Rebranding the Dismal Trade

Charles Cowling

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?

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An Industry Under Scrutiny « James Patton Funeral DirectorsJonathanX.Pirygloriamundi Recent comment authors

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[…] media was the true culprit and somehow was gunning for the industry. Looking back at an article in The Good Funeral Guide, I provided the following […]

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Don’t get me wrong, XP, I don’t want to wade around in sewage; it’s just that I would if it came to it.

X.Piry
Guest

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
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gloriamundi

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,… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
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gloriamundi

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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

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… Read more »