What I Want From A Funeral Director

Charles Cowling



Posted by Gloria Mundi


Another opinionated passage from a sometimes-frustrated celebrant. Please remember – it’s only my opinion! So with apologies to some wonderful funeral directors I know, here goes.


I am not anti-funeral directors. I think their job is frequently stressful and demanding in ways the rest of us may hardly understand. Also, some of them (a small minority?) are open to change, and to new ideas. 

But here are a few practical suggestions and thoughts I’d like to offer to the others, because for as long as we continue to have separate funeral directors and celebrants/ministers, we really do need to get our act together.

1.     You are in a controlling situation. You phone me to tell me there is a family who might want me to work with them. That’s how it is, mostly. OK. But I want to work with you. I am not just an “additional disbursement.” In effect, I personify what the family wants for the ceremony, at this stage.

2.     If I work well, it reflects well on you. So if you care about the quality of a funeral service, you should very much care about how I do things and why. Don’t call on me because I’m convenient; work with me because I’m the right one for that family. If I’m not, then call on someone else. Please use your discretion and your judgement. You’re not just a handler of bodies and supplier of limousines. As we move towards the right, unique ceremony for these people, you’re my co-worker. Aren’t you?

3.      I know it’s a bit nerve-wracking getting the right “slot” at the crem, but will you do two things please? One – just check with me first, rather than saying “I’ve got one for you next Tuesday at 11:00.” My time may also be under pressure. Two – please get an idea about how many people might attend, and if they have any ideas about the nature of the funeral, so you can, at once, book a double time allocation if it’s needed. We can’t get 130 people in and out and have a satisfactory funeral with contributions from several people, plenty of music, a hymn and some poems in twenty rushed, anxiety-filled minutes.

4.      In fact (this should be number one) please talk to them as soon as possible about how they might approach the funeral, i.e. put the ceremony at the centre of your meeting. You see, and I’m sorry if this sounds patronising, but some of you don’t seem to get this – the sort of coffin, the announcement in the newspaper, how many cars (if any) are wanted, the flowers, the crem itself– ALL this is not the priority. It should come out of the kind of funeral they want, the sort of people they are, the sort of life that has just ended. And here’s a thought – even if there is a cremation to be carried out at some point, you can have a funeral somewhere other than a crem! Do you discuss that with them? No, I didn’t think so. Well, I can. Of course, if you’ve already booked the crem and they’ve told everyone the day and time before I can get near them, then we’re on rails again.

5.      Please don’t take a faith position as default mode for the family and the funeral. I know some of you do. “Would you like me to phone the vicar? No? Oh, well, I know this woman who can…” People without a lot of cultural confidence may well think they should fall back on the vicar, because it is somehow “proper.” Actually, that’s a bit tough on the vicar, I’d have thought. We all want to be wanted! I’m not default mode, nor is the vicar, wonderful though she may be. See number 4 above. Surely the question should be “And how much help would you like with the funeral? I’m in touch with secular celebrants, vicars, priests…” etc. And BTW, please be wary of the term “humanist.” It means little to most people, and can be confusing. If someone is or was really a Humanist, you’ll probably be told so.

6.      If, at the funeral, you sit there looking out of the window, or you are outside chatting too loudly about the football until it’s time to walk forward from the back, you won’t even know what anyone’s ceremonies are like, will you?

7.      This doesn’t often happen, but it has just happened to me, so: please don’t tell them what will happen in the ceremony, and then tell me what will happen in the ceremony, before I’ve even had a chance to meet the family and see what is emerging for them. God dammit, this thing is theirs, not ours! And I am responsible from the moment we start walking forwards at the beginning of the ceremony to the moment I leave. That bit belongs to the family, with me acting for them. I do ritual and ceremony. If you want to, fine, but let’s be clear about who does what, please!

8.      We’re getting to the crux, aren’t we? Please stop selling them a product. Find out about a ceremony, the one that is just beginning to form in their minds. Encourage that formation. Ask them to consider how much help they would like, if any, and from whom. Then phone me, or the minister, or the shaman or whoever you think fits. Then this funeral won’t be one product, with a few adjustable trimmings. We’ll have something unique that may help them for the rest of their lives.

9.      You think I’m exaggerating? Just try asking a family who has had a crap funeral ceremony. “It still haunts me.” And that’s a quote. About ten years after the event. “It was nothing. Meant nothing” Now, is that what you want to deliver?

No, because you are a compassionate human being, so let’s get working. Together. Please?

25 thoughts on “What I Want From A Funeral Director

  1. Charles Cowling
    Simon irons

    When I read your experiences of funeral directors……. I am reminded that 75% of funerals are conducted by Independent businesses and I am guessing that 100% of the funeral refer to were. Otherwise you would have named and shamed co-op or Dignity …… Food for thought……..
    Personally I feel the best funeral ceremony is conducted by someone who knows the family, so if you are relying on an introduction it’s all wrong from the very start…….

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Philip, thanks, you’ve made my day, if not week. That’s great to hear, and if one funeral director finds it helps improve her practice, then that’s very heartening.
    Happy poaching to you, and the very best for your work.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Philip Evans

    Hi Gloria. Thanks for this excellent post. I have printed it off and will ask my new member of staff (just poached her from Caring lady in Brighton – part of Sourthern Coop)tp read and inwardly digest. She’s already heard a lot of similar from me but I think your piece will help to underline how important it is to get this right. Once again many thanks.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Jeremy, spot on. Your last sentence simply abolishes all related issues.
    I applauded the clergyman who on TV (it was Christmas time, years ago)when he was asked if he objected to his church filling up with unbelievers at Christmas and when they married, replied that if they needed his services he was happy to minister to them, because that was what the word means, and in any case, he didn’t know what they believed or not, all he knew was that he didn’t see them more than once a year!
    Seems to me a lot of people, very sensibly, don’t want to turn their backs on the Cheristian cultural and emotional heritage ewven if they wouldn’t take communion because they didn’t believe in “all that.” Many of the families I meet will say “no, we don’t want a religious ceremony, he never went to church, so we’d just like the 23rd psalm and Abide With Me….” rare are the ones who say “he was a complete atheist, so no mention of anything supernatural.” Many are those who want some spiritual-esque feeling to the ceremony.
    I just want them to have what they want and what they need: you or me – or maybe both of us! That might be fun.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Jeremy Brooks

    Thinking about booking slots at the crematorium, I know how difficult it is for funeral directors to be faced with a bereaved family sat in front of them, wanting some certainty about when the funeral is to be, and wondering if the vicar will ever return his or her call to confirm whether or not they are available. So I completely understand why FDs go ahead and book sometimes and find the celebrant/minister afterwards.
    Horrific story David B, about the local Area Dean saying the C of E must be the default position on funerals – report him to the bishop, I say! Those of us who understand the need to offer ‘religion-lite’ in a funeral get so frustrated with colleagues who just give the church an uncaring and officious name. I do think I have something distinctive to offer at a funeral, but bullying my way into getting it seems to show rather a lack of confidence!

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Speaking of which, I came accross a great one in an exam recently…’When Jesus was a stranger the sheep invited him in.’ Of course you know exactly what they mean but it does leave me with a rather pleasant mental image!
    Got you, GM…we are in rather northern parts…feels like we’re away from all the fun sometimes! 🙂
    As for booking slots…I’ve known it to take Keith the best part of an afternoon moving backwards and forwards between the crem, the celebrant and the family reaching a negotiated settlement on about the 9th call. Having said that…we always get there in the end.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Some put their trust in God, others in Darwin, Bryan. And of course it’s perfectly possible to put one’s trust in, both, supernatural forces and natural selection. We have far too many funeral directors at present. There must needs be a winnowing. We must work hard to make sure it’s the goats that get it.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Excellent discussion and one I have experienced many, many times as a funeral director. I always try to concentrate on the ceremony and make all the options available to the family. Just today I arranged a funeral for a young man who was more pagan than anything else. However we ended up asking a Baptist minister to take the service because they both share a passion for motorbikes, heavy metal and fishing!

    But knowing that only comes from two things – finding out more about the deceased and his family than what sort of coffin they want, and having the relationship with the local “options” of celebrant to know a bit about them.

    I believe that times are changing and those funeral directors, clergy, celebrants and all the others connected with the delivery of what the Americans term the “death care industry” that don’t become more proactive in really listening to families and designing a funeral around them rather than to a formula will not be in business in the mid to long term. We can but hope (and some of us pray!).

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    There’s a funeral company not that far from here that conducts around 2500 funerals a year. They never, ever, book a funeral without first contacting a celebrant or minister. If they can do it, how come every funeral director can’t?

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    Excellent post, shame the companies that need to read it, never will

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Good point, James, good response, GM. I do feel for funeral directors when they have to take this calculated risk. Sometimes you gotta book that slot before it’s gobbled by someone else and there’s not another one early afternoon til next Tuesday.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Point taken, James, but then were I in your area, I’d know how you worked,and know that you had a tight little window to open. I.e. you wouldn’t just be doing this to suit your own sense of convenienc, and I’d do all I could to fit. And yes, we have to work on Jo and Joe Public, as well as the Trade itself.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    All good. I am with you all the way – and I hear the scream for some overdue collaboration from more fd’s.
    As an fd open to change, i’d say this has to go out to the general public to have the impact it deserves. From there to the Trade. Via the media. Endorsed by some ‘names’.
    And a plea from me: sometimes there is such a tight, urgent, tiny window for the family, that I will set up the one date that works with huge relief, trusting that somewhere I will find a really good celebrant to get to the heart of the matter.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Er, well Jenny, I’m a bit cagey about location because I have been a bit specific about funerals over on me blog (not for a while now though) and I want to preserve confidentiality. Also a bit rude about one or two FDs. And even a celebrant or two. But here’s a clue – not everyone’s first favourite language in these parts is English….

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Just out of curiosity where (approximately) is ‘up here’? Are you another inhabitant of the desolate Northern Climes?

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Gosh! Thanks everyone. Very heartening, really interesting points.
    1. yes, it’s going to take a long time, but evolution is constant; it is happening. I think I may indeed be preaching to the converted, but if one dinosaur reads this, it may initiate a couple of useful thoughts in the prehistoric noddle. Anyway, we need to gather round the fire for a bit warmth sometimes!
    2. Jeremy, that’s a really sterling idea, I think we should form up little local groups. Trouble is some FDs are very fiercely, even jealously, competitive and will hardly talk to each other, let alone discuss best practice. Fair enough, it is their living, I suppose. And I have to say, so are some celebrants. I’m thinking I might get together with selected FDs and celebrants in my area who are not too close together.
    3. I conrast Jeremy’s sensible and humane approach with David B’s wretch of an area dean. There is no default position is there? Other than what each family wants.
    4. Jenny, I’m delighted you do what I was pleading for – would you like to pop up here and see if you can infect many of the local FDs? A good hard bite on the bum might do it…but you are right, in the end, it is down to the public. They need to be less in awe, better informed, and more able to face the simple fact of mortality before IT happens. (So, that’s easy, then…)
    5. I wonder if Liam feels the national trade associations are beyond hope? If not, how to get them to put on something useful?

    Enough pontificating from me. Thanks for your valuable comments. I rest my case, m’lud. Your witness.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    David B.

    Hi Gloria,

    Nice post, articulately put and very passionate.

    I work very closely with a local Non- Conformist Minister who takes religious funerals, non religious funerals and the ones that come somewhere in the middle. He gets quite a lot of grief from the local CofE because they feel he is treading on their toes even though the people he looks after are usually not very religious but don’t want to go for the non religious option “just in case”.

    Last year I got a visit from my local Area Dean to tell me to stop using the Baptist for funerals, he was visiting all the local funeral directors. As the CofE IS the default position for funeral arrangements and should remain so.

    I wonder if any other FD’s feel this sort of pressure regarding celebrants. Also it may explain how some FD’s behave towards yourself.

    As you say, my Non Conformist friend makes me look fantastic when the family leave at the end of the service and thank me for “the best funeral they have ever been to”. And I always start my arrangements with “So what sort of funeral do you think you would like?”

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    Jeremy Brooks

    Loved the post GM – thank you. As a Church of England vicar, I know what you mean about being told when and where the funeral already is, before checking with me if I am available! At least, if they want a church service first, they have got to ask before confirming everything!

    I have to say that increasingly, I don’t think the faith position is the default position of undertakers. I think people feel embarrassed to use the vicar when they have not been very religious in life – and clearly when celebrants provide a good service, you will get repeat business!

    As local vicars in my neighbourhood, we hope to meet with undertakers as a group and express some of our concerns. Is there scope for other groups to get together and do likewise? I think the concern of all of us is to support families in a time of grief and give them hope and help them give thanks for their loved one and say good bye in a fitting way.

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Hi, GM. Wonderful post, and I couldn’t agree more. I do agree with Kingfisher though that in this forum you are preaching to the converted somewhat! Certainly everything that you mention we do as a matter of course and always have done (for the staggering 7 months we have existed that is, you understand!) Hopefully the more the ‘public’ begin to understand that they are consumers with rights and that they are in charge, the ones that don’t do these things will ‘evolve or die’. Not going to happen overnight though….not sure how to get the message further out there.

    Charles Cowling
  20. Charles Cowling

    An excellent article Gloria. Refreshingly honest and heartfelt. You also seem to have a very good insight into the type of rail road approach that sadly so many funeral directors/arrangers fall into. I agree with Kingfisher about the most effective means of getting your valuable and important message through. However, I`ve yet to see too much hard eveidence of any of the industry`s associations or other representative bodies, taking a pro-active approach to much needed changes in attitude. I mean, heaven forbid that they may upset some of their members for the sake of a good cause, not to mention the potential loss of such members fees or drunken verbal attacks at National Conference!!

    Charles Cowling
  21. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Then we’ll have to take them head on, won’t we? Or rather, try and gently lead them to a better way of working, by suggestion and example…or maybe even to say “I won’t be working with you any more, because…” Any celebrants done that recently, and like to tell us why?

    Charles Cowling
  22. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    A fantastic read, thank you. It makes me happy to know that there are people like you out there, Gloria Mundi, trying to change things for the better. All power to your elbow!

    Charles Cowling
  23. Charles Cowling
    Melissa Stewart

    Great article. I agree with Kingfisher though. The types you are talking about don’t have any desire to change and don’t read up.

    Charles Cowling
  24. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Wow! Big thinkings, Kingfisher, I like that! It could well need some major “let’s upset a few well-established applecarts in order to really get improvements going” – type initiative by some big hitters.

    I did feel a bit uneasy sending this one in to GFGHQ, because exactly as you say – the ones I want to change may be a lot less likely to read the GFG blog.And I didn’t want to offend or hurt the feelings of those who are good at working with celebrants, etc etc. So thanks for your forbearance.

    Charles Cowling
  25. Charles Cowling

    An excellent post indeed GM.

    What I find sad is that, I would guess, the majority of funeral directors reading this will already approach the arrangements from at least some of these perspectives.

    The ones who need to read it, will, I suspect, not look at this website (almost by definition?)

    So … how do you get your excellent points to the people who it ought to be hitting? A mass mailing, backed by the IoCF, the BHA, the GFG, even the CofE? Would that work?

    Charles Cowling

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