A wee whiff of Auld Reekie

Charles 1 Comment

The stopping train takes more or less forever to get to Edinburgh through the fertile fracking fields of the desolate north-east. I’d been invited to look round  Scotmid Co-operative Funeral Directors. Scotmid is a small, independent members’ co-operative dating back to 1859. It owns 10 funeral homes. Like all co-operatives, it both co-operates and competes with other co-operatives. Co-operative Funeralcare has a big presence up here, especially in Glasgow.

The premier funeral director in Edinburgh is William Purves, admiringly spoken of by all and acknowledged to be superb. It is a firm governed by Christian values — all key staff are practising Christians – and it is characterised by a gender balance which you can muse on here.

I was interested to see how Scotmid upholds soft co-operative values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others in what is a very competitive field.

Scotmid has come a long way in the five years since it appointed Englishman James Blackburn as its Head of Funerals. Back then it was known as Grotmid. James has upped its standards, revamped its funeral homes, replaced ageing vehicles, instituted training programmes and CPD. Hats off to James’s firm but unobtrusive management style. He’s loving his job and he’s clearly something of an alchemist. The business is thriving. Last year the funerals arm accounted for just 1 per cent of Scotmid’s turnover but 13 per cent of its profit.

I quickly established from my brilliant driver, Paul, that funeral traditions in this part of Scotland remain notably black and traditional. I debated with him whether he supposed a strong sense of nationalism to be a contributory factor. In England, after all, where loyalty to national customs is not strong, there is wide diversity of funeral styles — more people do their own thing. I remarked on the abundance of Saltires fluttering from buildings and told Paul that, in England, a St George’s flag tends to be viewed with wariness. He was surprised.

Things have moved on. Funerals in Scotland are no longer events from which women are excluded. Even the custom of assigning burial cords to pallbearers is now shared between the sexes. Each pallbearer receives a position card detailing which cord to take. 

Church ministers don’t charge for conducting funerals in Scotland. As they say, it’s part of their job. Bereaved people may make a donation in lieu. The rate for secular celebrants is, therefore, by English standards, depressed – around £150. Even retired ministers only ask for £80-100. The interface between death and commerce was ever uneasy.

Scotmid has a big ‘hub’ mortuary at its premises in Forrester Park Drive. Obviously, we paid particular attention to it. We gave it full marks. The garage is here, too. There isn’t room to house all the vehicles under one roof, so some stay out all night in full view – in one of Edinburgh’s less salubrious areas. Does no one ever lob a drunken, Friday night brick at them? Never. The staff have ‘an understanding’ with the locals. We were pleased to spend some time with Scotmid’s embalmer. Embalming is a Cinderella service if ever there was one. You get to spend all day in a windowless room, and it’s the arranger who receives all the praise and gratitude from visiting families. So: here’s to you, Pete.

Every country presents a language barrier to visitors, and Scotland is no different. The words may be English but the accent is something else. I wasn’t able to tune my ear by interacting with the hotel staff because they were all Eastern Europeans. So there were, I’m ashamed to say, episodes of incomprehension followed by my embarrassed requests to repeat, slowly. Vocabulary sometimes differs. In Scotland, they prefer ‘parlour’ to ‘funeral home’, and I was delighted to hear someone refer to a ‘funeral undertaker’. I was especially interested to hear Jacqueline Spiers, a procurator fiscal depute (coroner in England and Wales) from Glasgow, refer to ‘the corpse’. How refreshing to hear someone use such a euphemism-free term, I reflected… until I realised that Jacquie was, actually, referring to ‘the cops’.

Jacquie was speaking at a conference for everyone at Scotmid funerals. It was the first time they’d done it – and on a Saturday, too. The lure of bacon sandwiches on arrival was enough to bring everyone together to hear a range of luminaries including Dr Brian Parsons and the Rev Paul Sinclair. Scotmid’s chief exec, John Brodie, remarked that at the same sort of event for other branches of Scotmid he’d expect a fair number of shuffling latecomers. The funeral people were there, every last one of them, on the dot. Of course.

It’s never entirely easy being an English person in a Celtic country – you never know what historic wickedness you’re going to have to apologise for. Jacquie Spiers, marvellously feisty in all things, raged against the denial of responsibility to procurators fiscal of powers of enquiry into any Scot who dies abroad. ‘Our dead belong to us.’ She was at her most thrilling when describing her mission to hunt down those who kill unlawfully, including those who mistreat the elderly. She appealed to all present to bring to her attention any dead person who showed signs of neglect or ill-treatment in a care home. Would that there were more of this everywhere. Would that there were more like Jacquie. Amazing woman.

A funeral home/parlour is only as good as the people who work in it. Scotmid’s people really are outstandingly nice, full of warmth and character, and I hope I managed to convey that to them credibly. I was sad to say goodbye to them. I’ve written a review here.


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