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.