So silly to take sides

Charles 8 Comments


A few weeks ago I bumped into a funeral director I like and admire. He was bursting with something he had just learned and needed to share: Ken West is not bonkers, official. He’d met Ken at some do or other and had revelled in a feast of reason and a flow of soul with the great man.

The news did not come as a bombshell. Ken’s thinking runs with all the clarity of Pennine springwater, as all who know him will attest. No ranter he. Very nice man, to boot. 

Whence could such a misconception have sprung? From his long association with the Natural Death Centre? Did – does –  the NDC still evoke antipathy in undertakerly circles? In spite of their diplomatic efforts to heal rifts and work collaboratively with the ‘mainstream’? In spite of the success of the natural burial movement, one of Britain’s most successful cultural exports in the last fifty years? Are they still reckoned chattering class undertaker-bashers?

I don’t know. You tell us. 

What we do know for sure is that the deathcare industry tends to be chary of scrutiny, as the recent exposé of Co-operative Funeralcare reminds us. In the face of seeming adversity, the trade/profession circles the wagons, hunkers down and gets snarly.  

It’s not an easy mindset to analyse. You’ll be able to give us some pointers. Many undertakers have, in addition to justifiable pride in their work, an acute sense of amour propre. They can be prey to feelings of self-importance and we-know-best. They can be reflexively conservative. They are often happier dealing with things rather than ideas. In a word, prickly. Many, not all. 

It’s a shame. It’s a shame when perfectly decent people write off as a hostile force other perfectly decent people who feel they have important or interesting things to say. On a personal level, it is unjust, and that’s the point of this piece. 

Over in the US, where undertakers tend to suffer from the same abiding vices as so many of our own, a man called Todd Van Beck writes about his native funeral industry. He calls himself a ‘funeral educator, consultant and historian’. He’s very much an insider.

In appraising the home funeral movement, so buoyant over there, he concludes that the mainstream industry ought to consider commodifying this nonaligned and insubordinate practice by offering an “old fashioned home funerals package”. In doing so, the industry can outflank and marginalise those idealistic pioneers who developed home funerals and, at the same time, make some money out of a custom which is founded in self-help and altruism. 

In arguing his case, Mr Van Beck makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the home funeral movement. He also derides one of its pioneers, Holly Stevens:

I just finished reading a horribly boring article regarding home funerals published by Ms. Holly Stevens (a self-proclaimed funeral consumer advocate).

The article rehashed the negative feelings concerning  funeral undertakers, like Lisa Carlson has done for years (and has seemingly made a living doing so).

One new twist Ms. Steven’s took was referring to us funeral undertakers as “commercial morticians.”

I haven’t heard that one before.  Snappy title though…“Commercial Mortician.”

The piece goes on in similar snarky vein. 

Lisa Carlson is a doughty battler. She can look after herself. And she has the added advantage of being alive. 

Holly Stevens is dead. She died just over a year ago of cancer. She was was a highly intelligent and humane Quaker beloved of all who knew her.  Perhaps her most notable attribute was her gentleness. I never knew her, but I was/am a Facebook friend. You can probably find her memorial page there. Holly was one of the authors of Undertaken With Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities, which you can download free. 

Let’s try to agree about two things.

First, there is no such thing as an alternative funeral and no such person as an alternative funeral director. Our dead belong to us, and so do their funerals. Everyone has the right to their own opinion and their own practice.

Second, debate is not merely useful, it’s vital. So is mutual respect. Digging trenches is silly. 

In the words of Thomas Lynch, the eminent US undertaker: “Some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all. Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”













  1. Charles

    I have just read Mr Van Beck’s article, as snarky as they come. Holly was indeed a gentle thoughtful woman who did a great thing. Her death is our loss. There is a further article at the bottom of Mr Van Beck’s article that is very revealing about where the American funeral industry may be heading. In it, the author praises the marketing genius of a funeral home who are allowing a Starbucks to open a small branch in it.
    Now, I know I live in Totnes, the town proud to oppose the bland tyranny of chain businesses, but that is without a doubt the sickest development I have ever heard of. I wonder whether Christ Morris the dark genius behind Brasseye may be at work here. Indescribably wrong on so many levels.

  2. Charles

    He summed it up perfectly himself: “that’s just one old undertaker’s opinion”
    Tod VanBeck

    I notice his blog doesn’t attract much intelligent comment. Not even the desperate ”7 Lessons Funeral Service Can Learn From 50 Shades of Grey” in his ‘Attract families’ section, nor, to be fair, did “The Mother Teresa Guide to Running Your Funeral Home”, though the snappier “ABC’s of selling Sympathy Gifts & Flowers on Your Funeral Home Website’ in ‘Grow Your Business’ got 3 likes

    If your dander hasn’t been up for a while – have a read.

    1. Charles

      Also, I am the content manager for this blog (not Todd Van Beck) and I spend countless hours researching and writing to provide this profession with content that is meant to educate, inspire and challenge you. I’d like to think my hard work goes noticed through the many calls, comments and likes we get in our social community.

  3. Charles

    Thank you for writing this, Charles. Folks like Lisa Carlson and I have been the subject of this kind of nonsense for years. And it’s just exactly as you described it; it’s because we’re “insubordinate.” We have the nerve to suggest that it’s up to families how they deal with their dead, not undertakers. Sometimes that choice involves undertakers. Sometimes it does not.

    The living end of that article was his inability to grasp that *home funeral families don’t WANT your help*. They don’t want to pay you for a “home funeral.” Some of these guys literally cannot comprehend the funeral act as anything but a transaction at their business. He truly doesn’t get that it isn’t even mainly about money; it’s about keeping one’s own important family rites in the family.

    It’s bizarre—they want all of our business but then they go apoplectic when someone notes that they are, in fact, “commercial morticians.” They feel entitled to our patronage while at the same time regarding themselves as carrying out a “ministry” unsullied by the topic of sordid coin.

    I call this The Divine Right of Undertakers. And it’s *endemic* to the American mortuary trade. Van Beck is loud, but he’s not representing a fringe. This is bog standard behavior.

  4. Charles

    If you actually read this blog, you’ll see that the point isn’t to discount Holly Stevens or her work in any way. The point was to communicate the bad rep funeral directors get when they’re given names like “commercial morticians.” He also goes on to say “While I disagree with most of the points Ms. Stevenson made, I do value her advocacy in home funerals.”

    1. Charles

      Krystal, thank you for calling in. I emailed Mr Van Beck inviting a reply but the email was undeliverable.

      I don’t think I want to say any more on the matter. I don’t know that I am persuaded that the tone of the blog is respectful, nor that the value Mr Van Todd places on Holly’s advocacy is not ironic.

      But it is very good to have your response because it will enable readers to arrive at a more informed opinion.

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