Posted by Charles
So badly has the image of the co-operative movement been damaged by Co-operative Funeralcare it’s easy to forget that, actually, the model of co-operation retains both its beauty and its potency.
A bunch of people come together “to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise,” in the words of the International Co-operative Alliance here. It’s an old and resilient idea characterised by periodic renewal and resurgence. Look at the growth of, both, credit unions in recent times, and the community-owned village shop movement supported by the Plunkett Foundation here. Burial societies probably originated in England. The most notable now are the burial societies of Jewish communities — the chevra kadisha — here.
In some commercial sectors co-operation doesn’t seem to work at all any more. Supermarkets, for example. On the Isle of Portland, The Co-operative Food enjoyed for years the nearest thing to a monopoly. When Tesco opened in competition last summer it was marvellous to behold the good, working people of the island blinking in delight at the vaster range of choice and far lower prices – before deserting the Co-op in droves; our two Co-op stores now stand shunned and empty. Moral: when you can no longer enable working people to buy things they would not otherwise be able to afford you render yourself, if you’re a co-operative, pointless. Butt out.
The Co-operative Group is a disappointment. And we look for things to celebrate here at the GFG, so we are pleased to recommend the small, Edinburgh-based Scotmid Co-op Society’s funeral service, admirably run and entirely ethical, here, and we have our eye on Clydebank Co-op which, in a sideswipe at The Co-operative Group, we understand, describes itself as a ‘real co-op’ here.
No, there’s nothing wrong with the model of co-operation. But applied to funerals in an altogether more radical way than it is now, it seems to me, it could actually cause a beautiful revolution in attitudes to death and bereavement. In order to bolster this theory I set off in search of examples and inspiration before testing it on you.
I visited the US. There are very few funeral proper co-ops over there, but there’s one you might like to check out here.
There’s a group of funeral co-ops in the west of Canada dedicated to enabling people to have funerals which are ‘simple, dignified and affordable’. From what I can see, none of these co-ops does more than contract with local funeral homes to provide such funerals, and they set great store by having no business relationships with the funeral industry, as you can see here (click About). There’s a consumer activist element to these co-op societies– here. And there’s an idealistic element, of course. But the financial benefit seems, disappointingly, to be the big attraction – here. Members get the best deal, non-members pay more. Check out the Memorial Societies of Canada here.
In a different league is the Prince Edward Island Co-operative Funeral Homes group in the east of Canada. Here we have seven funeral homes, each belonging to its own society with its own membership, board of directors and history. The big difference? Each society employs its own staff in its own funeral home. Here’s a typical story, from Hillsboro:
In September of 1992 the funeral coop held its first funeral and the second followed in November. As well in the fall of 1992 the first space was rented in the Bunbury Mall and from there the Hillsboro Funeral Cooperative continued to grow.
In 1993 a ten year old hearse was purchased and in 1994 a van was purchased. As well in 1994 the negotiation for the current site were completed and in the fall of 1997 a sod turning ceremony took place with the completion of the building in January of 1998.
In 1999 a position of General Manager was created and on August 27, 1999 Vince J Murnaghan commenced employment. In 2000 a 1987 hearse was purchased and an additional 1.02 acres of land was purchased to allow for further expansion.
Find the Prince Edward Island Co-operative Funeral Homes here.
There is some advice from the Fédération des Coopératives Funéraires du Québec on how to start a funeral co-op here.
It is good to see communities take responsibility for the funerals of their members in this way. And it points up a difficulty that conventional funeral directors have in this country. They all want to demonstrate communitarian values, but that’s hard to do if you’re an undertaker, which is why so many of their community enterprises consist of little more than writing cheques. Sure, this is good news for lots of deserving causes, and it would be harsh, though in some cases accurate, to describe this community activity as nothing more than stigma-dispersal and ingratiation. We reflect, here, that while in all cultures those who deal with the dead are to a greater or lesser extent sidestepped, in Britain they are relatively well integrated. But, here’s the point, do any of these community initiatives actually involve communities in helping the bereaved in a way I once proposed they might, here? I still think they could. This is part of what I wrote:
I suspect that there are lots of people who would welcome the opportunity to do good voluntary work for the bereaved. Many people who have been bereaved want to use their understanding and experience for the benefit of others. Helping others helps them.
Some bereaved people don’t drive and need to get to the registrar, the bank. Some of them have never had anything to do with the household accounts; others have never cooked for themselves; some are skint; some have lawns that need mowing; some have never been alone before… Almost all are too blown away to think and act at anything like full effectiveness.
So there is a role for drivers, advisers, social fund form-fillers, cooks, hooverers, phone minders and listeners. And there are lots of people out there who would do this for the sake of it – who would, indeed, not do it if they were paid for it. They would also play an important part in joining up the funeral home to mainstream society.
A real funeral co-op could do all this. There isn’t one, anywhere, that does – yet.
Here in Britain we retain one huge advantage over our transatlantic cousins: ours is an unregulated industry; there’s no requirement for a co-op to employ a licensed specialist funeral director. An ‘anti-social’ characteristic of funeral directors is that they deal only in death, and this marginalises them. Far more loveable is the undertaker who does something else, professionally, as well – a bit of building, writing and broadcasting, landscape gardening, organ playing, waiting at table, accountancy, craft pottery – whatever. A funeral co-op could employ part-timers on a rota and train willing members of the community to look after dead people – which is not that hard. There are masses of people presently looking for work in the funeral industry. Salaried staff are a must, staffing no problem at all. Celebrants could be better integrated into the process.
A funeral co-op, with its volunteer army, might adopt a policy of encouraging family participation in all aspects of arranging the funeral. This might include saying to a family, ‘Right, you need to take these papers up to the crematorium with a cheque,’ and, best of all, ‘When are you coming down to wash the hearse?’
Finding premises is never going to be a problem. But here’s an idea: in both urban and rural areas pubs are striving to broaden their appeal by becoming community resources. Well, here’s something else they can do.
A funeral co-op can bring death back into a community in a most enriching way. A knotty problem is that, although the co-operative movement was started by working people, it appeals mostly, now (when done effectively), to middle-class folk, especially those of a liberal outlook. So from where I sit, in working class Redditch, I contemplate an uphill struggle. Yet were I to travel 20 mins up the road to Brum’s egghead boho quarter, Moseley, I reckon I could get this up and running in about an hour and a half. A funeral co-operative is something that all sectors of the community must feel they want to buy into (literally). It mustn’t become a nice little hobby for ‘our sort of people’.
Enough for now. Some of this is almost certainly nuts, none of it offensive, I hope. I’d be interested to know what you think, of course.
Hey, wouldn’t it be good to get those Rochdale Pioneers grinning in their graves?