Ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves

Charles 25 Comments

Straw bear

Britain’s most bonkers tradition? The Straw Bear Festival


SCENE – A village wedding. Church bells. Assorted villagers have assembled at the lych gate waiting for a glimpse of the bride. They are joined by a TOURIST who happily happens to speak perfect English.

VILLAGER: There she is! Just coming round the corner now.  Ooh, it’s a Rolls!

TOURIST: Who’s that walking in front of it? That person in the Tudor costume and the three-cornered hat and, what’s that, a mace?

VILLAGER: That’s the wedding organiser.

TOURIST: Why is she walking in front of the car?

VILLAGER: It’s the way it’s done in this country. The wedding organiser walks in front of the car.  

TOURIST: But why?

VILLAGER: Oh, ah… tradition. Yes, it’s always been done that way. It’s the way we do it.

TOURIST: But a wedding is not about the wedding organiser –

VILLAGER: Oh, look at that dress! Doesn’t she look lovely! And look, there’s the bride!




The Great British Tradition whereby a funeral director walks in front of, or ‘pages’, a hearse is a well-loved custom stretching back to the heraldic funeral processions of the middle ages. Well, not really. Actually, they didn’t have funeral directors then, it was the Head of the College of Arms who would walk in front of the cortege. No, ah, paging is a lot more recent. There are several schools of thought about where it originated… and little chance of a consensus. Nowadays, it’s a ‘mark of respect’, that’s what it is. Will that do?

It is undeniably a good look.

Yes it is, and I think it is capable of adaptation. If funeral directors were to suggest to families that one or more of them might like to undertake this role instead, I wonder what the uptake would be.

What would be the point?

In a word, empowerment.

Why is it important to empower bereaved people at a funeral?

So that they can go home feeling proud of themselves. If a funeral is to be a valuable event, they need to feel proud they did their bit.

Would this not take away from the status of the funeral director?

Wrong question. Would it add value to the funeral? Yes, I think so. No one ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. The trick is to find them things to do that they’re comfortable with.

But the job of a funeral director is to take all possible burdens from their families.

I respectfully disagree. The job of a funeral director is to organise an event where bereaved people can do good grief work. They can’t do that if they’re spectators. I repeat: they need to go home feeling they played their part in giving the person who died a good send-off. So, I say: ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves.

Well, I don’t know that I’d want to be a funeral director if you took paging away from me.

Look, I may be wrong, I acknowledge that. But right now I do absolutely believe that you guys have got to stop obsessing about the price of funerals and start looking for ways to add value to them. You can do that in ways that cost nothing. This may be one. 


  1. Charles

    I just love the Straw Bear and all such ancient or ancient-seeming madness (though it seems a bit hard to set fire to him on the Sunday…) The growing interest in such things suggest a lot of us, in this fast-moving slightly scary age of ours, want to feel some connectedness with a past that might or might not have existed – some roots, a sense of belonging, a stabiliser in these mad times. Bugger Twitter, bring on the Straw Bears!

    Your smart FD parading with stick in front of the hearse probably seems to many people a fine old tradition , provides some continuity, stability, some ritual coherence. (It isn’t ancient in fact, but that’s not the point.)

    I think it is very important to empower the bereaved, but do so maybe we need to develop new traditions, so that e.g. a family member walking in front of a hearse provides that feeling of continuity and rootedness, at a time when everyone is reeling with grief.

    That will take time. But – thirty years ago, who would have expected to see a family standing round the catafalque holding hands, or showering the coffin with rose petals, or giving flowers out to everyone there, or toasting the coffin with champagne, or distributing Granny’s favourite recipes?

    We’re on the move. FDs and celebrants can energise the move. The difference between an odd idea and a recognised ceremonial element might simply be – five years or so?

    1. Charles

      my husband was ill for a long time, i looked after him, and i loved him more than i can say, we were never parted till he passed away, i walked with him in front of the hurst with the fd, it was the last time i could walk with him, the last thing i could do to be with him. i didn”t tell any one i was doing this, and i was so gratefull that i was asked if i wanted to do it. love needs to be shown in whatever way a family needs to do it,

  2. Charles

    Well, GM, what a good point you make. Yes, when you pause and look back, what a long way we have come in 30 years. Or even the last 10.

    You talk of the importance of connectedness — and it is important. Uncoupling isn’t going to suit the majority (though iconoclasm has been a feature of recent change, especially in music choices and dress codes). The way forward is gentle segue.

  3. Charles

    Permit me an anecdote on resisting iconoclasm, or what was seen as such.

    Anglican minister about to lead the procession in to the crem, attendant sets CD going, a song, nothing exceptional, but minister stops, says “we’re not having that in a funeral I’m leading” and went into the back room and turned it off…

    Not 30 years ago, hardly ten, I think. Boy, did that minister need uncoupling!

    1. Charles

      Well I have a sneaky sympathy for him, I have to confess. A faith-based funeral has its rules, after all. But dammit, he might have got all that sorted before the funeral. Having failed to make his grievers aware of his requirements, he should have bitten his lip and gone with it.

      I heard the other day of a couple who tried to negotiate the vicar doing their wedding out of all references to God. They were indignant when he tried to explain that He had to have at least a walk-on part.

  4. Charles

    GM, where to start??? The scarey thing is I can imagine it happening now as well!!

    Paging the coffin….its a tricky one, Charles. It certainly shouldn’t be fixed in stone and as with everything…choice, empowerment absolutely. I’m not sure that I agree with the implication in general that a ‘tradition’ has to be old to be valuable. As GM points out, all traditions have a starting point. So the question, as you rightly say, is not ‘is it old?’ but ‘does it add value to the funeral?’ and the answer, as with everything of this nature is sometimes yes, sometimes no. The key point is that a family should be aware that there are alternatives.

    Let me just give you a possible different angle on it though.

    I know I’ve talked about my Nan’s funeral on here before. It was my first experience of a family funeral and only my second experience of a funeral. I was about 26 and I was a teacher. I knew nothing of modern funeral ‘customs and traditions’ (much more interested in Ancient Egypt) and I was hurting very very badly. My Nan was 92 and head of a clan (my Dad called it a covern) of 3 daughters and me. The cortege drew up outside her house and here is what I experienced…..

    The FD was dressed like something very important was going on, like my Nan’s death was a significant event. He bowed to her. In her most vulnerable and disempowered state ever he indicated that she was worthy of respect. That her life meant something. He paged the coffin, again, he showed that something out of the ordinary was going on over here. People took notice, they watched, some even took their hats off and stood respectfully and what I saw was that strangers (including the FD) were acknowledging a passing, their own mortality, and our grief. It mattered. It meant a lot o me and I, personally would not have wanted to change it. It was a tiny funeral, graveside only and only immediate family. It made a difference that it was given significance beyond that. (The FD also did something I reslly didn’t like, but that’s another story.) And yes, I really did think all of that at the time….I really am that sad!

    Just a different angle to consider.


    1. Charles

      Thank you Jenny, powerful stuff well done, it seems. I think it’s a real shame people no longer take their hats off what a hearse goes by – or (given shortage of hats these days!) do anything at all. Could be the baker’s van passing…

  5. Charles

    That’s a beautiful and moving account, Jenny. Thank you for it.

    I am not advocating wholesale abandonment of the tradition. As I see it the funerals market is diversifying into many niches — each to their own, none any more right or any better than another. Connectedness, sense of occasion – these are important at a time time of grief.

    And I think empowerment is incredibly important, too. Which is why you and Keith spend so much time talking to, and above all, listening to your clients.

    I’m not saying I won’t have a complete change of mind in the next week. I like to have regular clearouts of all my opinions!

  6. Charles

    A very healthy habit, Charles!

    We have done two funerals fairly recently. One was for a lady in her 90s who had had a good life and whose funeral was organised by her daughter. There was a lot of sadness but also a feeling of ‘natural completion’. Her words. She was very impressed with Keith’s pont tail (which got a special mention on the client survey!) She also said, on the day, and again on the survey that the thing that stuck with her and left her with a really good feeling about the funeral was the sight of Keith in full finery (and when we do ‘traditional ‘Victorian’ FD, we do it properly, coachman’s cape and all) paging the coffin down the road to the crem. It gave her very positive feelings and a good memory of the day.

    The other was the funeral of a lad in his 20s. We took the body home to his family the night before the funeral and they proceeded to put him into a specially decorated van and take him on a tour of his favourite drinking haunts so his mates could come out and toast him. They met us at the crem with the van and proceeded to conduct the funeral themselves. Our role was largely to manage the crem staff and make sure everything worked behind the scenes.

    Both were good funerals that I am proud to have been associated with. Totally different….and that, I think, is where the real key to the future lies!

    1. Charles

      Wholeheartedly agree. Each to their own — and ‘own’ needs to be carefully identified, defined and catered for by FDs. It’s not just about paging, there are lots of ways of empowering people by standing back and handing over.

      What lovely funerals, both!

  7. Charles

    It is difficult to see this practice of paging as anything other than gratuitous self-aggrandisement designed to perpetuate the mystique of the trade. In my experience most of the very best undertakers see themselves as facilitators and not as “directors” of funerals.

    1. Charles

      I think you make a good distinction here, Michael. names are important and the fd who feels themselves to be too much the Director may well fall into the trap of always knowing what’s best for ‘their’ families (as though organizing a funeral gave rights of ownership?). Were we more protected from self aggrandisement when there were only undertakers?
      Having said all that, in this impoverished age of informality, I do like to see paging. IMHO it is one of the few tangible ways (now that hats are not doffed and children no longer hold their collars in the street and wait until they see a cat or a dog) that we invest that last journey with a public seriousness. And that’s important too.

      1. Charles

        Oh, yes, I take your point regarding respect. I feel, though, that “direction” should be in the control of 1) the deceased – if he or she has had the wit to leave a note of advance funeral wishes; 2) the immediate bereaved – usually family, and 3) the celebrant – religious or not. I am uncomfortable about the undertaker in centre stage.

  8. Charles

    Surely we all are actors in this huge stage? Sounds like Keith and Jenny have got the skills of listening, understanding and enabling. The key is flexibility, hearing what the family wants… adopting the right role? If a traditional caped and top hatted pager is the part that this mourner needs then offer it, if they ask for a Levi wearing laid back transit vanned coffin- then allow that. We are not the arbiters of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ rituals – we play our part, we help create the scene for someone’s final Act. A good ‘director’ brings out the best in the cast allowing/encouraging improvisation whilst keeping a gentle guiding hand around the proceedings, keeps in mind the ‘audience’ the ‘cast’ the ‘crew’ and never forgetting that the ‘star’ is … well now, who IS the star??

  9. Charles

    The sooner funeral directors realise its not all about them the better. Personally if people want a bit of a show then fine, dandy and give them what they want. That’s the point. On he other hand, in my experience less and less people want any unnecessary parading of the funeral director. A top hat and a shiny stick doesn’t make you special. How you deal with people makes you a normal human being (or not). In my humble opinion…

  10. Charles

    It’s difficult not to slightly obsess about the price of a funeral when so many clients telephone and ask about price. Yes, you can take the opportunity to explain why you add value, but in these troubled times, some people really do just want the cheapest possible service from their funeral director.

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