Funeral directors as social entrepreneurs?

Charles 7 Comments

Yesterday I wrote about the two problems that most bedevil funeral directors. First, in the public perception, they offer poor value for money, a charge of which they are, most of them, innocent. Second, they may feel that they occupy a marginalised position in society because people wonder what’s under their fingernails. As ever, it was the comments that yielded the best thoughts. If you missed them, read them.

Undertakers need people to stand up for them and tell them as they are. And a very good suggestion comes from a comment on this blog in the Houston Press. The writer is talking about what bereaved people need most:

[O]ne thing that would have been really helpful would have been someone to answer the phone and the door, and keep the kitchen in some semblance of order. We had DOZENS of phone calls every day for over a week. Next time we’ll know that if someone asks, “Can I do something for you?” We’ll say, “Yes, would you mind coming over for a couple hours on Wednesday to help out.” I think there might even be a business opportunity in this for funeral homes to offer, and retired people — who know how to answer the phone, and have been through a few funerals — would be ideal for this sort of duty. My father-in-law and I have actually discussed starting a service like this.

I don’t go along with the business opp line. I think that would spoil it. But I do suspect that there are lots of people who would welcome the opportunity to do good voluntary work for the bereaved. Many people who have been bereaved want to use their understanding and experience for the benefit of others. Helping others helps them.

Some bereaved people don’t drive and need to get to the registrar, the bank. Some of them have never had anything to do with the household accounts; others have never cooked for themselves; some are skint; some have lawns that need mowing; some have never been alone before… Almost all are too blown away to think and act at anything like full effectiveness.

So there is a role for drivers, advisers, social fund form-fillers, cooks, hooverers, phone minders and listeners. And there are lots of people out there who would do this for the sake of it – who would, indeed, not do it if they were paid for it. They would also play an important part in joining up the funeral home to mainstream society. And they would become ambassadors for that funeral home, for they would testify to the excellence and humanity of the funeral director and his/her staff.

Few funeral directors are likely to find this proposal attractive. They are more defensively secretive than they think they are. And they are uncomfortable with any activity which might seem to subvert or subtract from their pre-eminence in the arrangement process.

But if they think about it, were they to have a little band of handpicked volunteers they would, by offering an enriched service, greatly enhance their prestige.

It takes confidence to relax the control freakery and embrace collaboration. But good funerals are created by communities, not martinets.


  1. Charles

    That is such a worthwhile idea, Charles. I’m thinking I might sound out a couple of FDs round here and see what they think. Might start by chatting with a female FD (sorry if that sounds sexist)who is also younger than most, see what her view is. I think it needs to be someone with a local community profile, which she has. And I entirely agree – volunteers only. The only business advantage would accrue to the FD, because if volunteer co-ordinators (or whatever) directed their efforts through the better (more empathetic, sensitive, efficient etc) FDs then word would soon get round…
    Or should it be a free-standing offer? In which case, how do you reach people?
    What do Rupert and Claire think, what would greenfuze think, I wonder?
    More questions than answers, sorry – but a great idea.

  2. Charles

    I’m glad you like it, GM. I believe it to be very strong, and your response heartens me because if it is a runner a great deal of good can come of it — humane and intelligent FDs can create much social capital at the same time as boosting their bottom line.

    Any FD initiating such a scheme would have to start small and grow it, yes? Local media coverage would get it off to a good start. Thereafter, a volunteer community could be nurtured and grown through a Facebook group.

    I imagine most FDs would regard this as the stupidest idea on earth — but just a few can’t get it out of their minds. Why shouldn’t it work? Yes, why not?

  3. Charles

    I think that this is a top idea! One of my local FDs (in a wealthy area) offers a “house sitting” service for when the funeral is happening – I don’t know how many burglaries have happened during ceremonies, but I think that quite a few people take up the offer.

    Much as I love this idea, I’m worried that bureaucracy, the need for a CRB check and the fear of strangers may mean that it never takes off.

    But that’s no reason not to try.

  4. Charles

    Bureaucracy, yes, good if dampening thought. Needs to be explored. And a CRB check. Ditto.

    And then there’s the danger of signing up busybodies and interfering pests or, in your area (wherever that is), a Raffles-style gentleman burglar.

    But in social networks people are known. And a person’s past speaks for them. A retired teacher is likely to be a good bet…

    If I were an FD I’d definitely be looking to make this work. The impact on competitors could be devastating.

  5. Charles

    I find the idea of a house-sitting service slightly sinister. For some reason it feels like protection money.
    Any good FD sort of offers this already. We have done shopping for traumatised families, even picked up their turkey once.
    Caroline Doughty has written a great book dealing with just this issue. It’s called, of course,”Is there anything I can do?-how to help the bereaved” and its published by White Ladder. Caroline is the chair of WAY, which stands for Widowed and Young a brilliant charity.

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