Undertakers seek to be well thought of in all sorts of oblique and coded ways. Instead of proclaiming a USP and telling the world why they reckon they’re the best, they do stuff they hope will have a spin-off. Much of this has to do with cosying up to their target market, the old and infirm. So they sponsor bowls competitions and hope to flog a few pre-imminent-need funeral plans. Or hold schmoozy sing-songs in care homes. The olden folk shed years, let themselves go, have a lovely time, led by the twinkle-eyed undertaker at the keyboard, Grim Reaper as Pied Piper. You’ve got to chuckle—death is a sovereign provoker of mirth—but you’d be wrong to be cynical. There’s no shame in doing well by doing good, none at all.
One of my local undertakers has tried out two new oblique marketing initiatives in the last year. The first is sending out silver stars to relicts, on which they are invited to write messages, send them back and have them hung on the undertakerly Christmas tree. What sort of uptake do you think that gets? Let me tell you, those stars come back in droves. Lots of people don’t actually pop in to see their star—but it clearly gives them comfort and joy to think of it in the companionship of everybody else’s.
The second new initiative was pioneered last year: a carol service. Again, there was an unexpectedly big response which, this year, tripled. There was even one woman from out of town, visiting, who heard about it and came along too. Venue? The garage, freshly painted; chairs courtesy of the sea scouts; singing turbo-boosted by the hospice choir; unsightly areas curtained off by sheets of Crem-film (customarily used to line coffins, but what the eye knows nothing of, the heart does not recoil from). It was as multi-faith as it could have been, but too big a gulf to bridge for our many Muslims. I was asked to be the MC on account of my non-aligned status. That was a mistake. I have no presence of mind in such situations, nothing of the Dermot O’Leary (memo to self: you can’t put in what god left out). I foozled and hashed it, frankly. But the evening was a huge success in spite of me. Our C of E clergy were as inclusive as only the C of E can be, lovely people and incredibly hardworking. One of them declaimed “Do not stand at my grave and weep” as if it were a call to arms. I had no clue what he was really thinking.
I don’t know that I could have predicted that this tentative PR initiative would establish itself as an important annual event. That it has done so is certainly testimony to the quality of an undertaker whose premises do not carry associations of surreality and utter dejection.
But it also meets an important need. Forms and observances. Rituals. Coming together and fellowship. Active commemoration. Vital.