Storm in a teacup

Charles 16 Comments

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.


  1. Charles

    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, to expose our fears to light, which they don’t thrive in? Not the sanitized Fcare telly ads version that promises to hide fear, but a real campaign to disempower it.

  2. Charles

    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.

  3. Charles

    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…

  4. Charles

    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 upset these women.

  5. Charles

    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?

  6. Charles

    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

  7. Charles

    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 nonsense bears it out yet again. In other parts of the world….

    Vale, please get in touch with Banksy and make your inspiring suggestion. He could be funded by one of the alliance organisations looking to change our attitudes towards mortality. That would be conceptual art worth pursuing.

    I like the idea that a posher shop would have produced a different response…maybe staff at Harrods would have said “and will there be anything for the stationary gentleman in the vehicle?”

  8. Charles

    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)

  9. Charles

    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 this facility and a phone call to a local FD would have surely provided a place to make the transfer – as well as somewhere to have coffee/loo break)…Or, are we really living in a society where Funeral Businesses are always ‘rivals’ so do not help each other out?

    Charlie, I know you are completely obsessed with what you see as the evil nature of oral sutures, but you clearly have not had enough experience of trying to pacify traumatised bereaved people, who on visiting the dearly deceased relation/friend in hospital found that they had been left with mouths gaping…

    I am hoping that when I eventually die, someone skilled will do an oral suture on me, so that my nearest and dearest are spared looking for my non-existant tonsils.

    Until we get death back in our homes and in our lives, people will never understand it or accept it as a reality, but talking about it isn’t quite the same as experiencing the death of a loved one – or caring for ones own deceased relatives.

    We all do death differently – sometimes our way causes others to be upset…the main thing always is to try to do ones best under the circumstances.

    Going back to the hearse in the car park – I guess this is what they thought was the best option!

    @ andrew, I worked for Harrods from 1980 to 1985 and as far as I was aware they didn’t have a funeral department then – it closed before Mr F took over…..

  10. Charles

    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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