The word ‘progressive’ is overused and overrated

Charles 14 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

A follow-up to Charles Cowling’s thirst-quenching piece about the need for independent undertakers to blow their trumpets louder to steal market share from the corporate chains, here. 

It’s my hunch that some indies should stop perceiving themselves as niche, fringe and progressive, and instead project themselves as mainstream.

Why? There’s an abundance of eco-aware, price-conscious, non-religious, internet-savvy folk out there who see all their traits as the norm, unremarkable. They don’t book an atheist or new age civil celebrant to make a political stand against organised religion, but because their choice seems second nature. They don’t order a picnic hamper-style coffin and woodland burial ground as an eco-campaign against gratuitous embalming, but because it’s right for their personal needs. Ditto when they choose a budget funeral director to drive the body to the early-morning crem slot, and then deliver the ashes to the bereaved to do with them what they want, when they want.

People are used enough to variety in the market place not to feel radical when choosing a bespoke indie over a corporate brand. I became aware of this when recently furnishing a weekend escape in Clifton, Bristol. My first port of call was the internet as the Saturday shopping scrum is purgatory after a week in the office. Shopping from home, you can readily find the price and style you want with purchases delivered to your door. Sometimes, an online retailer has gained trust as a familiar high street brand, but other times you discover a hidden gem: I couldn’t resist a portrait made from driftwood by a guy in Cornwall—visitors gasp at its uncanny likeness to yours truly.

IKEA may be a success but there are those who feel nauseous at the inconvenience of shopping in an out-of-town warehouse, having to assemble purchases themselves and ending up with rickety tat. John Lewis succeeds among those content to pay a bit more for quality and service. Then again, I bypassed both when opting for a Georgian bureau, ordered online from an antique dealer as far afield as Yorkshire: the craftsmanship and romance of secret drawers couldn’t be matched by contemporary brands. Antiques also allow you to feel smug about recycling and supporting the little man.

The Cornwall artisan or antique dealer sniffed out online wouldn’t class themselves as ‘progressive’, with its undertones of challenging the status quo. Like Camra real ales, they’re in fact charmingly timeless, nostalgic even.

Despite commercial claims to the contrary, there’s little that’s new and much to be learned from past traditions. Live music at funerals is certainly not progressive. It’s superb that groups of musicians and singers (Malu Swayne’s No Sad Songs and Tim Clark’s Threnody are enriching ceremonies with music, but the concept is, thankfully, as old as the hills. Only it’s been lost in the modern age.

Crematoria were deemed genuinely progressive when they were introduced in the early 20th century. Today’s quest for more meaning and ritual is an acceptance that modernism in fact destroyed much that we cherish. It’s time to wind back the clock.

The Socialist Workers’ Party no doubt thought it was progressive to put on the cover of its newspaper a mock-up of Margaret Thatcher’s gravestone and the words ‘Rejoice’ . In fact they expose themselves as nasty dinosaurs while Maggie goes down in history as the Prime Minister who achieved more true progress than any other in recent times when it came to changing Britain for the better.

It would be progress if independent undertakers were perceived, not as fringe campaigners, but as mainstream companies that have rejected the profit-driven, merchandise-centric practices of the corporates. In grief in particular, people see financial manipulation as a betrayal of trust. The emphasis of any communications that reach out to the public should be on serving the emotional and spiritual needs of funeral planners. The indies should make a commodity out of traditional services and products and establish a new experienced-based value and pricing formula.
 Their strength should be to guide a family through the arrangement process and towards healing.

Customer expectations are low. Market opportunity is high for those who successfully become a part of the healing professions. Maggie would be so proud.


  1. Charles

    Ru, is it praise of Maggie that caused this one to fail in your eyes, or my take on the word ‘progressive’ being overrated? Either way, no offence intended. I value your opinion, respect your work and would like to hear more what it is about this latest offering that jars.

  2. Charles

    Let’s not be diverted by the RR mischief-quota, said she self-righteously (I’ve blown my horn about LadyT already!) – the central argument here is excellent.

    The nature of a family’s choice isn’t about an industry position, it’s about what works, and indies, greens (choose your label) could indeed recognise that, and simply promote what they do as the choice that suits more and more people.

    The “battle” against the chains can waste a lot of energy, it seems to me. Round ‘ere, the overwhelming majority of FDs are indies, mostly small ones, and the chains work away at what they do. There is some bitterness at times, but people choose as they do. By and large, I don’t think they choose the Co-op, for example, because it’s the Co-op, but because it is their local FD, run by someone they know. Least, that’s what it feels like to me.

    Me, I’ll work for any and all, if the family want what I do. Though I have my un-favourites, of course. I’m not too fond of the bloke who sat leaning back in his seat at the back looking out of the window, obviously bored. I was worried he’d start trimming his nails next.

    Or maybe I was boring? Oh dear.

    Anyway, I haven’t worked with him since, we didn’t like each other at first sight and I thought he was perfunctory with the family.

  3. Charles

    Speaking personally, I don’t know that we do market ourselves as ‘progressive’. We market ourselves as ‘different’ because we are told by clients on a daily basis that we are. I tend to wince when people describe us as ‘alternative’ because there is nothing about what we do that ought to be alternative…although, apparently, it is.
    We frequently get told that we don’t look like funeral directors (and, indeed, that we are too cheerful to be funeral directors) but again, that’s not deliberate marketing…we look like us. We also conduct business like us. To be fair that’s all we can do…we are very bad at pretending to be someone else.

    If we have a tag line its that we want to be seen as the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement of the Funeral Service in that we want to take things that are beautiful and useful (and meaningful) and make them available to people who thought they couldn’t have them. To be fair, though, its also because we’re both quite keen on the Pre-Raphaelites!

    The point is that we don’t actively present ourselves as anything, really, be it mainstream or ‘progressive’…we are just us and people decide whether that’s something they want or not. Generally speaking, it is. In so far as we have an ‘alternative’ label it has come from others.

    I think your main point is a good one, though, and one that we need to be reminded of…most people arranging a funeral are not on some sort of crusade or making a statement in ther choice of FD. They just want someone honest who cares and who will do their best for them.

    1. Charles

      Jenny – I love your idea: it’s that we want to be seen as the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement of the Funeral Service in that we want to take things that are beautiful and useful (and meaningful) and make them available to people who thought they couldn’t have them.

      1. Charles

        We like the Arts and Crafts tag too – William Morris has inspired us to treat the development of new natural burial grounds in the same way that his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings advocates approaching work to an old property.

  4. Charles

    Richard, I can’t see how we can pool the minority brilliants in with the majority sods. Am I allowed to say sods? calling them mainstream.

    A new mainstream perhaps? Eco coffins, now they are mainstream, stocked or available through even the most resistant, unpleasant old fossils.

    ‘progressive’ doesn’t smack of weird or alternative to me it says modern, fresh, unincumbered by stuffy nonsense.

    I hear from families experiencing vile treatment by the mainstream every week. I look forward to the day when the progressives are the majority and we can use a derogitory term for those who haven’t moved on and improved.

    I am also sure that the public have no idea that there is such variety in standards, mission and price. Do you have a better word we could use?

    I usually delight in your posts but this one has made me agitated! Are you going to the NFE? Would like to meet you

    Rosie, NDC

    1. Charles

      Hi Rosie

      In any debate about progressive and mainstream, we need to establish what is fresh and what is ‘stuffy nonsense’.

      I don’t disagree that some families are treated badly by undertakers, possibly of all hues.

      But surely today’s dignified funeral at St Paul’s cannot be in the ‘stuffy nonsense’ category? Those Anglican stiff upper lip traits somehow made it all the more moving.

      Forget the soldiers and gun salutes, the Book of Common Prayer makes clear we are all equal in the eyes of God:

      ‘… like as a father pitieth his own children : even so is the Lord merciful unto them that fear him’.

      ‘For he knoweth whereof we are made : he remembereth that we are but dust’.

      ‘The days of man are but as grass : for he flourisheth as a flower of the field.
      For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone: and the place thereof shall know it no more’.

      The only thing lacking is the Catholic prayer for the soul of the departed:

      ‘Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen’. (Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen)

  5. Charles

    Your company sounds great, Jenny.

    Rosie, I’m pleased you like some/most of my stuff. I like your output too.

    Take this one with a pinch of salt. I’m just an outsider looking in with little grass roots knowledge of many funeral companies. I say at the beginning of the piece it was based purely on a hunch. I was just firing off a theory to see what came back. I’d happily bow to experience and be told I’m wrong. I’m here to learn as well as spout!



  6. Charles

    I’m with Jenny bigtime on this. And Richard, I think you make a cogent and persuasive case. I’ve even tried to make it myself on occasion. Jenny, I love your William Morrisy take on your own excellent business. Brilliant.

  7. Charles

    Thanks to Richard for the Threnody mention. I think we rather fit his general point: that people (mourners) make choices rather than join a movement or strike an attitude. Threnody is exactly what some people want, and absolutely not right for others. I think we are a small part of a big change, but I think the term “progressive” can sound very smug and self-validating. I very much like what Jenny has written. There’s effective, helpful funerals, and there’s ones that don’t work so well; I’m sure there’s examples of both sorts amongst self-styled “progressives” and self-styled: conservatives.”

    I’d like to think our singing helps some people progress with their grieving; that’s the sort of “progressive” I’d seek to be!

    Sometimes we sing at a natural/green burial ground, sometimes we sing at a crem with the undertaker in topper and the limos stretching out to the gate. If it works, it’s good. If it doesn’t, change it.

    And Richard’s right about the ancient nature of funeral singing and chanting. But now, in an era where even church choirs are harder to find, choral singing in a crem by local people – seems an obvious enough thing to do, doesn’t it? Alas, not…. Let’s spread the word.

    We are re-discovering and adapting something ancient; or at least, we’re filling out the congregational hymns somewhat!

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