Posted by Richard Rawlinson
What a time it’s been for the funeral industry on the tellybox. Apologies made and inquiries launched by Co-operative Funeralcare after Channel 4’s Dispatches: Undercover Undertakers. Ditto by Funeral Services Partnership-owned Gillman Funeral Service after ITV’s Exposure: The British Way of Death.
These spy camera investigations of sneaky sales practices and disrespect for corpses were partly balanced by a more positive representation of the industry in BBC2’s Dead Good Job, which included an insight into the fast-paced work of a Muslim undertakers.
And we still have to look forward to a documentary for Sky, which will feature the recent Good Funeral Guide Awards at the Joy of Death festival, not to mention our very own Charles Cowling who has collaborated tirelessly with the show’s makers, Sharp Jack Media.
I’ve recently posted a couple of fluffy blogs about funereal fashion and the ubiquity of skulls on everything from cushion covers to cufflinks. This trend, coupled with all the media attention, leads to the question, is there something deathly in the air at the moment?
It’s probable that, while the industry seems to insiders to be in the media spotlight, the public-at-large will be less pre-occupied by the exposés. They no doubt have enough concerns about their own work, bank balances and home lives. Besides, even prime-time documentaries receive only moderate viewing figures in this age of multi-channels and internet distractions. And this week’s Exposure arguably trumps last week’s as an attention-grabber: the reputation of the late oddball national treasure Jimmy Savile is destroyed by revelations he sexually abused under-age girls. His not-so-old grave in Scarborough is now under police guard.
The trouble with our oft-brutal modern age is many people become almost numb to disgraceful behaviour all around, from the top to the bottom of society. Today’s equivalent of Yes, Prime Minister is The Thick Of It, a compulsively ghastly comedy exposing the corruption of contemporary government ‘public service’ which makes charming the gentle spoofing of the ineptitude of yesteryear.
However, the rash of forever-Google-able media attention will no doubt mean funeral service anecdotes will be spreading by word-of-mouth during ‘did-you-see…?’ pub chats, and words such as ‘hub’, ‘leakage’ and ‘hygiene treatments’ will be a bit more familiar.
When another institution close to my heart got a justified slamming for totally mishandling cases of sexual deviance in its midst, I believe the shaming had a positive, humbling effect. I’m optimistic that complacent managers at undertakers—big and small—will have also learned lessons from the recent exposés, and standards will now improve. The eleventh commandment of ‘don’t get caught’ is a terribly jaded and cynical approach to life.
But I’ll close with an observation that the National Association of Funeral Directors’ Code of Practice for members focuses on the rights of funeral consumers, or the living rather than the dead. It says nothing about how to store the dead, or how to conduct oneself while preparing a body. It says nothing about racist or sexist gallows humour directed towards corpses, as caught on the documentaries’ cameras.
The code reveals, however, that NAFD is not naive of human flaws, the desire of businesspeople to maximise profits, sometimes by deceiving clients made vulnerable by bereavement or lack of savvy. It says, for example, funeral directors should “have readily-available price lists covering the basic funeral and all other types of coffins, caskets and services provided”.
It even demands FDs “refrain from soliciting funeral orders or offering or giving any reward for recommendation to persons or organisations such as health service establishments, nursing homes or coroners’ offices, etc.”
It wouldn’t have included these codes, had it not been aware of such dodgy practices. Both codes are clearly breached by members. I don’t blame NAFD for not including explicit clauses about backroom practices though. The media corporation for which I work gives new employees a fat staff manual which goes into great detail about workplace ethics, including everything from racist, sexist and homophobic bullying to hanky panky on premises. I’m glad to say I’m surrounded by educated colleagues who behave decently without even having to study the small print guidelines.
Undertakers, whether big enough to have HR departments or not, should be able to regulate their staff without making a public declaration about it. Modern life doesn’t have to be rubbish.