A Good Send Off

Charles 3 Comments

A Good Send Off was the title of this year’s Centre for Death and Society (CDAS) annual conference. Well, part of the title – the snappy part. In full it read: A Good Send Off: Local, Regional & National Variations in how the British Dispose of their Dead. It took place last Saturday in Bath.

For the GFG this was a great day out. For £25 we got a full day of talks about all things funereal with a very good lunch thrown in. The turnout will have been gratifying for the organisers, I hope. Their warm welcome, typical of CDAS events, was appreciated. If you’re not an academic, and you know you do not have the cranial contents to be one, it’s reassuring to be put at your ease.

Academics sometimes speak a variant or dialect of English which makes them incomprehensible to ornery folk. There was little of that. Cleverness levels at these things can sometimes climb so steeply that we ornery folk fall off the back of what they’re talking about. There was little of that, either, but you’ve got to expect a bit; these are mental weightlifters after all. As for the papers, there are normally a few which unpack research into fields so rarefied that you can only wonder what on earth led the researcher there. A sprightly 20 mins on, say, the iconography stamped into funeral biscuits in a remote Yorkshire village, 1807-1809. Not the sort of stuff us non-acs can take away and use. There was none such. I regretted that.

There were too many highlights to describe in a blog post and too many talks to attend: so many that they ran alongside each other (in different rooms, of course). Let’s just focus on the groundbreakers: the natural buriers and the forward-looking undertakers.

Simon Smith and Jane Morrell from green fuse contemporary funerals do things differently from most funeral directors and they get different results. Okay, so they work out of Totnes; they wouldn’t be doing quite so many funerals like this in a working class industrial town like Redditch. But they offered persuasive evidence that their way of working has broad appeal to the sort of people – hands-on, self-reliant, not deferential to convention, not necessarily educated middle-class – who do not want to be relieved of the duty of caring for their dead and creating their farewell ceremony; rather, they want to play whatever part they feel they can. Inasmuch as they have little idea what they can do and whether they’ll be up to it, their exploration of the options under the guidance of the funeral director is vitally important. In the words of Simon and Jane, “This demands the funeral director actively listen to the client in order to understand the values and reality of the family and the community, to pick up on their needs and desires.”

Together with their clients, Simon and Jane collaboratively create send-offs which are demonstrably transformative of grief; send-offs which yield some truly remarkable statistics:

  • Of funerals arranged for people over 70 years old, 69% are cremations compared with a national average of 72%. But for those under 70, the figure drops (alarmingly if you are a cremationist) to just 35%
  • Most green fuse funerals are conventionally religious or broadly spiritual, and here comes the next astonishing statistic: of the over-70s, 28% opt for a non-religious or atheist ceremony but in the under-70s that figure plummets to just 9%.
  • In both groups only 7% opted for professional bearers.
  • Among under-70s, 42% opt for a trad hearse and among over-70s, 55% opt for a trad hearse. I thought the figures would have been lower.

For me, Simon and Jane made their case: if funeral directors interview their clients carefully and collaboratively and have a discussion with them which is values-based, not merchandise-based, they find themselves not only doing things markedly differently but also in a way which produces far higher levels of satisfaction. These are real funerals which make a real difference to people. But they take much, much longer to arrange and to perform. Can they pay for themselves?

There were two excellent papers on natural burial. One was given by Melissa Stewart of Native Woodland (featuring James Leedam on slide projector). She took us through the many sorts of natural burial ground we now find in different parts of the country according to topography and population density. We tend to think of natural burial as generic, but it most certainly is not. Some of these grounds are surrounded by miles and miles of open country; others by housing estates and busy roads. In aspect, they span the sublime and the _______________ (use whichever word you think applies.) Thank you, Melissa, for a brilliant neologism: treestone, n — a tree planted at the head of a grave.

Another paper, by Jenny Hockey and Trish Green of Sheffield University, looked at, among other things, how some people who opt for natural burial do so out of sense of rootedness in the place they have chosen to live, and as a demonstration of that. Out of this impulse, and because their identification with a particular place is such a strong descriptor of their identity, comes a sense of continuing existence after death, a sort of immortality, as if the self remained embodied, sleeping on in the evergreen, forever a part of the place. Thus is a natural burial ground a sort of dormitory of the dead: “He’s here.” This is in complete contrast with a local authority cemetery, where the dead go to be just that: dead. Any sense of their continuing existence always locates them somewhere else.

Now, I’m not at all sure that that is what they were saying, but it’s the idea I came away with. And it’s easily tested. I would hazard a guess that when the living talk to the dead in a conventional cemetery, their words fly up. But when they talk to their dead in a natural burial ground their words fly down. Anything in it? I really don’t know. Probably complete nonsense.

At the plenary session at the end there was a lively discussion of taste in memorialisation items and the legitimacy of grave visitors imposing their own taste by clearing away stuff left by others. The natural buriers came in for some unmerited stick here (and I apologise for the way I fluffed my own response). The whole point about true natural burial is that there is consensus about how the ground should look: people have made an informed choice and bought into the unspoilt, ground-zero concept. Grave visitors have both a right and a duty to keep it looking as it ought.

It was great fun, at Bath, to meet so many friends and to make new ones, and to come away with one’s head a-buzz with ideas. This was a typically inclusive event, and I would urge anyone with an interest in funerals, especially funeral directors and celebrants, to go to the next one. There weren’t nearly enough of you. I can understand any misgivings you may have. Well, these academics may be terrifically brainy, but they’re also very kind, human, hospitable and even interested in what we have to say.

Why, when the day was over and I discovered to my dismay that I had left my bank card at home, who was it who galloped to my rescue with a pound coin for the parking meter? None other than Professor Walter himself. Thank you, Tony. It was a lifesaver!


  1. Charles

    Thanks Charles for a very informative and interesting summary, full of developmental ideas as well as a little nonsense about your own cranial capacity!

    I think your idea of words flying up or going down, sense of place and continuity, is particularly useful.

    It would be helpful to know if the greenfuse figures are markedly different from what one might expect nationally – surprising indeed, my lazy assumption would have been that the young are increasingly godless! Or is it that when a family is struck by the calamity of a young death, they return to something that used to comfort them and maybe still can? I guess younger people may be less likely to stipulate things about their own funerals?

    But maybe in the end this stuff is unknowable. We should just get on with the best funeral for each person, using the information and insights provided by you and others to get better at doing so.

  2. Charles

    Re natural burial and sense of place, here’s a version of the same impulse in a Guatemalan immigrant to the US: “More than 1,000 miles away from her native country and in the midst of her grief, Mrs. Esquivel had to figure out how her four daughters and mother, who still live in Guatemala, were going to see Mr. Vasquez again. There was no doubt that he was going back to the country where he was born, she said.”

    Echoes here too of the African American homecoming.


  3. Charles

    Hello, thanks for a good summary of the day, sadly couldn’t be there. I work as part of Arka Funerals based in brighton, we are one of the most experienced natural funeral directors. In answer to your question, wondering whether the method of working in the way Green Fuse does actually pay? (Who we very much respect) It does indeed! We are turning over a very healthy profit, employing nine people, arranging funerals for the middle and the working classes. We just ensure profit isn’t our driving force and so don’t take on too much work which would limit the care we take with each and every family.

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