Validating the unverifiable

Charles 7 Comments

Last year’s TV documentaries revealed shocking scenes in funeral home mortuaries which horrified undertakers as much as they did the public. But just as the documentaries did not rouse the public to descend in angry mobs on their nearest funeral home, so they failed, also, to rouse good undertakers to fight back by demonstrating convincingly to their clients that Mum will be safe with us, we’ll treat her as if she were one of ours.

On the contrary, there was even a fair amount of defence of Co-op hub practice on the grounds that it was very similar to the way hospitals store their dead patients. All well and good – but sorry, if the punters don’t like it, don’t do it, end of.

People who make telly-shockers haven’t time to explore the nuanced complexities of truth; what they want is dirt and viewing figures. There is value in this work. It does no harm to unmask villains. 

Would that the programme makers had instead smuggled a hidden camera into the mortuary of C Waterhouse & Sons, in Sussex. There, everything is spotless and the dead are cared for with immense care and respect by incredibly nice people. They needn’t have stopped there. They could have gone on and fearlessly exposed and held up to public scrutiny wonderfully good practice in a great many funeral homes throughout the country. Great stories, never told. Their clients, with their eyes tight shut to the care of their dead, never get to know how wonderfully well served they are.  

Why on earth did the good undertakers not fight back by showing the word how different they are from the sleazebags?

I suppose they would shrug and say yes, nice idea, but how are you to do that if your clients refuse all invitations to visit your mortuary or play any part in caring for their dead? It’s a good point. People today are as conflicted about their dead as they have been throughout human history. On the one hand, they recoil from them; on the other, they require them to be cared for with reverence — by other people.

If blind trust is to be the basis for a family’s faith in the good offices of a funeral home, it is hardly surprising if mortuary practice sometimes falls short of the highest standards. The professionalization of ‘death care’ can have a distancing and even a de-sensitising effect on an undertaker, however dedicated. Is it okay to play Radio 2 while laying someone out? Never really thought about it, mate. Was it appropriate that you took that call on your phone, swapped that joke with the delivery person? Given the unexamined nature of mortuary routines, it is staggering how much excellent practice goes on.

How, then, is an undertaker to show the world what the world averts its gaze from?

One way might be to establish the care of the body as a ritual – as the Jews do with their tahara, the ritual cleansing and dressing of the dead. You can see how they do it in the video clip above. Respect for the dead is demonstrated by a chevra kadisha in a number of ways, for example, by never passing anything over a dead person but always walking round them. There’s some very fussy water-pouring and knot-tying. At the end of the process, all present ask forgiveness for any offence they might have caused.

A ritual institutionalises respect and is a constant reminder of the importance of the task. A ritual does not, of course, need a spiritual or religious rationale as its basis; it is simply a customary, heightened, elaborate and excellent way of doing something; it’s a five-star, gold-plated routine — it’s a good habit. 

Up in Macclesfield, undertaker Andrew Smith believes that the ethos of a funeral home is established in the mortuary and pervades everything everyone does. A lot of undertakers would agree with this, and there is much power in the idea.

But to get back to the big question: how can good undertakers demonstrate the high standards of their mortuary practice?

One way might be to describe and embed it in their contract. Think how reassuring that would be to clients. You could start with something like this:

During the laying out and dressing of (name of the person who has died) the mood in the mortuary will be one of serenity, reverence and deep concentration. You have asked for silence/you have asked for the following music to be played: _________________ and/or the following text to be read: __________________________

No one present will engage in any activity (such as eating, drinking or answering the telephone) which would constitute a distraction from the task.

There will be no talk except that which is necessary for the accomplishment of the task. No voice will be raised, there will be no levity, nor the expression of any strong emotion.

No interruption of the laying out and dressing of the body will be permitted unless personal safety is at risk.

When ______________________ lays out and dresses the body of (name of the person who has died) he/she may talk to him/her. You, the client, assent to this on the understanding that their tone will always be respectful.

Now, there’s every possibility that if people could see that this is the way things are going to be done for their Mum… they’ll want to be there, too. Not everyone, of course. But a lot more than now. How very empowering that would be.

And, as we never tire of saying, no undertaker ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. 


  1. Charles

    Dear Charles

    What an inspiring piece.
    At the Natural Death Centre we’d also like to see Funeral Directors sing how good they are by a multifaceted approach. One way is by asking their clients to rate them. Their best advert for FDs is the family/ friends who have organised a funeral with them for someone who has died. Then its power to the people as if you’re good the more people will say so. Now, some may say how could you possibly ask family/friends to rate their service – well there is many a more forward FD who posts their clients feedback forms and it could have a short sentence on the bottom inviting them to do so. I can hear the chattering out there in internet land of FDs saying ‘but only the grumpy ones will rate me and complain’- well, the NDC alongside Jon Underwood have devised ways of assessing and moderating this.
    People can also access your list of FDs here on your Good Funeral Guide site. The Natural Death Centre charity also has a list of ‘Recommended Funeral Directors’ (see NDC web) and so if someone phones us up say from Derby we can advice. We invite families to give us direct feedback. Last year alone the NDC received over 40,000 phone calls/emails to its helpline and over 130,000 web hits, and it’s increasing monthly & so people are seeking information.

  2. Charles

    I wonder why you chose to name C Waterhouse & Sons rather than any other firm as an example of good practice? Well done, though, for they are fantastic people. I know; they have been attending to the needs of various members of my family in the Sussex Weald for generations. They are the absolute antithesis of the big multiples.
    I wonder if they still have on their office wall a letter from Kipling’s daughter, thanking them for their care of him?

    1. Charles

      Plucked at random, Hugh, to make the point that there are lots of funeral directors quietly working away to standards which would greatly astonish (and gratify) their clients.

      When last there, I saw the letter from Mrs Kipling. I believe (this may not hold up in court) that C Waterhouse also buried Evelyn Waugh (though why he wasn’t looked after by A France I can’t imagine).

      I am relieved that, in capriciously singling out C Waterhouse, you have vindicated my judgement.

      Good of you to call by with a comment.

  3. Charles

    Wonderful idea, Charles, to have such wording in the contract. It would surely be transformative. Instead of leaving great troubling unanswered questions (“yes, that’s the coffin we want, but actually, er, how will you deal with Dad now?”) it gives a basis for understanding, and a gateway for participation. A valuable challenge here to FDs to take up and use to make their work more appreciated. Outstanding post.

  4. Charles

    Asperge me hyssopo et mundabor; lava me et super nivem dealbabor.

    Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed:
    Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.

  5. Charles
    Allistair Anderson

    What a great idea Charles. Hasina and I have been talking about something like this for a while. An agreed and structured way for people to interact with the person who has died. If the nurses have last offices then I makes perfect sense for funeral directors to have a thoughtful and caring approach they can tell the families about.

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