Charles Cowling

 

The funeral industry commissions very few surveys. When it does, they are about what bereaved people are doing, not what bereaved people want. These surveys are almost always self-serving and, if spun well, appeal to lazy journalists. Result: free advertising. This is something the GFG has taken up with broadsheet journalists to no effect.

Why no surveys about what bereaved people want? Why so little market research? Is it because funeral directors aren’t interested in what people want?

Or because they think they know best?

I don’t think there are any easy answers here. Let me throw in just two more observations.  First, a funeral director’s relationship with his/her clients is potentially corrupting of the funeral director. Very. Grief-stricken people are easily bossed about – many develop a version of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition where hostages develop gratitude towards, and admiration of, their captors. If a funeral director role-plays it right, their clients can easily mistake manipulation for kindness.

What’s more, the likelihood of any client asking to ‘look under the bonnet’ is negligible, and that’s potentially corrupting, too. Unexamined mortuary practice can lead to de-sensitisation and, from there, to very bad habits.

So we can see why funeral directors are prey to self-importance (the not very bright) or paternalism (the brighter ones). All intelligent, thinking funeral directors acknowledge this – as do the better celebrants, whose power relationship with their clients is similar.

Is there any other service industry in which it is reckoned okay not to tell people certain things? There is a high degree of consensus in the funeral industry that empowering clients to make informed choices has its appointed limits. You have to use your discretion. Did you ask that couple if they would like to come in and wash and dress their dead person? I thought about and decided not to. Aren’t they entitled to consider it? Look, it would only have upset them.

It’s a fair point.

Where does ‘we know best’ begin and end?

We’d know more if the industry conducted more surveys asking people what they want, what they need to know, and is it okay if…? Is it okay if we store your dad with his face uncovered on racking with loads of other dead people? No? Thanks, in that case we won’t. Anybody outside the industry, and a great many in it, wouldn’t need to ask such a dumbass question.

But what about the mouth suture? (If you don’t know what the mouth suture is, it is a way of closing the mouth of a dead person. A gaping jaw can look pretty horrifying.) The mouth suture is standard practice. The funeral directors who don’t do it can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And it’s not the sort of procedure you’d ever, ever want to ask a bereaved person to make an informed decision about in the first flush of grief. (If you need to read a description – be warned, it’s not for the fainthearted – you can one here.

If you were to conduct a survey of, say, a thousand ordinary people and asked them what they think about the mouth suture, the result would be, we can only say, interesting – because we don’t know. And of course it would depend on how you presented the information and asked the question.

But to do it as a matter of routine without permission? Is that really okay? To withhold information like that?

I know so many superb and humane funeral directors who earnestly believe that it’s just something you cannot do, ask permission about the mouth suture, that, frankly, I’m torn. It’s all too easy for a scribbler to adopt a holier-than-thou opinion about this and say If you can’t bear to ask, don’t do it. It’s different when you’re on the ground, doing things for the best.

But once you decide to withhold information, well, it’s potentially a slippery slope you’re on, isn’t it?

And in any case, isn’t there a principle here? 

 


 

 

Ed’s note: It’s been a busy week for the blog, which has seen many new visitors and commenters. You are all welcome. If you have left a comment using a cybermoniker that’s fine, that’s the way of it, and you probably feel you want to keep your personal opinions separate from your professional practice. This blog has always been remarkably free of trolls and vandals and, even when passions were high, recent discourse has more or less respected common courtesy. It’s not often that anything happens in funeralworld, but that Dispatches programme really got bloodboiling. 

Tomorrow is Friday and, as ever, the main event will be Lyra Mollington’s reflections of a funeralgoer. A feeling of business as normal will descend once more, and we hope to return to our ‘magazine’ format, a daily mix of news, opinion, curiosities, music and, if you’re really lucky (we’re not promising anything) something deliciously oblique from Vale. 

14
Leave a Reply

avatar
14 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
10 Comment authors
JonathanMark ShawNick GandonDavid HolmesRu Callender Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Oh, and Mark, what does ‘barriatric’ mean? It’s in no dictionary I can find.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

We spend our lives absenting ourselves from the reality of death, substituting an unhealthy cocktail of romantic fantasy and horror story and distorting our concept of it as being something to distance ourselves from, like a dog’s excreta; and thus we become queasy about it and try to deal with it by stealth. If funeral directors’ staff, hospital operatives, hospice workers et al can ‘contend’ with a corpse without reacting with fear and superstition, so can anybody. Dead bodies should routinely be brought into schools (with their erstwhile owners’ permission of course), so that, when we eventually arrange to have… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest

Contend: Struggle to surmount – equally applicable to the looking after the increasing number of barriatric deaths.

Nick Gandon
Guest

I think that we have a duty of care, not only to the Deceased, but to those who are instructing us. We have to tread carefully. If, by shielding the family from the worst of a difficult death, we are able to lessen their immediate grief, then that’s the direction I would normally steer. When my Mum died, some years ago, I embalmed her. Not because it was the routine “thing to do”, but because it was appropriate in the circumstances. I did it for my Dad, so, after many months of illness, he could remember her as the young… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

Contend: Struggle to surmount. That is the Oxford definition. If you really are or once were a funeral operative, you would know exactly what I mean. Dealing with the practicalities of human remains in an advanced state of decomposition can indeed be challenging.

Ru Callender
Guest

Paul, I completely agree that to literally explain everything that we do behind the scenes would be cruel and inappropriate. And I also agree that many good funeral directors do exactly the sort of things you describe, for the best reasons in the world. As I’ve said before on the many threads this topic has produced, there was nothing I saw in the documentary regarding the way the bodies were treated that showed the people actually dealing with them didn’t have the best intentions.There is no one right way, moral decisions need to be examined and taken on their individual… Read more »

Paul Sinclair
Guest

A handbook in paperback form that covers all of these areas you have mentioned and more could be made available to every client to purchase for a small fee when they book. The reason for a small purchase price is so that they actually choose whether to have to book or not as I think many folk are happy to live without knowing the grisly details so they are not being upset. Some things really should be left to the funeral director’s discretion though. If someone has been ripped to shreds by a train or in an explosion you can’t… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

I think this is a very difficult one indeed. In principle, yes we should tell people exactly what we do. We are, after all, looking after people on behalf of their families…they are not ‘ours’. Having said that, they problem with giving people a choice about what they want to know is that they don’t know if they want to know it or not until its too late (if that makes sense?) A number of times this week I have heard people say ‘no, don’t tell me’ and that was about much less ‘upsetting’ things. I would not like to… Read more »

Simon Irons
Guest
Simon Irons

“messy bodies to content with”
I am guessing you mean “care for”
Surely the deceased deserved a little more respect than to be
“contended with”

David Holmes
Guest

I can’t answer your question. Maybe is my answer! Many years ago I worked in South West London. Many of our clients routinely came in to do ritual washing and dressing. They usually placed the body in the coffin too. My point is I believe this opened my eyes to what the bereaved could and should see. I do not recall anyone being unable to complete the tasks. I felt all benefited from being hands-on with their loved one. That said, I think we all too easily slip into the habit of making assumptions about what clients want to know… Read more »

Belinda Forbes
Guest

“As a good funeral director, you listen to the prompts where a family ask to be involved…” Completely agree. Some people would run a mile if you went into too much detail or asked too many questions. But rather like the medical professionals who have to decide how much detail to give the terminally ill patient, there are no easy solutions but listening carefully is a good start.

Mark Shaw
Guest

There is a fine line between allowing clients to make every decision involved within the funeral and acting on their behlaf in the practical matters which many people do not want to be distressed by. As funeral directors, we cover much of the un-dignity of death, including the cleaning up and sanitisation side of things. We would not ask a family if they wished us to provide basic cleanliness after a death would we? I think families put trust in us to make things easier for them. We have, to a certain extent, implied trust to do what is best… Read more »