Knowing you knowing best

Charles 3 Comments

Yesterday I drove to Norfolk to meet Anne Beckett-Allen and her husband Simon. It was well worth every mile of the journey. They greeted me with warmth and kindness. They took me somewhere nice for lunch. And we chatted – oh, about death and funerals, mostly. What else?

Anne and Simon have been notably successful. They have opened five funeral homes in five years; they’re doing fine. Theirs is a partnership made in heaven (or thereabouts). Anne was born into the funeral business, worked for several of the big corporate outfits and now revels in the freedom of independence. She is intelligent and she knows how to make a business tick. Simon is an electrician by trade and a builder of considerable talent and taste. He has converted all of their funeral homes brilliantly. He is a funeral outsider, so he’s able to come at things from a client’s point of view. Both Anne and Simon are people of great heart.

As always when I meet funeral directors I become aware of the severe limitations of being an ideas-driven commentator. Things always look so much easier when I’m sitting in front of my keyboard. I put it to Anne and Simon that the most perilous occupational hazard of funeral directors is not formaldehyde vapour but, if they are intelligent, paternalism, and if they are dim, self-importance. Funeral directors of all sorts come to reckon that Undertaker Knows Best. The brighter ones want to give you the funeral you need rather than the funeral you want; the dimmer ones give you the funeral everyone else has because there’s only one way to do a funeral. I know, as a celebrant, that I am increasingly inclined to boss my clients about.

There’s an upside. A brilliant natural burialist, whom one might typify as paternalistic, told me of the time when a family came to scatter ashes. They reckoned something perfunctory would do (it was their dad and they didn’t like him). The natural burialist stopped them cutting it short, told them there was more to it than that and invited them to speak. There was a long, agonising and awkward wait followed by an extraordinary and cathartic vocal outpouring of rage and love. It was exactly the right bossy thing to have done.

I talked to Anne and Simon about this business of exploring choices with a client, especially opportunities for participation. To me, sitting in front of my screen, there’s absolutely nothing to it. Just give them the info. What could be simpler? It may take more time and make things more complicated but it’ll make for a much better funeral.

And they responded that it’s not as easy as that. You have to take into account the mindset and emotional state of the client – what sort of people are they, what can they take in? Rupert Callender supports this: making a client aware that they can, say, come in and wash and dress their dead person can create in their minds a feeling that they ought to, even though they really don’t feel up to it – a feeling that they may be letting their dead person down.

So it’s a fine line, isn’t it, between offering choice on the one hand, and Undertaker Knows Best on the other?  Given the emotional state of the bereaved person in front of you, you need to be incredibly careful and empathic. No two people are the same, so there can never be a best practice.

I drove home musing on this, reflecting on just what an incredibly difficult job funeral directing is. And of course I reflected on the occupational hazard of being an inky fingered commentator. You can so easily turn into a glib, opinionated smartarse.


  1. Charles

    Always good to know about excellent practitioners.
    Enjoyed your subtle, modest and reflective commentary.

    It IS a challenge to listen properly and be really in tune with what might serve, juggling humility and wisdom.

  2. Charles

    I see no sign whatever of your turning into a smartarse, Charles. But this is an excellent post, because I agree with every word, so it must be good – what was that about being opinionated?

    Rupert’s point about the sensibilities of bereaved people – extremely vulnerable to suggestions even when they are not meant – is entirely right. I think we (celbsters) have to make very swift and sensitive judgements about this. We may be able to get a “better” (more honest, more cathartic) funeral for a family by opening possibilities in front of them, we may merely make them feel guilty about things they don’t feel up to doing or even listening to.

    The natural burialist’s intervention sounds inspired – it could have gone horribly wrong, possibly even not visibly wrong, but the sort of wrong that can simmer along underneath a family’s normal conversations afterwards…but in the event, it sounds barve and effective.

    There’s been some good discussion about “personalisation,” which doesn’t of course necessarily result in a funeral that does its job, it can provide an emotional short-circuit. It’s providing a unique and effective funeral that matters. Setting out to make it “personalised” is a bit like when Mr Balir used to say “Y’know, I’m an honest sort of guy, and…” Uhuh. We’ll decide that, thanks.

    A unique funeral may be more or less quirky, decorated with reminders of the dead person or not, but it doesn’t set out to be “personalised,” it simply is personal. We always strive to provide the right funeral. Sometimes we almost succeed.

    Juggling humility and wisdom, as Kathryn says, is the only way to get near it.

  3. Charles

    Rather more food for thought than a mind can digest at one sitting. No one can know what’s best for someone else, and of course a family often doesn’t know that for themselves, especially in a culture where even funeral bloggers like us can’t come up with a definitive purpose for a funeral – most often it happens because it’s expected, because it didn’t occur to anyone to question its existence, let alone its function.

    Perhaps we do need to be more assertive in letting a family know what we’ve learned from experience works best in genersal, and leave them to reflect on that. You don’t go to your travel agent and tell him where the sun shines brightest, but you don’t expect him to decide your holiday destination for you.

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