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?