Thinking the unsinkable

Charles Cowling

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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.

 

 

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Ru Callender
Guest

Poppy, lovely to hear your clarification. I don’t think your doing direct cremations either, just pomp free honest free form rituals.
There wouldn’t be any need for such things as direct cremations if the larger chains didn’t charge such a lot for so little.

Jed
Guest
Jed

What’s a ritual? The church doesn’t have a monopoly on rituals. Can you have one on your own? Does it need to be ‘witnessed’ ‘performed’ or ‘led’? Seems to me that we need all sorts of new language to describe what we do/want/need at a funeral/farewell/disposal. It also occurred to me that I’ve seen many people fly across the globe to attend a funeral – with a coffin – with the actual body of an actual person in it…. I’m not so sure they would make the same effort for a box of ashes. I think it’s a bit Post… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Body or ashes at the funeral? And is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all? A case for the body is that the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body. As for the case for a funeral, the late atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens said: ‘I do think people need ritual, and probably particularly funerals. Because no one wants to be told, “Okay, you have a dead relative. Go bury him someplace.” They want to know… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

I think that we are starting to develop ritual to deal with life events and I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t gain momentum in the future. As far as academic engagement with the usefulness (or otherwise) of funerary ritual is concerned…watch this space 🙂 Nick, speaking as an FD in the North East (and Keith spent many years working for Dignity in the North East) neither of us have heard of ‘Simplicity’. Not that it make any difference to their legal position on this! What we are increasingly seeing is the opening up of options…different amounts and forms of… Read more »

Nick Gandon
Guest

Jenny –
Simplicity Funerals Unit 3, Churchwalk Shopping Centre, Walker, NE6 3DH

regards, Nick

Jed
Guest
Jed

there’s more but I can’t bring myself to type the addresses…

andrew plume
Guest
andrew plume

oooooh

it’s a Dignity low cost/cheapy option shop:

http://www.dignityfunerals.co.uk/index.asp?pageid=18&fd=654

just how cheap, I’m not sure

it’s clearly a start up operation, this will be why Nick is aware of it

regards

andrew

Poppy Mardall
Guest

I think it depends what you mean by ‘direct cremation’. There are some cremations where the family choose not to come – for many reasons – but what unifies them is a feeling that what is happening at the crematorium is not something they need to be part of. They want us to undertake this responsibility in a respectful, simple and (dare I see it) beautiful way. Then there are the people – a much much bigger group in my experience – who are trying to create something intimate and spontaneous. They want to be able to come to the… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Nice clarification, Poppy. Thanks.

Edward Cutler
Guest

We have offered Direct Cremations since we opened in 2009. Many families have chosen this option.

Would it be worth forming a Trade Association dedicated to Direct Cremation providers?

Richard
Guest
Richard

Thought-provoking post, Charles.

But while I’m familiar with the poor and fuss-free middle classes opting for direct cremation, who are the ‘I’m-not-worth-it brigade’? I’m not familiar with this tribe and am intrigued.

I agree with comments by Jonathan and Kathryn. Funerals are for the living and their diverse ritual remains valuable for closure, and that the presence of the body remains a valuable symbol at the time of the final farewell.

This is not a criticism of direct cremation for those who want it, and those who offer it. It’s clearly meeting demand for any number of socio-economic reasons. But existential reasons?

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Richard, the trade come across people whose declared last wishes really are ‘just put me in a black bag’ and they mean it. Poppy Mardall — and, doubtless, others — could elaborate the ways in which direct cremation actually works. It need not be the brutalist thing that you may imagine. I think it may be a subtle approach to the problem of skipping a groove, funeralwise. While some purchasers of direct cremation are seeking to sidestep a funeral, others are choosing to engage with the disposal process but with a MINIMUM of ‘fuss’: meaning no hearse, no lims, no… Read more »

Nick Gandon
Guest

Kathryn – “skipping a groove”. Priceless.

– Nick

james showers
Guest

I am with Kathryn on this question of ‘ritual’. I observe the great relief and shift in atmosphere that follows a funeral that has been both thorough and well crafted and even delivered by the family. I don’t believe it’s relief just ‘cos it’s over; it enables a step out into another domain, where wider questions can be faced. The question in a secular world is how on earth to make it meaningful. You dedicated celebrants dig deep to find this. Further abbreviation in funerals is important to be able to offer (Simplicita et al, including ourselves). But it’s no… Read more »

Mr XX
Guest
Mr XX

Who wants to bet that Dignity never actually trades anywhere in the UK as Simplicity funerals? How could they, when this is not what they want. Their business model seems to demand the sale of full service, full price funerals.

Be warned, Corporate’s can always afford lawyers, to write their letters, register trade names and enforce their rights.

Nick Gandon
Guest

Just for the record Mr XX, Dignity were on the right side of the rules with that one. They do have a business which operates as Simplicity Funerals up in the North East.

– Nick

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

But back to the main theme . . .

Your provocation is interesting, Charles, but from my ritualist perspective the question should be the other way up: how is it that we stumble through quasi-bereavement sorrows such as job-losses and relationship break-ups WITHOUT rituals that engage the support of our whole communities?

Nick Gandon
Guest

Thanks Charles, for giving me the opportunity to explain the reason for our re-branding… Late last year, Dignity Plc, quite properly, drew to our attention the fact that they had recently transferred to themselves, the intellectual rights to the word SIMPLICITY from a company associated with their SCI roots. In the UK, the word SIMPLICITY is a registered trade mark when used in respect of any services connected with funeral or cremation. SCI registered it as their trade mark back in 1990 – and for some unknown reason, it failed to show up when we searched the records in 2007.… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Wishing you the best of luck, Nick! How troubling to live in this world in which we lie down and let the corporates ‘trademark’ the essence of things: language, seeds, genes . . .