Charles Cowling

 

Posted by Charles

 

All things pass. In twenty years from now we shan’t be doing funerals as we do them today. Another good reason for not buying a funeral plan.

Incremental change, say a great many reformers, will bring this about. Eventually.

It’s worth keeping a weather eye for radical change, too.

A few of us have been working on the concept of a not-for-profit community funeral co-op. We call our model a Community Funeral Society – a CFS. We’ve been talking to the Plunkett Foundation here about it, and they like what they hear. We’ll be publishing our manifesto shortly – as soon as we’ve got it more or less right.

Yesterday, two of us travelled to Derbyshire to attend a funeral arranged by the Darley Dale Community Funeral Society, which we have been working with since one of its founders read about the concept in a GFG blog post and was inspired to give it a go.

The Darley Dale CFS offers an alternative to the service offered by the commercial sector. In reclaiming the care of the dead and the arrangement of their funerals, the CFS does not look to the past. It is avowedly progressive. Its mission is to provide better value funerals. That means, both, cheaper funerals and, also, funeral ceremonies which bring real emotional and spiritual benefit. The society supports the dying and the bereaved with a range of services to which they would not otherwise have access. Many of these services are performed by volunteers. The society has joined forces with the local credit union to enable people to pre-pay for their funeral. Once they have lodged the funds they get a voucher which their executor can use to buy a funeral anywhere they wish — and keep the change. It’s such a simple idea you wonder why the commercial funeral planners never thought of it. Or do you?

There are many attractive ideas in the Darley Dale CFS vision statement. They want, they say, to ‘bring death back to life’ – a clever use of words and a praiseworthy aim. They want to ‘encourage healthy attitudes to, and positive engagement with, death, dying and bereavement,’ so they have a resource centre and an educational programme. Last Thursday they held a showing of the film Departures.

Sceptics opined that the CFS would never take off because people don’t want to come together and form congregations in the way they once did. The movers and shakers behind the CFS countered with the hunch that people simply need new reasons to come together, and pointed to the success of community shops and community pubs. One of the CFS directors, Mike Selvey, said to us, “The funeral professionals tend to turn mourners into bystanders. That’s not meant as a criticism – they’re trying to be as helpful as they can, but that is actually the heart of the problem. We’re finding that neighbours, community members, relish the opportunity to support the bereaved emotionally when we ask them to roll up their sleeves and do stuff for them. Makes a change from crossing the street, doesn’t it? We find that the bereaved can help themselves a lot by getting stuck in as best they can, too.”

Mike added, “We reckon the model of the CFS creates a very dynamic, 21st century congregation. Where supporting the bereaved is concerned, what goes around comes around. I mean, we’re all going to die, aren’t we? Self-interest plays a big part. When people offer to help, they’re not actually thinking of themselves, they’re thinking of their partner somewhere down the line. ”

Another thing the CFS is finding is that, in Mike’s words, “The bereaved seem much prefer to deal with ‘one of us’ rather than ‘one of them’. What we’re trying to do here is normalise death.”

The CFS intended, at first, to build its own mortuary – a one-off cost, but a big one. Instead, it has made a contractual arrangement with “the one local undertaker, a lovely guy, who loves what we are doing. The rest are either coldly indifferent, sceptical, or downright hostile, but this guy is great, really gets it.” The CFS looks after all funeral arrangements, the local undertaker cares for the body of the person who’s died. Says Mike, “It seems to suit him very well, now that he knows that the CFS is, administratively, a safe pair of hands. And it enables the CFS to give priority to offering practical support to the bereaved and helping them create a really meaningful sendoff for their loved one. We use celebrants for that, and we pay them well for it. Oh, and a group from the local choral society has come together to sing at our funerals. They’ve been talking to a choir in Wales, Threnody, which does it. They’ve been talking to its founder, a chap called Tim Clark, about repertoire. Do you know him?” We agreed that we do.

If the arrangement with the local undertaker breaks down, Mike says, “We’ll bring it in-house. We can always find people to look after our dead – it’s not a rare vocation.”

Based in the market town of Ashfield, the Darley Dale Community Funeral Society serves, also, several surrounding villages, a total population of around 26,500. Mike says, “Out of our population we can expect around 25 deaths a year. Of those, we hope to get about a dozen – roughly one a month. Part of the economic beauty of the idea is that the CFS only comes alive when someone dies. We don’t sit here twiddling our thumbs waiting for the phone to ring.”

Yesterday’s funeral, the CFS’s fourth, was for Norah Baines, who died at home from cancer at the age of 76.

We’ll keep the account brief.

Norah had been married to Ron for 54 years. Her death happened faster than expected. Their only daughter, Holly, was working abroad as a nanny.

Ron called the CFS. When they arrived, they saw that the events of the past few days had caught up with him. He was exhausted and hadn’t eaten.

Ron and Norah had always been a close couple. Their friends in the village were mostly their own age and not very mobile. Ron and Norah hadn’t felt they had much in common with their, mostly, much younger immediate neighbours. Always cheery when they were out, they had nevertheless tended to keep themselves to themselves. But they were known and respected and liked.

In order to tide Ron over the next 24 hours a CFS volunteer came in to help him tidy up and make him a decent meal. The following day, another volunteer came to drive him to the registrar to register Norah’s death. Further short term help was found: one volunteer came in for an afternoon and rang everyone in Ron and Norah’s address book to tell them of Norah’s death (Ron couldn’t face endlessly repeating the news). By the time Holly arrived four days later someone had even popped in to mow the lawn and tidy up the garden, which had been neglected during Norah’s illness.

Ron and Norah had never been churchgoers, so the funeral was held in the village hall. Volunteers had decorated it and helped Ron set up a beautiful memory table for Norah. A good crowd had come to pay Norah their last respects and, at the end of a simple ceremony, Norah was taken off to the crematorium in a hearse. Ron had insisted on a hearse. He stood on the steps of the village hall with his oldest friend, Bob, and together they waved goodbye to Norah as she was driven away, and they kept on waving until she rounded the corner and was lost to sight. Then, when they were ready, they rejoined everyone for the funeral tea, laid on by volunteers.

Ron will be supported in the coming weeks and months. Norah had always done the cooking and washing and, what’s more, had always settled the household accounts. A CFS volunteer is going to give Ron cookery lessons, and another volunteer is going to show him how to manage his money.

We hope that Ron is going to be able, slowly but surely, to go on living independently without his Norah.

Go safe, Norah.

 

If that little story has touched you, it seems more than a little mean to confess, now, that it is entirely fictitious. There is no such entity as the Darley Dale Community Funeral Society. None of this happened.

We don’t want you to feel ‘had’. We want to test the idea of a CFS, find out what you think, and this seemed a good way to present it.

Meanwhile, we’re steaming ahead to get that manifesto written.

Footnote: Truthfully, what we actually did yesterday was attend a convention organised by FuneralMap. It was a great gathering which brought together a host of brilliant and beautiful people. Highlights included a superb opening address by the Revd Peter Jupp, academic, onetime Director of the National Funerals College, and now a Council Member of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and also an inspirational talk by Rosie Inman-Cook of the Natural Death Centre. So sorry I missed it, Rosie!!

 

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Mark Shaw
Guest

Sounds like a great idea. I guess a balance is needed. Unless there is a revenue generating aspect of the “funeral profession” the local mortuaries will not be availalbe from local funeral directors. Also the skills, the repatriations where required, the difficult deaths which community staff would most likely not deal with. And when it comes to qulaity of reliable service which is expected in every walk of life these days, can a random group of volunteers guarantee this?

My facilities are availalbe if required!

Ariadne
Guest
Ariadne

Thumbs up LIKE

Poppy
Guest
Poppy

Charles this is very exciting indeed. There are millions of reasons why something might not work. But people don’t know what they want until the options are laid out before them. GO FOR IT!

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

That would be a good start, Vale, yes! Fran…I agree with you entirely and I know that it is the corporate ‘monster’ that is the real villain here. I was merely concerned that the ‘sound bite’ would become that all funeral businesses ‘profit from death and misery’ and are morally reprehensible. I know Charles sings the praises of the noble few, but I did feel the point bore making! As for the ‘Big Society’, I may be wrong (politics is not my strong point) but so far as I can see the issue is that the plan was to make… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

One of the issues that any CFS will need to tackle will be funding.mi am really interested in a model based on Credit Unions. People could contribute to a non-profit mutual scheme that would help a CFS gather capital and feel that they are making proper provision for themselves. There are good models of this sort of activity in places like Australia.

Fran Hall
Guest

Jenny I think your points are absolutely valid – great undertakers like Ru and Keith and Nick are creative artistic souls who are passionate about their vocation, and if only the other tens of thousands of workers in the funeral industry were the same then we would already have CFSs all over the country, all supported by professionals helping them do the difficult bits without fleecing them in the process. Unfortunately, that pesky issue of money has corrupted the whole thing – in days gone by, nobody begrudged the local undertaker his (moderate) fee, he was part of the community,… Read more »

BelindaForbes
Guest

Not everyone will ‘get it’ but it would be a wonderful option to have. I’m more of a joiner-inner than a leader (too cautious) but I would love to be a part of this.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

‘What’s also significant is that two celebrants would like to work with and not for a CFS. Is it the case that there is widespread if not universal and ineradicable unease with the commercialisation of death? Perhaps so, but the labourer is worthy of his/her hire, and must put food on the table. Having said which, I confess that, as a celebrant, I’d be much happier doing it for nothing…’ I think it is, perhaps, indicative of the people on this site that we feel a genuine vocation and would be much happier if we didn’t have to worry about… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

Walk tall Charles, it was a really effective rhetorical procedure. It did the things you wanted it to.

Quokkagirl
Guest
Quokkagirl

Hear Hear Gloria. I think the idea is brilliant in concept, and the fact that there are templates already operating in far off lands means there are tried and tested methods of running the CFS. I for one would be more than happy to work with (and not for) a CFS. Well done for selling it so well to us, Maistro.

You have my full support GFG.

Ru Callender
Guest

Way to go Nick.

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

Inspirational, essential, heart-lifting and altogether just bloody brilliant. I want to work with (not “for”) a CFS as soon as possible. This isn’t just a way of delivering lower-cost, better funerals. It’s a better way of living, as well as dying. People talking to each other about important things more often, and working together to do them properly. And look at the response from Nick Gandon above! Respect, Nick, good on yer mate. It’d be just great to see some more commitments from FDs around the land. The Kingfisher is disappointed it was a productive fiction, not yet an entity… Read more »

Nick Gandon
Guest

Extremely convincing Charles, and a cracking alternative to the norm.

We find this ethos in several faiths, though not traditionally associated with the UK. We can learn from them, I hope.

I’m sure that there would be no shortage of decent undertakers across the UK willing to come to an arrangement with a local community group to provide mortuary facilities.

To help the ball roll, I’ll put my money where my mouth is…. and make my mortuary facilities available at a token cost, to any “co-operative” local to me that takes up your challenge.

Good Luck….!!

Nick

Kingfisher
Guest

You had me there. So disappointed to find out it was conjecture. Buggerbuggerbugger.

Ru Callender
Guest

You bugger Charles.

Paul Hensby
Guest

I love the idea of Community Funeral Societies and hope it works. Clever of you Charles to make the model so ‘real’ with convincing arguments why the community will come together, and to define the benefits.
Count My Last Song as a supporter, particularly inspired by how the NDC will weigh in behind it.

Fran Hall
Guest

Way to go indeed Charles – deafening round of applause and a standing ovation from all of us at The Natural Death Centre, this is exactly what we would like to see throughout the UK! When the Community Funeral Society emerges, it will transform the way we care for our dead and the people who loved them when they were alive – long overdue in these days of the industrialisation of death. The time is right now for new (old) ways to be found to include dying and death in our fragmented frenetic material lives and revive the ancient tradition… Read more »