Let’s hear it for extravagant funerals

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Since the Dispatches exposé, we’re all sounding like Jessica Mitford, the ‘red sheep’ of an aristocratic British clan who naively embraced wretched communism while settling in comfortably capitalist California, and wrote The American Way of Death (1963), which accuses the US funeral trade of exploiting vulnerable grievers.

First, let me say I’m certainly not about to defend undertakers who hoodwink financially-challenged bereaved folk into paying embalming fees for ‘hygienic reasons’, or who falsely imply DIY funerals are ‘illegal’. Undertakers should not be viewed like doctors bound by professional ethics, but as salesmen of the death business, to be approached with the caution extended to double glazing peddlers. Those who withhold price lists should indeed be exposed to public humiliation, especially if this helps educate those who, due to ignorance, sentiment and taboo, are conned into spending beyond their means.

It’s also noone else’s business if an affluent person, like Mitford, chooses a cheap, no-frills funeral because their aesthetic of simplicity turns them away from ‘pomposity, complication and expense’.

By the same token, there’s nothing unethical about choosing to splash out on an opulent send-off either. Buying the best coffins, flowers, tombstones and mourning attire, and hiring limousines, printers, choirs, musicians, caterers and wine waiters help the economy and society by making employers profitable. It’s churlish to admonish spenders for not giving those thousands spent on a funeral to their favoured charity, or leaving it in their will for the benefit of living family and friends.

Those who say funereal showiness is vulgar are often demonstrating their middle class snobbery toward the nouveau-riche, or their socialist philosophy of envy. There are plenty of people who, in life, have given time and money to good causes, and recycled their waste and conserved energy out of concern for the environment of future generations, and then want a no-expenses-spared funeral. It sounds like a Bond film but ‘We Only Die Once’.


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