People like people like us

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Saturday was National Bereavement Awareness Day. Miss it? Whoops. Let me fill you in.

A brainchild of the independent funeral directors’ trade body, SAIF, the day was a marketing tool designed to raise the profile of independents. My local funeral directors, James Giles and Sons of Bromsgrove, held an open day. They’ve recently refurbished, so they had a service of dedication, too, and roped in the local MP. They asked me to come along and talk about what I do. I work with families who don’t want a full-on religious funeral ceremony.

My work ethic doesn’t normally extend to Saturdays and, as I knotted a reluctant tie, I wondered in how many households anyone darkly muttering, “Hey, we can go to the open day at undertakers” was being met by an enthusiastic answering chorus of “Yes, lets!”

I got there deliberately too late for the holy part of the proceedings. Rain was falling unkindly on the horse-drawn hearse in the yard. But inside, the scene was unexpectedly one of warmth and cheeriness. People had come. Lots of them. My spirits woke up. The refurb is great — light and bright and airy. There were even people who wanted to talk to me, so we talked and we considered what the purpose of a funeral is and looked at the options and I wished the Good Funeral Guide was already out there to guide them. They’d been up to the mortuary, seen the fridges, found out what really goes on. It was a true open day — an eye-opener.

There was wine and fruit juice, tea and coffee, sandwiches and sausage rolls. But there was no hush or awkwardness. There was more of a party atmosphere and lots of laughter. It set me thinking.

These guys at Giles and Sons don’t big themselves up in shuddermaking clothes and set themselves self-importantly apart. They’re not trend-setters, either, but they’ll ungrudgingly do anything they’re asked (“so long as it’s legal”). They are friends, neighbours, members of the local community — everyone knows them — and they do what they do with a kindness and a naturalness which makes the business of arranging a funeral normal, natural, so much easier than people dread. This makes an enormous difference to their relationship with, and experience of, death. That’s why people came to their open day: because the Gileses are people like us, and people like us are the people we like. Almost every one who works there is a member of the family. They are the very best sort of family funeral directors.

When people talk about how funerals can be improved, undertakers can come in for plenty of criticism for their resistance to change.  Many of them deserve some. But if funerals are too often bleak and meaningless affairs it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at the undertakers. There are other more influential factors at work. It takes too long to arrange a cremation. Twenty minutes is not enough for a proper send-off. A religious ceremony is an absurd choice for unbelievers. Above all, the bereaved are too content to play a passive role in the process.

Funerals will only improve when informed consumers start calling the shots. When they do, we can be sure about this: James Giles and Sons, and countless other family funeral directors throughout the land, will be only too happy to do as they are asked — so long as it’s legal.

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