event and participate in finding solutions. Unfortunately, Dignity Funerals – the largest corporate owner of funeral directors in the UK – has declined every invitation sent to them.”

They’d like you to email Mike McCollum, the ceo of what is probably Britain’s most expensive undertaker, and tell him he really ought to get down there.

Come on, Mike, make an effort and try and look good. The GFG’ll be there. We can talk about what to do with your share options.

Please send Mike an automatic email and explain why it’s so important he attends this event and gets involved in finding solutions to funeral poverty. Click here.



NOTE to the uninitiated: a LTIP is a long-term incentive plan. The above is the third coponent of their total package and is not awarded automatically

He’s still at it!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


Britain’s most infamous undertaker Richard Sage is awaiting trial at Blackfriars Crown Court on 28 April on a charge of fraud by false representation. He stands accused, among other things, of having posted a series of bogus adverts looking for young people to work with him. It is alleged the adverts asked for a £400 administration fee, but the promise of a job was a lie.

A little piece of Sage’s previous has been brought to our attention. This goes back to the days when Sage was operating a private ambulance service alongside his undertaking business. The story features Nigel Gardner, who runs a private ambulance service called Ambukare.

Whilst working as a driver for an undertaker’s, Sage decided to set up his own private ambulance firm. He did it convincingly too, embracing the much-revered work-sharing ethic. He would take jobs from hospitals, demand payment up front, and pass the jobs on to other companies. One of the companies was Ambukare. Gardner received a call from an unfamiliar company, Inter County, but obliged the request all the same. He then had a lengthy period of chasing payment.

The undertaker’s firm hadn’t seen Sage for some time. Nor had any of his clients. Eventually, Gardner decided to ring the police, who it turns out were looking for him too. He was wanted for various acts of fraud. Gardner’s account added another to the list.

The CID tracked him down in Spain.

“A lot of people were angry as Sage hadn’t paid a single client,” said Gardner. “I knew I wouldn’t get my money back. I was just waiting to see what the courts would do to him.”

The courts were firm, giving him several years, “which I suppose is only fair”, Gardner laughs, “as we soon found out he’d been ferrying people around in hearses!” (Source)

Incredible as it may seem, Sage is still trading as an undertaker from three branches in Essex while his business is being wound up by the Redfern Partnership in Stratford-upon-Avon.

While we hope that the judge at Blackfriars Crown Court will bring his activities to an end soon, we have to wonder if more couldn’t have been done to stop him.



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