We know best

Charles 14 Comments


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. 


  1. Charles

    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 / normal / easiest for the family, and to make the funeral process as simple, dignified and un-upsetting as possible.

    As a good funeral director, you listen to the prompts where a family ask to be involved with the practical dressing etc which I have often assisted with. Many of the public perhaps do not realise the at times harsh reality of death. In asking what we actually do – they may not always want to hear what they would be told.

  2. Charles

    Very brave of you to leave a comment, I think, Mark, so thank you. A lot of people will read this and say to themselves, ‘No, I think I’ll pass on that.’

    I wonder how many of those thousand people would respond, ‘Don’t tell me about it, just do it’? A good many, perhaps.

  3. Charles

    “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.

  4. Charles

    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 or can do. It’s hard not to. All funeral directors have had distressingly messy bodies to contend with. On these occasions, unless specifically asked, I keep it to myself.

  5. Charles

    “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”

  6. Charles

    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 think I had been responsible for giving people nightmares for the rest of their lives. Most people do not want to, or do not feel able to care for their own dead. That means that part of what they choose to pay us for is to look after things they do not wish to see or know about. I genuinely belive this to be true, and I have seen evidence to support it.
    Having said that, My family were having a discussion about such things, not long after I met Keith. The subject of suturing came up and my Mum asked what it was, so Keith explained it to her in some detail. She thought about it for a while (my mother is a very difficult person to phase) then said that the idea made her feel claustophobic. She said to me that she would rather than not be done to her…she would rather have a pretty piecce of cloth tied around her head like they used to in Victorian times…this lead to much hilarity about ‘bunny ears’. So now I know.
    But many people are not in that priviledged position and that is what gives me pause. Most people that I have seen, however, really would not have wanted that conversation and once something is said it cannot be unsaid.

    In short….I don’t know.

  7. Charles

    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 expect the undertaker to explain how the remains are bagged and stored, or worse still ask and a lot of professionals do really sensitive things light weight down a coffin and secure the remains where the person has been so badly burned there is not a lot of them left to carry, then when his family or friends lift the coffin they feel like they are carrying their mate instead of a near empty box listening to a few remains sliding around.

    Some funeral staff are extremely thoughtful and often make someone who died cringing in horror look like they drifted off peacefully asleep. It may be argued that is wrong, deceitful or unethical, but should a family really be asked if they want the person A. to look like they died in shock and horror or B drifted off peacefully? I think this is best left to the discretion of the professional, but explained in the optional handbook.

  8. Charles

    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 terms.

  9. Charles

    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.

  10. Charles

    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 woman he first married.

    It was not easy, but was the last thing I could do for her.

    The most difficult part was the mouth suture. To get it “just right”. It took me over an hour to get the smile the way I wanted. This may sound perverse, but after all, I was the only person capable of getting it right for my Dad. It helped him, I think.

    If I can assist a family by avoiding the unnecessary mention of viceral matters, then I will.

    You have to get to know the family first, though.


  11. Charles

    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 a funeral, we would be having conversations about how to deal with, or look after, or dispose of, or otherwise relate to a dead human body in much the same way we talk to a mechanic when he/she fixes our car; if we don’t want to know what’s being done, there’s no emotion hanging on it and it’s EASY.

    We’ve made it difficult in the first place for only bad reasons, like we used to (and still do) with sex; and now we have conversations about what’s ‘proper’ to tell people.

    What would the Martians think of us nutters?

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