Let’s make the case for funerals

Charles 10 Comments

Pic from The Green Funeral Co website


Guest post by Rupert Callender, owner of The Green Funeral Company


Often this blog can trot nicely along with the usual suspects commenting dryly from the sidelines, a good natured conversation amongst friends. It’s easy to forget it has a wide, international readership, easy that is, until a seemingly innocuous post unleashes a Bay of Pigs crisis, as it was with the recent posting about a rise in Church fees. Suddenly, we were neck deep in a debate about the merits of secular celebrants, and the rise of budget ‘disposals’. 

Unlike Charles, I didn’t think that the to and fro was particularly unpleasant, but it certainly was enlightening. There is still a large cultural chasm between most funeral directors and the people who increasingly take the ceremonies, and the way down is littered with jagged outcrops of things like class and money and religion. 

 We, and by that I mean all of us who make our livings from what happens next when someone dies, live in interesting times, as the Chinese and Scots curse has it. Our industry is in the tightening grip of big business, our economy is in meltdown, and most unpredictable of all, an unexpected blip in the death rate has meant that funerals are scarce. People will go to the wall, and often not those that Darwin would hope would. 

The debate about budget funerals has been the most interesting. Anyone who offers a funeral service will have been asked to quote for one. The generous transparency of people like Nick Gandon has explained to me exactly how they can offer such an astonishingly cheap funeral. The combination of mortuary facilities in the crematorium, and a flexible realistic approach from those who run them mean that Mr Gandon can offer people a seriously cheap, no service body disposal. More power to him for being able to react to the market. 

We can’t, even though our overheads are much cheaper than most. We are really not a product driven company. We don’t have a hearse as standard, or a vast range of coffins. The product you get is my wife and I.  Our professional fee is honest and clear and rarely varies, and never more than a couple of hundred pounds either way, though I would hasten to add we are still considerably cheaper than most of our competitors for all of our funerals. But our market share is small, so when someone comes and asks for a no service funeral we quote as best we can, but it rarely can compete with the budget service. 

And this is what the customer wants, isn’t it? Times are hard and the days of religious certainty are long gone. If people want things to be taken care of quickly and efficiently without their presence then they have that right, don’t they? 

When we have helped people to have this kind of non funeral, there have often been rumblings in the wider family and community. The impulse to mark and record this event cannot be fully sublimated by economic concerns. We have experienced what we can only describe as “pop up” funerals, taking place alongside the simple practicalities, friends and family gathering in our premises for what seems like a chance to see the person and say goodbye unmistakably crystalising into a spontaneous ceremony. Unless the person who has died was particularly disliked, people want to gather with their body one last time. A ceremony without the presence of the body is a vastly different beast from one with, and to throw away this chance for a few hundred quid seems to me the opposite of a bargain. 

I don’t blame funeral directors for trying to accommodate these wishes. Despite the deeply entrenched hostility towards funeral directors that surfaces even on the pages of this enlightened blog, it is a bloody difficult world in which to make a living, and whatever they need to do to carry on is understandable, and don’t they say that the customer is always right?  We live in fear of being seen as exploitative and paternalistic, a stereotype which unfairly haunts us in this age of unscrupulous life insurance companies, bonused bankers and intrusive government, it is hardly surprising that some funeral directors are betting that the next big thing will be no thing, literally nothing, and have decided to make a virtue of necessity, and become, in essence low key removal men. 

But in my heart of hearts, I know this is wrong, that we are colluding with a public who, in the face of  spiritual uncertainty and the opportunity to avoid something so painful are choosing the easiest option, and that in doing so we are doing them and us a huge disfavour. 

I became an undertaker and a celebrant because the grief I had avoided turned toxic. The funerals I didn’t go to had much more power over me than the funerals I did and had influenced my life in ways it took years to fully understand. I honestly believe, and I am sure most funeral directors agree with me, that there is no way around grief. It can be displaced for years, decades even, but sooner or later, and of course it is usually sooner another significant death in your life forces you to go back to the beginning and face your original wound.  So what happens to these people we are excusing from the difficult task of saying goodbye to those they love? I believe that more often than not, they will come to regret their brisk efficiency, or worse, never realise the impact and influence it has had on their grief. 

We are into an area that most funeral directors will think this isn’t their territory. Words like ritual and ceremony make them uncomfortable, and traditionally have been the preserve of the priest but the truth is that the pulpit has been empty for a while now, and secular celebrants, good or bad have moved in to occupy it. The withdrawing of conventional religion does not mean that ritual becomes less important, quite the opposite, and funeral directors, marked and lined by our awareness of mourning and bereavement are exactly the people to be helping to create something new. 

Perhaps another strand of what is happening is people’s increasing dislike of crematoriums, and avoiding them and the funeral is a two bird one stone offer that is just too tempting. 

We did a funeral last week in the function room of a bustling drinker’s pub in Plymouth, much to the relief of the deceased’s family, who wanted to honour his wishes to be cremated, but were dreading visiting the place. The actual cremation happened the next morning. The funeral wasn’t expensive, but it was deeply satisfying for all who attended, filled with spontaneous gestures like everybody forming two columns in the narrow downstairs room to pass the coffin along between them. This meant more to everyone there than a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Working out that this was a good thing to do wasn’t difficult, but neatly highlights the benefits of being both undertaker and celebrant. 

Perhaps this is why we embrace the idea of natural cremation or funeral pyres with such enthusiasm. Here is a chance to strip things back, both in terms of technology and ritual. When faced with something so profoundly simple and elemental as a huge fire in a field, then the lines that seperate celebrant and undertaker, mourner and professional may well blur, and we may find that the doing has become the meaning. Won’t cost much either. 

So I urge you undertakers to stand up and enter the debate, to argue your merits and put your case forward. If you believe that you make a difference to the bewilderment of a family, if you have ever made a suggestion which has transformed a funeral and helped people move successfully beyond this most traumatic of human events then now is the time to speak, before we find ourselves in a place devoid of meaning and participation, squeezed between the pre-paid homogenised ‘personalised’ funeral of the big boys and the budget operators, where the only measure of a funeral is how little it cost. That would be a tragedy.

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11 years ago

it’s so easy to make a difference – as a celebrant I was once sitting with a family, mostly woman and they started to talk about who could carry the coffin and they all automatically put forward names of brothers, uncles, sons etc – I asked if any of the women would like to carry? Can we do that, they asked!

It was lovely to see on the day of the funeral, 2 sons and 2 daughters carrying the coffin and to know that something so simple really made a difference to that family.

Nick Gandon
11 years ago

Hello Rupert, and thanks for the mention. I’d never thought of myself as “generously transparent” before…. I really must do something about that! It’s a funny thing, but I’ve never considered my offerings to be aimed as a ‘budget’ funeral, which I suppose it is. I certainly don’t intend to ‘undercut’ other undertakers. What I offer and provide is a different service – one that caters for people that have perhaps never wanted all the regular ‘trappings’ of a traditional funeral. I try to honestly price the service according to the facilities provided and the costs involved. Because of these… Read more »

11 years ago

This post articulates a dichotomy that I wrestle with as a funeral professional. The measures that must be taken in order to keep a business afloat in an economic cesspool seem to threaten our ability to satisfy the most basic human needs that exist when a life ends – needs that the modern consumer quite often does not anticipate or acknowledge. Reconciling the two seems almost an impossibility and, at times, forces us to sever our professional obligation to offer services that accommodate the desires of an increasingly mobile and price-conscious consumer with our personal obligation to give them something… Read more »

Ru Callender
11 years ago

Thank you Susan, nice to know that you are wrestling with it too in the US. Sounds like you have a handle on it, certainly a good awareness. And Nick, I thought it sounded a bit too generous of a crematorium.

james showers
11 years ago

Yes indeed – a very brave and valuable issue to tackle. I felt deeply aligned with most everything you said, Ru. Great comments too. I will always put forward the possibility that the no-funeral funeral could be tailored so that it avoids the horrors some folks have of ….. well, you name it: dragging crem curtains, sad-faced funeral pro’s bigging up their workaday role, hectoring minister, slack celebrant etc etc. Some families simply do not know they can have a funeral all their own way. Others know for certain that they do not want to even see the coffin. So… Read more »

11 years ago

Can you clarify please Nick as your comment about the crem fees can be taken a couple of ways. Are you saying that you do NOT have access to a cheaper rate or that you do and it is available to all FDs if they ask? Why should a person responsible for arranging the required dispose of a body, when there may be no family or friends to attend a ceremony or where the deceased has instructed that there should be no viewing, ritual or ceremony have to pay twice what they need to? Isn’t it great to know that… Read more »

Nick Gandon
11 years ago

Happy to clarify, Rosie.

The early morning rates that we utilize are available to any funeral director or applicant.

The crematorium is an exceptionally friendly, professional and well-run site. They have already complied with all the latest abatement regulations.

Their charges are realistic, certainly when compared with other similar facilities, however they stipulate that all coffins received at the crematorium must enter through the chapel and progress via the catafalque. I have absolutely no argument with that dignified requirement.

Hope that helps…

Ru Callender
11 years ago

Our local early morning rate, only available on 2 of the 6 crems we use is 30 pounds cheaper. An early morning cremation actually takes longer and uses more fuel, the cremator has not warmed yet. Busy crems are happy to fire it up earlier, slower ones less so. I love the idea that you only have to ask them and they will lower the price. Also, in all of the 6 crems, the only way for the coffin to enter the building is through the front door and onto the catafalque. As I understand that is a health and… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
11 years ago

Rupert, thank you for this post. I showed it to Keith yesterday and we are both fairly blown away with the eloquence and the passion. I think we are truly lucky to have people like yourself and your wife in this country constantly challenging us to raise our game and challenge our assumptions. Even if we continue the way we were, once we have genuinely thought something through it is no longer an assumption. As I believe I have said before, I am very new to the funeral world. I sometimes think that I am lucky in this respect in… Read more »

Ru Callender
11 years ago

Thank you Jenny. You’re clearly no slouch yourself!