In October 2008, in a piece about direct cremation, I wrote this: In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change? In July 2009 I wrote: I never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations*, it’s called.
I seem not to have been wholly persuaded, however, for in March 2010 I wrote: It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores. In May 2010, in response to a very valuable analysis by Nick Gandon, Jonathan, a sagacious and valued commenter on this blog, wrote: Funeral directors aren’t set up to cater for direct cremation because the demand is almost nil.
Seems like ancient history now.
The growth of direct cremation marks a cultural shift that, so far as I know, has gone unremarked by the British media. So far as the media is concerned, direct cremation doesn’t mark a cultural shift at all, it’s simply a branch of the cheaper funerals market, and we all want cheaper funerals, don’t we? The Dismal Trade seems mostly to share this analysis. Direct cremation is for poor people who can’t afford a full fig funeral, for a few well-off middle class people who want a ‘fuss-free’ funeral, and for the I’m-not-worth-it brigade who don’t reckon they’re worth funeralling anyway. It’s a niche market.
So far as we can tell from their responses, funeral directors experience the impact of direct cremation as a commercial, not a cultural phenomenon, and certainly not as an existential threat. Most people still want a trad funeral, but direct cremation has affected the trad funerals market by making stripped-down respectable. It has empowered funeral shoppers to say no to stuff they don’t actually really want. The days of one limo or two have been succeeded by one limo or none — oh, and no flowers, either, thanks. We are witnessing a watering down of the Big Black Funeral. How much more dilution can it take?
Culturally, until the last five years or so, we supposed there to be a crucial, indispensable emotional and spiritual value in holding a funeral in the presence of a dead body. Now, we’re not so sure. A combination of all manner of factors may be responsible, longevity in particular — when death is merely the postscript to a long and beastly illness, there doesn’t seem to be much more grief work to do. On the other hand, the deaths of young people remain not just as momentous as ever, but more so.
There is, arguably, a perfectly good rationale for direct cremation. Reducing a body to ‘ash’ and rendering it, thereby, portable, durable and divisible, is a very effective way of preparing it for a funeral. There is remarkably little understanding of this among funeral directors; most of them simply do not get it, probably because they scent no commercial opportunity.
So here are the big questions:
Is it preferable, in the interest of emotional and spiritual health, to hold a funeral in the presence of a dead body? Or do ashes actually serve perfectly well?
Biggest question of all:
- Is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all? After all, we get to carry on without the benefit of a formal ceremony or other ritual observance after near-bereavement experiences like the breakdown of a relationship, or redundancy, or a child leaving home. We resolve those privately.
It seems extraordinary that the funeral industry has mounted no concerted defence of the funeral. Nor, so far as I know, have any academics responded to what’s going on and debated the question: Is your funeral really necessary?
Because if pragmatic Brits cotton on to the idea that a funeral serves no purpose, does them absolutely no good at at all, is all just a lot of hollow show and hot air, they’ll be only too pleased to say goodbye to a tradition they never had much time for anyway.
And that’ll be curtains for an industry thought to be unsinkable.
*Simplicity Cremations is now Simplicita Cremations. I’ll leave it to Nick to explain why.