The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Say hello to the new normal

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

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Bastards. That’s what we used to call them. Next, illegitimate. We don’t call children born out of wedlock anything any more because we don’t feel we need to make a distinction.

Britain would be awash with bastards today if we still used the word because 4 out of 10 children are raised by unmarried parents. Happily the stigma of bastardy has entirely vanished. Some people get married, some don’t – whatever works for them. Some opt for a public, ceremonial plighting of troths, others for private, personal undertakings to each other. Neither the marrieds nor the cohabiters are judgemental of each other, and no one talks about living in sin any more – or shotgun weddings, remember them?

A feature of social change is that, no matter what birth pangs attend its arrival, it immediately becomes a non-event. The lead up to the gay marriage law was marked by much hullabaloo. As soon as the law passed, gay marriage become yawnsville – unremarkable. We absorb and carry on.

Direct cremation and direct burial were once reckoned astonishing and, more to the point, injurious to the emotional health of those who opted for it. It would deny them closure, leave them with all manner of unresolved grief issues. But they just keep on coming, and there is no evidence that bereavement support groups are swollen by their number.

Here at the GFG we get more and more people emailing to say thank you to us for giving them ‘permission’ not to have a ceremonial funeral after reading this: Do you really have to have a funeral?

And we meet and talk to more and more undertakers who get it  – who respect direct disposal as a positive choice.

There’s been no discernible rearguard defence of the public ceremonial funeral from the conservative, traditionalist wing of the industry in Britain, and this is puzzling. You have to go to America to hear the case made:

“A good funeral involves facing the fact of death and not dispatching someone like [an undertaker] to get rid of the bad news—by removing the body from sight—but embracing the fact we have a corpse in our midst. It attends to the task of consigning this person somewhere, not in some perfunctory way but doing it with attention, ceremony, and some quest for meaning.” [Source]

Mark Higgins, the man who said that, is exactly the sort of funeral conservative you might expect him to be. What drew him to undertaking?

“I loved the pomp and circumstance, the drama, the dignity, if you will, the “black” of the event affected me. The vestments of the clergy, the black cars … We put ourselves in a posture of reverence and respect.”

It’s Thomas Lynch, together with Thomas Long, both of whom have written the best books out there on funerals, who are leading the die-hard traditionalists. Here’s Lynch:

“…. the presence of the dead so ups the existential ante that people generally feel the increased gravitas, the broadening of the emotional register, the increased sense of purpose and duty, the sense that we are somehow at swim in deeper water where the range of possible conversations and outcomes is broadened. The presence of the dead embodies, in utter stillness, the raison d’etre for the gathering, for the nervous laughter and the tears, for the wailing and belly laughs, for the entire spectrum of of responses and conversations — some holy, some hilarious, all of them focussed on the dead and the ones to whom the dead matter most.”

And he quotes Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under: “once you put a dead guy in the room you can talk about anything.”

Lynch and Long’s belief in the vital importance of having a dead guy in the room is unquestionably sincere. They have the best interests of the bereaved at heart. But it looks as if they are beginning to lose the argument.

This is a state of affairs for which the traditionalists cannot blame the ‘progressives’. Both camps, ironically, believe strongly in the importance of spending time in the presence of the dead. It goes without saying that this belief is in no way the product of commercial considerations.

No, direct disposal is something that has happened to undertakers and celebrants. Already it is already becoming unremarkable. It’s not for everybody, of course. But it’s the new normal. From now on, some people are going to want the dead guy in the room, others aren’t. Whatever works for them.

The impact of this on the professional status of funeral directors is likely to be profound. We’ll deal with all that in a follow-up post.

 

The NFFD clarifies its position

Monday, 28 April 2014

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NOTE: Views or opinions presented in this blog post are those of the NFFD and should not be construed as being the views or opinions of the GFG. What follows is a response to comments made on this blog post

We would like to extend our gratitude to all commentators for showing such a keen interest in the National Federation of Funeral Directors. We are delighted that the Good Funeral Guide, by bringing your attention to the NFFD’s cause, is arousing such strong interest. When I first approached Charles to inform him of developments at the NFFD, I felt that his blog would provide a conduit through which the NFFD could finally connect on a meaningful level with that somewhat closeted section of the industry whose attitude, generally, is to automatically reject any organisation (not just ours) whose ambitions could possibly unsettle the status quo that has been serving some operators just a little bit too well, for too long.

Formed in 2010 by a group of new, ambitious, and forward-thinking funeral directors whose modern approach and highly-competitive pricing saw them stonewalled by the wider industry ‘community’, the NFFD’s aims from the outset have been to aid and encourage new business, promote transparency, increase value for money, and streamline working practices – all of which ultimately help safeguard the independent industry at a time of mounting pressure from the corporate giants. We believe that if the sector is to survive and prosper, then new firms, concepts, and ways of working should be embraced – not derided and dismissed.

It is our belief here at the NFFD that the funeral industry is poised for some level of reform. Though the notion of the traditional ‘family funeral director’ still exists, the fact is that current economic pressures combined with greater choice and universal internet access, means the modern consumer is much more willing to shop around for best value when tasked with arranging a funeral. There was a time when funeral directors enjoyed a certain level of guaranteed business. Frequently, a single firm might have served an entire community, and though the majority of funeral directors were then, as now, fine, upstanding characters, such a lack of competition meant those who perhaps weren’t so scrupulous didn’t have to worry that over-charging, or under-performing, would result in diminishing business. But those days are well and truly over. We all know that there is currently a huge influx of new funeral directors, all of whom come into the industry believing, quite rightly, that it is possible to provide the exact same standard of service (or better) that traditional, established, funeral directors do, but at a fraction of the cost. For any funeral director to believe he can continue making 2, 3, or perhaps even 4 thousand pounds in profit per service, when another down the road might accept less than 1, is fool-hardy in the extreme. It is perfectly true that the quality of the cheaper services will sometimes be poor, but as countless disgruntled consumers will attest to…you can pay top rates and receive even worse.

It is telling that the vast majority of NFFD funeral director Members are relatively new to the industry. They routinely tell us they have been shunned, and in some cases had their businesses and reputations subversively sabotaged by their more-established peers within the trade. Why should this be? Is it because their attackers think it’ll cause the competition to fail and disappear, thus restoring the old order whereby they can continue charging more or less what they want without fear of being challenged? The theory the NFFD prefers is that these incidents are borne out of a genuine, heart-felt, concern that cheap services, conducted by relatively inexperienced operators, might damage the reputation of the wider, established, funeral industry. If that is indeed the case, then wouldn’t it be far better for established funeral directors, using the NFFD as a link, to offer the benefit of their skills and experience to actually help these new firms? That way, the established, traditional, slightly more expensive providers could make a good living catering for the element of the market that is willing and able to pay for a bit more luxury, while the cheaper, newer firms could cater for those on a more limited budget. The whole effect would be to increase standards at both ends of the spectrum, and lower costs for those poor unfortunates who currently can’t afford to give their loved ones a respectable send-off.

Though we applaud the work of the NAFD and SAIF and understand the public credibility both bodies bring to firms displaying their logos, we realised that the NFFD’s comparative lack of history means we must instead offer our Members something useful in a practical sense if we are to distinguish ourselves and move closer to our ultimate goal. Contrary to the opinions of some commentators here, the NFFD is, currently at least, a not-for-profit organisation. For a nominal fee of just £25 a month to cover running costs, our Members enjoy exclusive access to a range of tools and services, all of which are designed to help them stay as competitive as possible without compromising the values and traditions that must always be the independent funeral director’s most marketable features. Our services include:

  •       Free funeral management system (including automated invoice generation)
  •       Low / 0% finance facility on all funerals and funeral related products (subject to status)
  •       Free use of our ingenious online ‘Candle Memorials’ service.
  •       Free, enhanced, advertising on the Funeral Directors Register
  •       Free service stationery
  •       10% discount on all Funeralstore products (including  body-bags at £1.99 each postage paid!)
  • Rights to sell SafeHands Funeral Plans (admin fee just 1%, plus you can draw down an instant deposit of anything up to £500!)

But we’re not just here to help those within the funeral industry. We receive countless calls from members of the public concerning issues of funeral quality and affordability. There is clearly growing consumer awareness that many funeral directors’ fees are wildly disproportionate to their costs. It was in response to this that we created the Fair Price Charter. In essence, it is a database of independent funeral directors who, by subscribing to the Charter, confirm that they are willing to conduct a standard cremation (hearse / 2 bearers / service) for a fee that we

noname (1)agree is ‘fair’ both for the funeral director and consumer alike. We do not publicise the fee, as that could compromise the director’s ability to charge more on other occasions when it is perhaps appropriate to do so. However, to learn what the fee is please click here. to complete a contact request form. Fair Price Charter subscribers are provided with a web-link and enhanced advertising on both the NFFD and Funeral Directors Register (www.funeraldirectorsregister.com), plus certification to display in their premises. But most usefully, we will signpost to them any enquiries we receive from members of the public seeking the most affordable services in their local areas.

It was for similar reasons that we created the Funeral Directors Register (www.funeraldirectorsregister.com). In addition to being a simple public information service, the Register acts as a single point of reference where members of the public can leave feedback about the quality and value for money of the services they receive. The same concept works brilliantly in the travel and hospitality sectors, so just imagine its potential in the funeral industry where it’s even more important to consumers that they make the right choice first time! We are currently investing heavily to bring the Funeral Directors Register into the wider public domain, so make sure you claim your company’s listing today so you can replace the generic filler text that currently populates your entry. To register your company, or to claim your company’s listing click here  Contrary to what some commentators have suggested, it is completely free to appear on the Register. You do not have to join the NFFD, nor do you have to subscribe to the Fair Price Charter, but if you do, then your company’s listing will appear towards the top of the search results in your local area.

The question has been asked ‘who are the NFFD?’ For the record, our team comprises a non-executive Managing Director (David Latham), an executive director (Malcolm Milson), an Operations Manager (William Eccleston), two IT specialists (Peter Bennett and Emran elBelushi) and an Administrator (Mandy Peters). Our registered headquarters is in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, although for logistical reasons we are based primarily at offices in Wakefield. As a not-for-profit organisation, our success is owed, in part, to our ability to deliver our services digitally and provide our ongoing support and aftercare remotely. For £25 a month, you won’t get Chairman’s Balls I’m afraid,  but you will get a suite of practical, useful, no-nonsense services and 24 hour support, which, if properly utilised – will more than pay for themselves!

We also enjoy a close working relationship with SafeHands Funeral Plans, who, thanks to our support and influence, have become the UK’s fastest growing funeral plan company. SafeHands operates on exactly the same premise as the industry’s other leading plan providers in so much as their plans can be allocated to any independent funeral director. Funeral directors who sell SafeHands Funeral Plans are at 3 distinct advantages: 1) SafeHands plans are proven to be the least expensive on the market, making them more affordable for the client to buy 2) because SafeHands charge an admin fee of just 1%, it means the funeral director receives a bigger sum at the point of death than they do through other plans 3) funeral directors can draw down an instant deposit of anything up to £500.

One anonymous commentator on the GFG has implied, libellously, that SafeHands plan-holders’ investments aren’t secure. In response, the SafeHands Trust, which is held by the HSBC bank, is managed by Pitmans (PTL) Trustees – a firm of specialist pension trust managers based in Leeds, and is administered by Gordons LLP. Drawing on the NFFD’s expert knowledge of the industry, its growing bank of ambitious members, and ability to present a sensible, reasoned, unarguable, case when offering business to the few independent funeral directors we encounter who do initially consider declining, SafeHands enjoys a 98% first-time plan acceptance rate. Even better than that, to date, there have been no complaints whatsoever from plan-holders or their families regarding the services they have received.

Another commentator asks why SafeHands Funeral Plans are not registered with the Funeral Planning Authority. There are numerous reasons: Firstly, despite the FPAs claim that it is “staunchly independent and impartial in all its dealings”, due-diligence reveals clear conflicts of interest between members of FPA’s executive board and members of the boards of the funeral plan companies that the FPA currently endorses. Also, because the FPA (just like the NFFD) is a self-regulatory body there is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any funeral plan company to be FPA registered. Lastly, though the NFFD and SafeHands recognises there is some merit to FPA registration as a means of providing consumers with ready confirmation that a funeral plan company adheres to a certain set of standards and values, given SafeHands is a professionally run and managed organisation, they feel perfectly capable of demonstrating their adherence to those same standards and values themselves, without having to resort to 3rd party assistance.

If you would like to learn more about SafeHands, the SafeHands Trust, or the Trust Managers, then please go to http://safehandsplans.co.uk/trust-us.php

I hope there is enough here to satisfy any doubters that the NFFD’s mission is entirely honourable and that everything we do is in the best interests not just of ourselves, but the wider independent funeral industry and its consumers.

The NFFD is currently offering all prospective new members a FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL of all its tools and services. To apply, please click here or call us on 01937 919045.

Thank you for your kind attention and we hope to serve you soon.

Yours sincerely,

David Latham
Managing Director

01937 919045
07792 693289

4/6 Bridge Street
Tadcaster
North Yorkshire
LS24 9AL

 

 

 

noname

Just checking

Friday, 25 April 2014

Man writing on the paper in the office

 

In the good old days, death happened before we were ready for it. It struck untimely. Now, it creeps up, perhaps getting to us long after we have timed out.

Which raises the question: when is a timely death?

Journalist Matthew Parris is not alone in contemplating old age with trepidation. In a recent article he asked “How long do you want to live?”

It is a question my generation are the first in modern history to be asking ourselves in very large numbers. We ask it because we are among the first to expect — again in very large numbers — that our lives may be prolonged past a point when we may want or think we ought to live.

We will ask it, too, because we are the first generation among whom a majority no longer believes that suicide is a mortal sin.

I’ve decided to write myself a letter to be opened at the age of 75 and thereafter revisited annually. It sets out my criteria for carrying on. These are the criteria for me alone and I don’t apply them to others, who must frame their own.

Dear Matthew,

To the following eight questions a box is to be ticked, “yes” or “no”. The answer to some may obviate the need to ask some others. If the answer to either of the first two questions is “yes” then brush this letter aside and live on. If the answer to both is “no” then read no further, and reach for the razor blade.

1 Do you still, on balance and taking good times with bad, enjoy being alive?
2 Is there anyone else whose life would be devastated by your death?

The final six questions are not critical, but they may help you to decide in case of doubt:

3 Are you still of any practical use?
Are you more or less of sound mind? — in which case who is the prime minister, and multiply two by nine then subtract seven.
5 Are you more or less in possession of your physical faculties?
6 Are you still curious about the world? Can you get on a plane?
7 Behind your back, do people pity you?
8 Can you justify the cost to others, to the NHS and to your country of staying alive?

Full article here.

New trade assoc sides with consumers

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

fair-price-charter

 

The National Federation of Funeral Directors, “a professional, self-regulated body, committed to increasing consumer choice and cost transparency within the funeral industry,” has become very active lately.

It has launched Funeral Directors Register, which claims to be “the UK’s only comprehensive funeral care resource … a single point of reference for consumers seeking funeral directors reviews, reputable, qualified, and approved funeral director services.” It has ambitions to be the industry equivalent of TripAdvisor and will be backed by television advertising.

It is also “leading the way in revolutionising the independent funeral industry”. One way in which it is doing this is through its Fair Price Charter, which it invites funeral directors to sign up to. Those who agree to charge “a fee that the NFFD confirms is fair and reasonable” will get “a web-link and enhanced advertising on both the NFFD website and our new Funeral Directors Register stating that your pricing strategy aligns with the principles of the Fair Price Charter, but we will also signpost to you enquiries that come in from members of the public seeking more affordable services in your local area.” 

 

 

Dead loss

Thursday, 17 April 2014

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The Co-op’s stated aims

  • To be a commercially successful business
  • To meet the needs of our customers and the communities we serve*
  • To respond to our members and share our profits
  • To be an ethical leader
  • To be an exemplary employer
  • To inspire others through co-operation

Co-operative Group results 2013

Overall loss: £2.3 billion

Funeralcare sales for 2013 £370m – 3.4% up on 2012.

Underlying F’care operating profit increased 3.3% to £62.1m.

In 2013, F’care opened 16 new funeral homes, invested £3.1 million in crematoria development and £9.5 million in its fleet of vehicles.

In December, a new website was launched to allow customers to purchase, as well as manage, a pre-paid funeral plan online.

More whitewash here

“Those directors are now locked in a defensive mindset which makes intervention by the Bank of England and the Treasury all the more likely in the end. The walk-on part of Lord Myners is, I fear, no more than a sideshow in the slow procession towards the crematorium of this once great institution.”
Martin Vander Weyer in the Spectator

*One in five people struggle to pay for a funeral

The gravestones are laughing

Thursday, 17 April 2014

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In Winwick Churchyard by Josh Ekroy

 The gravestones are laughing. They tilt
at each other’s shoulders, droll tears of lichen
blotching their honourable faces. Seated in uneven
rows in their auditorium they note church-goers
squinch the gravel path to the embossed door.
Some lean backwards in mock amazement,
others forward, study the half-mown grass
or slap their thighs, whisper behind their hands —
only one stares in vertical — at man that is born
of woman, a joke they refuse to explain.
But the upright rectangle between the medlar
and the lych-gate, marbled in its twenty-first
century is excluded from the pleasantries,
is bullied after lights-out by the listing seniors,
its jar of wilting pansies the butt of scorn.
A much missed mum and nan? Don’t
make them lurch. Get real: become obscure.
An ancient resident is so amused he’s face down
on the turf and you can hear the subterranean
echo of guffaws, no sleep allowed in this dormitory.
Better have a witty answer when they taunt:
got any pubic moss yet? Wm. Blott, born
Oct 3rd,1756, died it’s not clear when, affects
a desire to know. So does his wife Mary
or is it Maura. Sissy Sally Evans, d. 2006,
has years to go before she stoops to see the joke.

Making the best

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

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From Being Dead Is No Excuse:

Southern women always want to look their best — even if they happen to be dead. Our local undertaker, Bubba Boone, understands this. We brag that Bubba can make you look better than a plastic surgeon can, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations. He did an outstanding job on Sue Dell Potter, a retired waitress. Sue Dell expressed a strange desire to go into the ground looking exactly as she had in her long-past waitress days. We went to call on Sue Dell at the funeral home and — lo and behold — she sported a big, teased bouffant and, unless you’d known her back when she was waiting tables and flirting up a storm, you’d never have believed it was Sue Dell. But we feel certain that Sue Dell was smiling down from heaven (with her now fire-engine-red lips) and thanking Bubba for his excellent work. 

In the [Mississippi] Delta, we are blessed to have before us a fine example of helping the dead put their best foot forward without actually lying. We have been doing this for a long time. In 1905, Joshua Ridgeway was shot and killed in a bar-room brawl in front of the old Hotel Greenville. For his tombstone, the family selected “Blessed are the peacemakers”. It was an inspired choice. While it doesn’t actually deny that Mr Ridgeway died in a vicious gunfight, it does imply that he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and might even have been engaged, unsuccessfully, into trying to talk the others into laying down their arms. Of course, they would have known better to have fallen for that. 

Is the Co-op arranging its own funeral?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

co op 590 x 296 copy

 

Co-op woes have filled the business pages of all our newspapers in recent weeks. The accelerating degenerative disorder afflicting this once-great business has caught them all on the hop, running to catch up. For years its sacred-cow status seems to have protected it from rigorous scrutiny. In the minds of pretty much everybody the Co-op was other, different, ‘ethical’ — intrinsically ‘better’. No one, from right or left, saw it coming. Euan Sutherland, from right up close, couldn’t see that it was ungovernable when he took it on. Nor did Lord Myners anticipate the rejection of his rescue plan. No one is now saying I told you so. It’s a mess.

Once you begin to unpick the byzantine governance structures of the Group, you discover that it hasn’t been democratically led for years. So, what to do for the best? Well, you can look at John Lewis and Nationwide and reckon that, yup, if a plc-type executive is good enough for them, that’s probably the way to go. But it’s a point of view disputed by many who have devoted their lives to the cause of co-operation. Even among true believers there is no consensus, even about what a co-operative business is for. 

Do you know? Test yourself, if you want. Tick the correct statement:

*  A co-operative is a business nominally owned by its customers and run on their behalf by worthy people who do good works with the profits.
*  A co-operative is a collectively owned business that gives some of its profits to good causes and supports political change.
*  A co-operative is a business where people work together to achieve a better deal, a better organisation and a better future.
[Source]

So the muddle goes on, bringing the Group closer to the time when its banks step in and — it’s a real prospect — begin to break up the business. In the latest development, the workforce, through the Unite union, has begged the Group to lay off the “petty politicking and putting livelihoods at risk.”

Where to go from here? In an astonishing statement, Ben Reid, ceo of Midcounties, now says: “I often say if the Rochdale Pioneers came back today, they wouldn’t be in food, because food is already well served.” This is the same Ben Reid who backed the disastrous acquisitions of Somerfield and Britannia. ‘The Co-operative. Crap At Food.’ Whatever next? Funerals?

You may think so. We don’t. We think that the funerals business is ideally suited to a social enterprise model. Dignity plc shows us what happens when a business regards funerals as nothing more than a market to be exploited for the enrichment of its shareholders. A better deal for bereaved people is about more than affordability, it is about welfare. It is about needs and values. It is about sensitivity to social change. It’s about the way we treat each other. And the good news is that some independent co-operative societies are quietly addressing this agenda.

Co-operative Funeralcare is full of great people. This could be a great business, one that does well by doing good. But given the bickering chaos in Manchester and the institutional incompetence of the Group, ground zero is now beginning to look like the best place to start again.

 

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