Way to go?

Charles 19 Comments


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!!



  1. Charles

    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 of looking after each other through and beyond the end of life.

    As mentioned yesterday at the brilliant funeralmap convention, the NDC has a 21’st birthday celebration coming up next month, and we’ll be launching our new idea (perfectly synergised with the CFS!) on an as yet unsuspecting world – if we have sensed the wind of change correctly, between us we can spread the word far and wide of a better way of doing things than the two choices currently available (a cheap disposal – and no rites of passage – or paying thousands of pounds for someone unknown to you to arrange a funeral for you)

    It is time for change – time for societies in fact – let’s work together to make this happen!

  2. Charles

    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.

  3. Charles

    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….!!


  4. Charles

    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 – but actually, no need to be disappointed, because the fact that it is so utterly plausible means it must surely happen. And it’s people like the Kingfisher and Nick and Rupert who can make it happen!

    So, as you may have gathered – I’m right behind this venture. Roll on the manifesto.

  5. Charles

    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.

  6. Charles

    QG, the big advantage a UK CFS has over community co-ops in other countries is that our industry is unregulated. Over here, a CFS gets to choose what it outsources and what it does in-house. In the US and Canada a CFS must pay professionalised deathcarers; here we don’t.

    We suspected that the idea would appeal to the best and nicest undertakers, and the enthusiasam of Nick and Kingfisher and Ru is very encouraging.

    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 did not feel the least proud of myself for presenting the idea in this fictionalised package. My logic was that it made it easier to understand, and that if it inspired credulity, then it conferred credibility.

  7. Charles

    ‘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 this pesky ‘money’ stuff. I know that most of the trouble Keith got into with his management in his previous incarnation (and believe me, there was a lot!) was their odd idea that funerals should, above all else, be profitable. This is an idea that does not sit at all comfortably with him (or me, for that matter) and we regularly find ourselves putting ‘extras’ into funerals without passing the charge onto the client and so eating into our profits (for example, Keith pays our most regular celebrant more than he charges the family because we believe he is worth it.)

    I wanted to make that absolutely clear before I went on, because I think I may be about to cause controversy.

    Keith (sorry to keep using the example, but he really is all I have much experience of)is very good at what he does. I would go as far as to suggest (on evidence better than the mere fact that he is my other half) that he is outstandingly good at what he does and was born to do it. This is a real vocation. He makes a real difference to people at the hardest times in their lives. Nothing is too much trouble and he genuinely cares. Feedback suggests that I am not the only one to hold this view. If his calling were anything other than this….if he were an outstanding artist, or musician, or writer (I notice I am using creative examples because I see what we do as a creative job) no-one would be questioning the ethics of making a living out of it (not that we do, yet!) He is in the fortunate position of being able to do, full time, as his job, something that he loves and that he feels a calling to and that makes a horrible situation significantly better for a lot of people. I strongly suspect that he is not alone in that among the FDs on this blog. He has knowledge and skills that most people do not have and…and here’s the thing…do not want to have. I really feel quite strongly that good, caring FDs should not feel ashamed of making a living from their vocation.

    All of this is a total side issue from home funerals, co-operatives and so on. The fact is that in society as it currently is, most people would not choose a home funeral. I make no comment as to whather this is a good thing or a bad thing, it is merely, to misinterpret Kant, ‘the thing as it is.’ Now I am absolutely, totally and completely in favour of anyone who genuinely wishes to having a home funeral…and we would be more than happy to work alongside any family who wished to do this in any capacity they wish (Keith has actually had a case where he was visiting a family twice a day to check on a body that was being kept at home and offer advice) However, for the forseeable future, this is going to be the minority. The real issue as I see it, is the labourer who is not worthy of his hire and who, to be blunt, gives the rest of us a bad name. What I would really really really like, to be honest, is a moneyless economy where everyone does what they do best, to the best of their ability for the common good. I really, honestly, would like to see that. Lets be honest…its not going to happen.

    Which brings me to the Darley Dale Co-operative. Its brilliant. Its everything I would like this country to be. We would love to work alongside such an enterprise and I echo everything that has been said above. We would be happy to offer our mortuary, transport etc, in fact we’d love it. Could it happen? Here, in the UK of today, not 50 years ago…I’m really not sure. I think some parts of the country would find it easier than others. Would people with the right skills (and here I mean, primarily, people skills) have the time? the inclination? the ability to take time off work when required? Would they need CRB checks? Who would pay for them? Would there be enough volunteers? Could they be free at the right times? As I think I mentioned before, I think one of the major things that has made it difficult for people to have really meaning ful funerals in this country is increasing social isolation and the demise of the community and the extended family. This requires an awful lot of people, with an awful lot of skills and an awful lot of good will and compassion. Could it work…yes. Its brilliant and I would love to live in a country that could do it. I have real doubts about the liklihood of it working in the real world. I sit on enough committies to have some idea of the problems involved with making inteligent, well meaning and compassionate people with genuine passion actually do anything.

    This sounds very negative and I will now sit back and await the slings and arrows of well, just outrage, really. In my defence I will just say that I really really hope I’m wrong and that you all get to point and laugh and say ‘we told you so.’ I am more than happy to get involved in this process in any way I can and if it doesn’t work it won’t be for want on me trying…but honestly, hand on heart, I have my doubts.

  8. Charles

    No, you’re absolutely right, Jenny. The idea is untested on real people. And, yes: wherever two or three are gathered together you tend to get — well, can I just say, a buggers’ muddle.

    There are community shops and pubs. Some of the shops have easily outlasted the first flush of missionary zeal. Then there is the theory that, though communities have atmomised, people are looking for pretexts to come together, and they do so when a project has a sufficient force field.

    I think we can only produce a manifesto and see if anyone goes for it.

    Who knows?

  9. Charles

    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, living and working alongside and among his clients and making his living doing the stuff people would rather not when it came to dead bodies.

    Nowadays, this type of funeral director has been replaced throughout the country by an odd assortment of venture capitalists looking for a fast return on their millions, shareholders counting their dividends, corporate sharks in suits heading up huge companies that hide behind the old traditional family funeral director frontage and have smelled the money potential in the ‘care of deceased’, middle management who tally coffin sales, P&L sheets, targets and bonuses and issue decrees about ‘elf and safety’ and procedures, ill paid and often untrained front line staff drawn from a pool of well meaning, empathetic individuals looking for a means to earn a crust in a job that will make them feel the day in the office was worthwhile because they helped other people through the worst experience of their lives, and a rag tag of others of various backgrounds, motivations and abilities.

    This is the funeral ‘profession’ that we have inherited while nobody was looking, and money – lots and lots of money – lubricates the wheels of it. Those few good guys doing their thing out there are both battling against the juggernaut that is the corporate world of funeral directing, and struggling against being wrongly tarred with the same brush of suspicion in the eyes of a dazed public contemplating the skyrocketing costs of the average funeral.

    And this, I think, is the problem that Charles is railing against – the enormous unstoppable business interest, the fat cats of death who have replaced the simple personal acts of care that used to be part of the rites of passage of life with a de-personalised, faux-Victorian, sterile and sycophantic facsimile of ‘service’.

    The funeral industry is as yet, unregulated and unaccountable, our ‘big society’ is a marketing soundbite in Dave’s lexicon (what happened to that by the way? all gone a bit quiet on the BS front recently..) and communities are fast becoming a thing of the past – so yes, your doubts are likely well founded, but unless someone somewhere comes up with an alternative – and then links together all those whose hearts tell them that this is how it should be – then we might as well all just sign up now to Parky’s pre-paid plan and turn up our toes.

    Get that manifesto written Charles!

  10. Charles

    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.

  11. Charles

    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 everyone redundant and then say its ok, because all of their jobs will still be done…by volunteers. Society as it is now cannot opperate if no-one is earning money!

    Here endeth today’s rant 🙂

    That said… if we don’t give it our best shot we’ll never know, yes…lets get the manifesto written and see where it goes!

  12. Charles

    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!

  13. Charles

    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!

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