Storm in a teacup

Charles Cowling

You may have seen the story in the papers. Briefly, a Salisbury undertaker (1 hearse, 1 other vehicle, a Rover estate) arrives at his funeral venue in Tamworth, 150 miles away, and looks about for somewhere for his staff and himself to take a break. He tries the church. Locked. He tries the cemetery. No luck. By this time they are all probably crossing their legs and whimpering. They are in a strange town. So they drive to a supermarket. The staff go in and pee and buy tea. The undertaker sits in the second vehicle, two cars away from the hearse, and makes a call on his phone. He feels it would be disrespectful to make a call from within the hearse.

As he does so, inside the supermarket cafe, two women storm over to the table where the staff are sitting. They have seen the hearse in the car park. They are outraged by the apparent abandonment of its occupant. Their outrage is exacerbated by the fact that the staff are drinking tea and eating cake. They feel this makes the abandonment even more disrespectful.

I don’t know about you, but I feel for the undertaker. This sorry tale has gone round the world.

There’s almost enough in this one story alone to enable a clever academic to write a doctoral thesis about British attitudes to death. The dead, the bereaved and those who care for the dead are firmly expected to inhabit peripheries. We don’t want them in the community, do we?

But to go to the heart of this: what’s respectful and what isn’t? Dammit, it’s an elaborate etiquette that takes in phone calls and cake. What about the jaw suture?

Read two versions of the story here and here.

I’d love to know what you think.

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Charles Cowling
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Thank you, everyone, for a bumper crop of brilliant comments, all of them informative and thought provoking. Highly appreciated.

Antler, I’m not against the jaw suture, it’s only a personal opinion. What people want and need is rather more important than what I think. But I do think it’s one of those things that people need to make informed decisions about.

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[…] story of the tea-drinking, cake-eating undertakers which caused such ire a few days ago (read it here), here’s a US undertaker up to much of the same , if in a far more downmarket […]

Antler
Guest
Antler

Sigh – so many points…thoughts…comments to make. I guess a busy supermarket car park was a bit unwise under the circumstances, but what on earth has happened to our society when we can’t cope with the sight of a hearse with a coffin in it? Why oh why didn’t the Funeral staff take it in turns to visit the loo, so that there was someone in the hearse with the coffin at all times? Couldn’t the coffin have been transported on the lower deck and placed on the upper deck at a convenient location before the funeral? (Most Hearses have… Read more »

andrew plume
Guest
andrew plume

Gloria – speaking of Harrods – they did of course used to have their own in-house funeral department, as did a fair number of the other House of Fraser department stores nationwide but when Mr M Fayed took over control, it was felt that a f’d ran operation didn’t fit in too well with his own ideas, so they were sold off….but not to an independent (but of course)

gloria mundi
Guest

The response of two women does not, necessarily, a reliable generalisation make. But the story may show up interesting things about cultural attitudes towards dead bodies and the people who deal with them. FD is a tough job, seems to me, and their only error was, perhaps,a lack of forethought and a full appreciation of our alienated view of human mortality. Job advert: “wanted: FD’s assistant – must have huge bladder.” So sympathies to them. It’s a commonplace, but a valid one, that the professionalisation of death has isolated most of us from the physical realities of death – this… Read more »

andrew plume
Guest
andrew plume

Charles – IN Newman Ltd have an excellent reputation and Ian Newman is I am sure (judging from the amount of business that they receive as Salisbury’s leading independent)entirely a very good and trustworthy egg – it’s all a storm over cake at Morrison’s – this wouldn’t have made headlines (if one could call it that) if they had visited a Waitrose and I should stand back from making comparisons between those who shop at the two stores

Graveyard bunny
Guest
Graveyard bunny

I don’t know about you, NB, but I’ve certainly never detected a whiff of the divine at Morrisons..

Norfolk Boi
Guest
Norfolk Boi

Strange, isn’t it. You can carry into church the day before and the deceased is left unattended overnight. I suppose when you do that God is looking after them. But isn’t God everywhere?

Kingfisher
Guest

I didn’t realise you’d blogged this Charles. I left a lengthy thought on Dying Matters’ facebook forum about the same thing yesterday.

https://www.facebook.com/?sk=lf#!/DyingMatters/posts/124155947661179
(it’s towards the bottom of the page!)

james
Guest

Are we undertakers the undead, who never need to pee or eat or drink or fill up with petrol? Apparently so, in our culture. So I too feel sorry for the Funeral director. However, it is a fact that we really cannot leave the coffin unattended, and the (wonderfully righteous) indignation of the public is probably deeply rooted in antique graverobbing fears. I’d rather they were in the caff than inside/outside the hearse. But the sight of four undertakers drinking tea and eating cake at their table would not have been a pretty sight; I think this is really what… Read more »

Jon Underwood
Guest
Jon Underwood

@ Vale

Love that idea!

Vale
Guest
Vale

The depth of the taboo here is interesting. We say that art can no longer shock us, but imagine the horror that would ensue if a campaign of street art was started that left coffins in public places or enacted mock burials (or cremations) in parks or on – say – roundabouts. A job for Banksy? Certainly better than a messy bed pour epater les bourgeois…

Charles Cowling
Guest

Thanks a lot for that, NB. Good to have a FD’s eye view.

Norfolk Boi
Guest
Norfolk Boi

Much as I have sympathy for the FD in question, this is a reminder that as the industry has set itself up as being the custodians of the dead then it does have to be seen to do the job.

I can assure the FD in question that this will blow over, and it will have very little, if any impact on the long term future of the business. I speak from experience here.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Do a jaw suture in a public car park and I can grasp (if not go along with, for what I hope are on these pages perfectly obvious reasons) the outrage. But as Charles seems to imply, there are things we would rather not know even if we did know them, if you catch my drift; and the treatment of the dead is one of them. We prefer our illusions, and shedding light on them doesn’t go down in a death-or-anything-else-denying society. Perhaps what we need is funeral exhibitions in car parks, town squares and other frequently inhabited public places,… Read more »