Getting it

Charles 6 Comments

Stick of rock given to a grateful GFG by Alan Slater, ceo National Association of Funeral Directors


People look at the funeral industry and conclude that it can’t go on like this. You’ve probably done it. I have. Come on, we’ve left Victorian values behind (even the Tories), we have moved on from Victorian healthcare, no one reads Walter Scott any more, so how come the undertakers got left behind in that particular timewarp? The whole look of it is just so dated if not plug ugly (your take) and so out of kilter with the spirit of the times. I mean, if we want to celebrate Nan’s life in our gladrags do we really want these gloomy geezers garbed in grief waiting attendance with their carefully arranged faces?

Yes, actually, we do. Until we can think of something better that’s exactly what most of us want. But, by gum, we’re all thinking about it. The howling strategic error of the regrettably ineffectual Dying Matters Coalition was to lead with a stultifying negative: “Death is still a taboo subject for Brits.” No it’s not and don’t tell us we’re crap at talking about it. We’re getting better at it all the time.

Contemplating change, for Brits, means bearing in mind the heritage factor. We like to have our cake and eat it. We like to clutch our iPads as we watch Lancaster bombers fly over Beefeaters and bearskins and Buckingham Palace when thoroughly modern royals get spliced in a timeless way. Even those with mixed feelings about royals are reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Reinvention implies demolition. In Britain, always fearing something worse, we conserve, we list. And we do love a bit of ceremonial, don’t we?

So there’s nothing to be said for berating the poor bloody undertakers for serving up the same old same old. Dammit, it’s what they’re asked for.

At the same time, it is undeniable, is it, that we are at the very fag end of the Victorian funeral? Its elements of ostentation, pomp and very public procession, diminished as they are, don’t fit the modern mindset. It’s remarkable that it’s persisted. It’s remarkable it ever got invented. We’re not a show-offy people, after all, and look, there’s shy, private Nan stuck in traffic at the roundabout for all the world to see through the big windows of the hearse. There is so much that is anomalous.

So you can easily forgive those who have looked at the funeral industry with an entrepreneurial or a reforming eye and sought to set off a bit of kicking and screaming. The entrepreneurs have had a particularly bad time of it. Business orthodoxy, where it has prevailed, has only done so when it has camouflaged itself as its opposite. The consolidators have succeeded stealthily, patchily, and only ever by passing themselves off as same old same old. Deftly done, Dignity.

It was therefore in a spirit of low expectations that I set off for the third biennial funeral exhibition (it’s a trade fair) organised by the NAFD. I went as the GFG and wished I hadn’t, fearing I might be turned away at the door. By an apparent administrative oversight I was let in and, carefully wearing my badge back to front, went looking for the others of the underground who had also slipped under the wire, making my way as incognito as possible through displays of the usual glossy hearses and glinty coffins and stainless steel embalming tables and mortuary trolleys and rows and rows of severed heads where embalmers were having masterclasses in putting Humpty together again. The first time you see it all it makes your head swim, let me tell you. I’m used to it now.

Louise at Sentiment was swarmed. So was Jon at MuchLoved. Mike at Phoenix Diamonds had time just to swap a hasty joke. Liz at A Giving Tribute was mobbed. In the good old days they would all have been standing idle, we’d have had all day to ourselves (a long day). Innovators, lovely people with great products born in their hearts, were also rans.

Something was up.

And to cut a long story short, this was what was up. The funeral directors were getting it – emotionally. They weren’t just there to see what was in it for them (more of the same and a pint with some mates), they were seeing what was in it for us, people who buy funerals. They weren’t looking for what they could flog but what they could add – add to the experience of a funeral as an event which can do so much (if done well) to transmute grief into something more endurable, something even joyous. They kept all the innovators exhaustingly busy. (They enjoyed their pint too, of course.)

And far from finding myself a pariah figure (I remain so to some, I know) there was a startling welcome in the hillside from lots and lots of funeral directors. And I began to feel a bit bad about some of the mean and mischievous things I’ve said about them collectively. They didn’t mind, it was the others I was talking about, they said, they knew that. Truly, this has become an industry of two halves, and the forward-looking half has achieved critical mass. That’s more than half, isn’t it? Woop, as Louise would say, woop (I can’t, not at my age).

Until last Friday my fixed view was that the funeral industry is unaccustomed to consumer scrutiny and doesn’t like it. Well, my mind has done a volte face on that, let me tell you. By day three I was wearing my badge round the right way. I have never talked so much in my life or had so much serious fun with so many brilliant and lovely people.

I’m still taking it in. There’s been a sea change. Cue that Dylan song.


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gloria mundi
12 years ago

How very heartening Charles, and how nice for you to be the bearer of good news to us. You’ve captured so well for us here the balance between what we sort of want, most of us much of the time, in terms of continuity and recognisable, reassuring formality, and the growing feeling that we need to break out. I take my cue from you and selected members of the GFG commentariat in this as in so much else, and I approach family visits rather differently than I used to. But – most people round here (this isn’t Islington, you know,… Read more »

Charles Cowling
12 years ago

Hello, GM, and thank you for popping in. Yes, I too think four songs a step too iconoclastic, but there you go. The rock says NAFD all the way through. I shall never see rock quite the same way again.

12 years ago

Four songs? Four songs? Unheard of, and definitely not recommended. Think of the time it would take. We might be late for our next funeral 20 miles away in 15 minutes.

Someone on Radio 2 yesterday said the undertakers expressed surprise that they had kept their relative at home for 12 hours after death. I mean, that could be considered caring and emotionally valuable couldn’t it? Not the way of death in this country at all …

Rupert Callender
12 years ago

Can’t believe I had to miss it.

Katie Deverell
12 years ago

Sorry I didn’t get to meet you there, was busy on the GreenFuse stand. Came away very energised by possibilities and the definite interest and sea change you mentioned. Watching the Terry Pratchett doc the next day added to the feeling that a change is gonna come! Did you see the guys from flexmort, should make it practically easier to help those who want to to keep people at home. Interesting to see the professionalisation of celebrancy being played out as well. I hope we can build some kind of alliance so that we can lobby for change together and… Read more »

Mark Shaw
12 years ago

Had a very enjoyable weekend at NFE too – (being one of the people described above!)