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!!