Rebranding the Dismal Trade

Charles 8 Comments

Funeral directors know that they are viewed with suspicion, aversion, distrust. It’s what they do that lies at the root of this – the dark art of dealing with dead bodies. Yuk.

How different they are from us. We don’t like people who are different from us. But most people express their feelings about funeral directors not in terms of their differentness (though a funeral director in a pub may well elicit a snigger), but of their avarice. They are skilled, too, it is supposed, in the dark art of exploiting people ‘at a difficult time’, filching fistfuls of the folding stuff from their sobbing wallets, the velveteen-voiced bastards.

Whenever people say to me they reckon funerals are too expensive, I ask, “What else could you get for that?” and leave a long silence. After we have listed some pretty untantalising consumer items that you can pick up for between £2500—3000, I ask what they reckon would be a fair price. Not having thought it through, they um a lot. “Fifty quid?” I prompt. “A tenner?” They search for a respectful figure. Hard to find one. It’s not easy to benchmark funeral costs. There’s nothing comparable. And before you say it, no, not weddings. Chalk and cheese.

All funeral directors are not so regarded. Where they are known in their community they are evaluated according to their personal qualities. In urban areas, where sense of community is seldom strong except among gang members, most people do not know their neighbourhood undertaker. In rural areas the undertaker is part of everybody’s daily lives. In the Somerset village of Henstridge, Donald Hinks and his daughters Lavinia and Mandy of Peter Jackson Funeral Services are known by everyone. They are much loved because they are incredibly nice people. And when Lavinia picks up her children from school, there’s scarcely another child whose nan or uncle or whoever has not been cared for in death by Lavinia and her family – and the kids know it. They must have a different attitude to death as a result. Much healthier, more accepting.

Some funeral directors work hard to enhance public perception of what they do. They give talks, hold open days, sponsor a youth football team or, more likely, a bowls match where they may be sure of a demographic receptive to the lure of a pay-now-die-later funeral plan. I am not sure that this goes to the heart of the perception problem.

Over at Pat McNally’s blog there is an account of a good Irish funeral by the brother of the man who had died. Much better than an English funeral, he reckons. Why so? Because “in England our funerals have become sanitised – snatched from families and communities by undertakers who no doubt check their profit margins on Excel spreadsheets.”

There you go. The perception thing. And I can hear every funeral director who reads this blog thinking, How unfair!

Over in the US, where funeral scandals tend to be egregious, unlike in the UK where they tend to be wretched, James Patton, a funeral director, blames the media: “It seems like each day, over the past year, the media has been on the attack against the funeral industry. It is as if we have returned to the days of Jessica Mitford.”

I have a feeling that Tom Jokinen gets closer to the heart of the problem. The funeral director he is working for tells him: “We live in a caste system, where the Brahmins subcontract their problems to the unclean, the Dalit caste, the corpsehandlers.” In other words, what you do is what you are. Untouchable.

I was reflecting on this the other day, up at t’crem, waiting for the hearse. For all my exposure to death I am not reconciled with it, I hate it. And I could never be a corpsehandler. I speak for the vast majority of humankind. But because of my exposure to death, I deeply respect those who do it, and do it well.

It’s the perception of everyone else that needs attention. But how is that done?


  1. Charles

    Deeply civilised post, Charles. I share your respect, for (almost all) the FDs I’ve worked with. Even in a moderate-sized town, in a fairly settled part of the country, the prominent FDs (mostly independents)seem quite well-known, and I expect some of the advantages you mention accrue, certainly with one of them, who is calmer and more sensitive than the other, I’d guess. It must be a big strain making each client feel they are unique and they aren’t just a unit in a busy busy business, if you’ve five funerals that week. Ditto ministers, of course.

    Maybe we’re a bit torn about the cost of funerals. The ludicrous expense (often with a very naff outcome)of many modern weddings seems to be acceptable because it will be “an unforgettable day” for the couple, will help to bind them together (total nonsense of course, they’re in trouble already if they think that), it’s forward-looking, they’ll treasure it for the rest of their lives.

    Now, I – we – believe that a good funeral is also forward looking because of its benevolent effect on the mourners – facilitates their grieving, etc. But perhaps many people just see it as a necessity to be gone through for something that is over, with no future benefit – however much they grieve for the dead person. A bit like paying off your credit card c.f. buying something nice…former doesn’t give much pleasure.

    And then we get caught, because we think we shouldn’t skimp, because it’ll be disrespectful to dear old X, so we’ll have the stupiudly expensive black limo for a two-mile drive that we could easily do in our own cars, or in a cab.

    Then we feel resentful. Over in half an hour, two grand? Aha. We’ve forgotten about the body, haven’t we? That’s worth a few bob, isn’t it, to get that, er..sorted…

    So then there is the corpse-handler taboo, deep down. Like you, I couldn’t, and so I admire those who do. We should always admire those who do essential jobs we couldn’t face ourselves.

    I think the answer probably lies with really good funerals that help with grieving, and with combined undertakers/ministers, like Rupert, Greenfuse, or just really good undertakers, like the people at Peter Jackson. A female (H’mm…) undertaker near here would, I think, have a similar place in her small community.

    People will feel the benefit of a good undertaker/minister/funeral, even when they don’t recognise it at the time.

    All part of our cultural muddle about mortality, dying and death rites. I feel a post coming on. Sorry to ramble.

  2. Charles

    Gloriamundi, Charles; your expressed reluctance to handle a ‘corpse’ is very understandable – but don’t you regret it? Have you ever cooked a dead chicken – was it all that bad? Wouldn’t you have valued the chance to help prepare a few human bodies for a death ritual when you were young, before you had the chance to learn a certain revulsion (if that’s what it is?) to them, as part of the school curriculum perhaps? (I’ve just this minute returned from a ‘Dying Matters’ event where the idea was widely agreed with, amid a myriad more, that schoolchildren would benefit from being accustomed to death. The event was over-subscribed by 100%.)

    As do sewer cleaners, or slaughterhouse workers, funeral undertakers handle something we need but don’t like needing; are even possibly ashamed of needing just because of macabre social attitudes we unthinkingly buy into (my own belief is that if I wouldn’t kill an animal or clean a sewer, I shouldn’t eat one or flush the result down a toilet. If I wouldn’t handle a dead body, I should leave it where it died.) Indeed, every day we expect a right to all sorts of essential services from others that we would never provide for them.

    But every time I arrange a funeral, I put it to the family that they can indeed be physically intimate with the body by, for instance, helping wash and dress it, and they never tell me what a revoltingly subhuman person I must be – on the contrary, they’re unenthusiastic at worst, and overwhelmingly grateful at best for the offer of accompaniment in a beautiful task they never dreamed they had a right to perform for themselves.

    The trouble is we see a funeral as a black hole we chuck money into. Like taxes, something you have to pay without knowing why, but you get nothing back for. Worse than having to fork out for a new gearbox because at least then you’re back to square one afterwards, only a lot poorer, unlike with a funeral where you’re just worse off, full stop. Small wonder if we think funeral directors are rip-off merchants (nice picture by the way!), and we’ve nobody to blame for that. We guide our children away from death as we, still willingly plagued ourselves by the same childish misconceptions fed to us, are struck with horror when it happens to us as if we never thought it would, and we hand a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity over to someone else to deal with. Twice.

    It’s time to turn on the lights, that’s all. Hand the funeral back to its owners, the family and the community, who, but for an unhealthy squeamishness, can do it so much better than we funeral directors and celebrants possibly could. Educate them in their funeral rights (sic) by, for instance, selling or giving them a copy of ‘The Good Funeral Guide’, or ‘We Need To Talk About The Funeral’, and explain we’re only here because they won’t take the job on themselves and that we’d gladly go bankrupt just to live in a society where death is revered and not reviled.

    And remembering that if we’re not in this because we love it, we’d be better off out of it.

  3. Charles

    H’m. Very interesting Jonathan, thanks, and although I agree with quite a lot of it, in places I find it a bit disturbing. Charles, please excuse a lengthy answer.

    The other possibility, Jonathan, is that there are quite profound feelings and instincts that make it hard for us to handle dead bodies. I don’t know. Some societies, including our own back a bit, were very unsqueamish about corpses, very used to them; they were also violent and brutal places to try and live, by our standards.

    I’m unfamiliar with handling corpses, but I don’t know that I ever “learned a certain revulsion,” it feels deeper than that to me, and of course I wish it were not so. I’m not shy of killing animals or handling dead ones, where necessary, though I don’t enjoy it particularly.(If I were thus shy, I would be a complete veggie, so I do see your point of principle there.)

    Perhaps I have a “natural” reverence for life, and find its recent absence distressing?

    Corpse phobia is possibly the simple fear of the new and unknown, in a very powerfully emotive area. The argument from Nature is a difficult one, because we mediate and transform our idea of “natural” all the time, and use the word, too often, simply to mean “something I agree with and want you to agree with.”

    And “squeamish” is an easy word to throw at people who find something difficult. We all have our limits with regard to what we can face, and that will also vary depending on the situation.

    So I wonder if you are risking condescension when you say that it is an unhealthy squeamishness that prevents people from taking over the entire funeral process?

    Much needs to change in our culture’s attitudes to death, but we are where we are, and I’d hesitate before I decided that I knew better than they do what was healthy for citizen A or citizen B. What is healthy is what is right for them, and my job is to find that. They aren’t guinea pigs, are they? Their feelings are as real and important to them as mine are to me.

    Of course we should do more to acquaint our young people with the reality of human mortality, but that’s not quite the same as regarding working with dead bodies as “natural” and the rest of us as “unnatural.”

    I’m only a minister not an undertaker, so I’m pleased you offer the family the opportunity to prepare the dead body of someone close to them, it’s the right thing to do I’m sure, but I can’t offer them that.

    I would always explore with a family how much they feel able to do themselves, but to say to them that I’m only there because they won’t take on the job themselves wouold actually, I feel, be disempowering for them and unkind of me, in many cases.

    They have to be free to decide these things without being made to feel “chicken” because, for example, they really don’t want to speak themselves. I’d rather they did, I’ll encourage them to do so, but I won’t let them feel anything negative from me if they don’t want to.

    It’s not a crusade, it’s sensitive work with people doing the best they can. The front line in the battle to change funereal things shouldn’t be the front room of someone the day after they’ve lost their partner.

    I don’t need reminding that I’d be better off out of the work if I don’t love it. Because I’m not up to embalming people doesn’t mean I don’t love my part of the job. I’m deeply privileged to be able to do it.

    Jonathan, why don’t you blog? I feel bad cluttering up Charles’ blog with responses to your fascinating comments, but I can’t seem to stop doing so!

  4. Charles

    GM, I don’t blog because I have an unnatural, learned revulsion for computers and computeriness in general! It would take me months to learn how to even set up a ‘blog’ (see what I mean?), let alone run it, on account of my snobbish disdain for ‘Information Technology’ culture and language. But I have the utmost respect for the likes of you and Charles who can overcome what is to me a natural reluctance to contaminate myself with the horrible jargon and lingo needed to navigate in this virtual world.

    I’m joking, of course. But give me parchment and a quill pen and I’m off – in fact, spurred by the kind comments of you and one or two others, I’ve started compiling (by means of a trick I’ve recently discovered called ‘Copy & Paste’, it’s marvellous and saves an awful lot of typing!) things I’ve written around this subject to hopefully publish as an anthology one day. A paper one, of course. I’ve got enough for a start at least, so thanks for the encouragement.

  5. Charles

    Jonathan, as one addicted to books and paper, I think that’s good news indeed.

    Er, I think you mean “Cut and Paste.”

    Thus do I reinforce your point about jargon-related mental illness – I’m actually enjoying patronising you about computerspeak, a subject on which I am in fact pretty hopeless myself.

    All power to your quill! I am prepared to admit, in the privacy of the internet, that my preferred method of composition is a black-ink fountain pen and a notebook.

    Now you see why I use a pseudonym – the Microsoft police are everywhere, disguised as computer nerds. Jonathan, run low, run deep, use pens….

  6. Charles

    Jonathan, I too would be very keen to read your anthology – let us know when it’s out.

    Like Gloria, I have a reluctance to deal with the bodies of the dead. But then again, I’m not that keen with the thought of dealing with the bodies of the living, either. Please allow me to explain. Many members of my family are nurses (the fourth generation nurse is due to qualify at any time). I have no end of admiration for the work that they do, the care that they give, and the strength that sees them through a grotty shift.

    However, I know that I would be a dreadful nurse, I would not enjoy the work, or be any good at it.

    If I’m reading Jonathan’s argument correctly on this (and please forgive me, if I’m not), then because I wouldn’t willingly be a nurse, I shouldn’t allow myself to need treatment.

    I have heard of funeral directors who have to deal with things that I would really struggle with (badly decomposed remains etc), but who would do that a hundred times over rather than stand up and deliver the eulogy. It’s good that they are happy to do their bit and I am honoured to do mine.

    We all have different abilities and boundaries. It’s good to stretch the boundaries, and it’s very important that we don’t become to protective of “our bit”, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we don’t want to do everyone else’s job (including the family’s), too.

    Sorry – I’m worried that I am coming across as judgemental – I really don’t mean to, I am a big advocate on the family doing everything that they want to do, and then subcontracting the bits that they don’t want. To whoever will do them best.

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