It’s got to be a baby boomer thing, has it, this new wave of funeral directors whose most distinguishing characteristic is that they are nothing like (old school) funeral directors? Not necessarily. I can think of some who have not come fresh to funeral directing in middle age. This is not exclusively a counter-culture thing. These new funeral directors are radical, for sure, but not in an angry or iconoclastic way. They have not spurned funerary traditions, they have simply left them standing. They are thoughtful and intelligent. And for those people who do not want a full-on religious funeral, they join up the care of the body of the person who’s died to the creation of their farewell ceremony; they can do both. There is immense value in that – especially to baby boomers, who have reinvented more or less everything they have encountered throughout their lives, and now, with their parents and not a few of them standing on the brink of eternity, are beginning to give to death culture the sort of makeover they once gave to youth culture.
Two such new-wave funeral directors are Simon Smith and Jane Morrell of green fuse contemporary funerals. They have a funeral shop in Totnes where people drop in and chat about funerals. I’m always interested to know what these two are thinking. So when I heard that Simon had been given an hour slot on the Carl Muson Show on Exeter’s Phonic FM I just had to find out what he’d said. By dint of employing those devious and menacing investigative ploys which have made the Good Funeral Guide the impressively terrifying consumer resource it has become, I managed to obtain a CD of the show by the underhand expedient of asking Simon nicely to send me a copy, which, because he’s the most agreeable of fellows, he was kind enough to do.
The show centres on Simon’s playlist of what he reckons to be really good songs to play at a funeral – “the ones I want to introduce others to, not the most popular.” The songs are interspersed by chat.
The chat covers all manner of thought-provoking areas. The absence of rules around funerals – the fact that there are hardly any (so long as you do not outrage public decency). The importance of families participating “to the extent that they can … we see ourselves as permission givers.” The suggestibility of the newly bereaved, and the importance of “offering them choices, not channelling them.” The way that a death alters status within a family, a community, a workplace. The way it alters titles, too – a daughter becomes an orphan, a husband a widower.
Reflecting on his work as a celebrant, Simon says, “We don’t quite meet a lot of very interesting and fascinating people.” It reminded me of something Garrison Keillor once said: “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”
Considering the number of people who are not signed up to a faith group, whether religious or atheistic, Simon reckons that two-thirds of the population is currently not being catered for.
He talks about the denialist effect of two world wars on attitudes to death (everyone had had enough of it) and attitudes to dead bodies (ditto). He talks about the importance of death being “part of life, not tidied away,” and the value of spending time with someone who’s died: “The funeral doesn’t pass in such a blur if people have spent time with the body.”
He concludes with a wonderful quote: “We’re always standing on the edge of loss trying to retrieve human meaning from something that’s precious that has gone.”
Here is Simon’s playlist. Open Spotify now and type in the following:
You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor
Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum
Amazing Grace – Elvis Presley (“People start swaying to that.”)
You’re The First, The Last, My Everything – Barry White
My Sweet Lord – George Harrison
Samba Pa Ti – Santana