Funerals, who needs em?

Charles Cowling

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When England first played Scotland, on 30 November 1872, both teams employed formations that would raise eyebrows today. Scotland went for a cautious 2-2-6 while England employed a more swashbuckling 1-1-8. The game was all kick-and-rush in those days.

Kick-and-rush. It’s how businesses, anxious to futureproof themselves, respond to prophecy. Some bright spark peers into a crystal ball, dreams a dream and holds up a trembling finger. No matter that their vision is little more than a projection of their wishes and values, everyone rushes towards it.

Remember the Baby Boomer Hypothesis which held that, just as baby boomers reinvented youth culture, so they would reinvent death culture? Pretty much everybody bought that, including the entire advisory council of the GFG. The theory was that these free radicals would reject bleakness and embrace creative, themed, personalised, sometimes iconoclastic celebrations of life. The good news for the industry was that there would still be good money to be made from funerals so long as undertakers made the switch from cookie-cutter to bespoke; from being po-faced solemn-event planners to bright-eyed party-planners adding value through accessorisation and offering concierge-level service and red-carpet delivery. Pretty much the package Alex Polizzi tried to sell to David Holmes in The Fixer.

It’s not happening, is it? And as we take that in, we reflect that baby boomers have, yes, always been insouciant about what went before and unsentimental in their rejection of it. They’re re-inventors, not renovators. And they’re not all going the same way.

The evidence seems to be that baby boomers are increasingly asking themselves what good a funeral would do, really. More and more of them see little or no emotional or spiritual value in the experience. They’re not all rejecting them out of hand all at once. Some are dressing trad funerals up in a gently creative way with wacky hearses, jolly coffins and startling music choices. But on the whole they’re whittling them down. The reasons are complex and we’ve rehearsed some of them here before.

Dissatisfaction with the value offered by a funeral is probably most widely evidenced in the near-universal belief that funerals are too expensive — ie, they’re not worth what they cost. The strength of this rejection of funerals is evidenced in people’s unrealistic incredulity that a basic funeral should cost much more than having an old washing machine taken away.

Read the comments under any broadsheet article about funerals. The evidence of rejection is everywhere. If the effect of a funeral is to leave you feeling, next day, beached and empty, that’s not surprising. A funeral is supposed to fill a hole, not leave a void. Here are some recent comments in a discussion forum on Mumsnet, of all places:

My MIL has said … she wants the absolute bare minimum in terms of coffin and cremation. No service, no ‘do’ afterwards. Then she wants close family to either go somewhere nice for the weekend together. 

I had it put in my will that i don’t want any sort of funeral when i die. I think the money funeral directors charge for the most simple of services is utterly abhorrent

[My mother-in-law] died recently, she didn’t care what we did by way of funeral (I think her only words on the subject were that we could drop her off the pier for all she cared…)

My uncle didn’t want a service – he just went straight to the crematorium.

I wouldn’t want to burden love ones with the cost, I have life insurance but would want the cheapest option

It is criminal how the respectful disposal of our loved ones has turned into a million pound industry!

I have left strict instructions that I am to have no funeral service and I have made sure everyone knows about it. It is written in my will and my family would never go against my wishes. They know how strongly I feel about it.

Immediate cremation, ashes in a simple box and then take me down our local and stick me on the bar whilst everyone has a quick drink. Next day, throw my ashes in the sea at the place I grew up in as a child. That will do. No order of service with dodgy photos and poems, no wittering on about my life and no-one failing miserably to pick out my favourite songs. Boo hiss boo.

I am a crematorium manager, and can confirm that plenty of people choose to have no funeral service.

I just don’t get the whole thing. I’ve only ever been to one funeral that was really a lovely rememberence and not out of duty of what they thought they had to do. I would much rather my family used money to go on holiday to our favourite place and remembered me there.

My FIL keeps saying he doesn’t want a funeral and wants to be cremated asap with no ceremony or fuss.

We chose not to have a funeral for my dad when he died. Cardboard coffin, cremation with no service. I think he would have been pleased but I tend not to tell anyone as I have some judgey reactions as if we were being cheap (was not relevant) or he was not loved (he was very much).

The Mumsnet discussion includes a few objections on the lines of: ‘To be fair, it’s not really about you. It’s about the loved ones you left behind, it’s an essential grieving process.’ But the overwhelming majority can see no good in a funeral.

This would seem to overturn the supposition that excellent secular funeral celebrants and empathetic undertakers would save the public ceremonial funeral by making it meaningful once more. But there’s a growing realisation that you don’t need to put a corpse in a box and tote it to the crem in blackmobiles, you can create a perfectly satisfying, private, informal farewell event with ashes. Direct cremation, already growing rapidly, looks set to skyrocket.

I know that there are lots of people who believe that reports of the demise of the funeral are exaggerated. They tell me to stop being so pessimistic, things are getting better. But I had lunch with Fran Hall, chair of the Natural Death Centre on Friday, and was struck to discover she thinks as I do. She said, “One day soon the industry is going to wake up and find itself dead”.

It’s possible that there’s no saving the funeral — it’s had its time. After all, it’s not just Britain that’s saying nah. But funeral people, overly focussed on commercial concerns, are putting up absolutely no concerted philosophical defence.

If the public, ceremonial funeral is worth saving, now is the time for the best in the business, from all walks of belief, to come together and be an influential voice in public discourse about funerals, much of which remains incoherent. If the emotional and/or spiritual health of the nation is at stake, who better to do it? Ans: among others, the people whose livelihoods depend on it. Come on, don’t go down without a fight. Do we really need funerals? If so, why?

Don’t all rush, I could be wrong, this may not be a Dunkirk moment. But crisis or no there still exists a pressing need to make a considered, rational and persuasive case for funerals — if, that is, you truly believe they do any real, deep and lasting good. Do you?

There are an awful lot of people out there who don’t. If you can’t demonstrate the purpose and value of your product, who’d want to buy it?

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Michael Jarvis
Michael Jarvis

One of the most apt words here is ‘re-invention’. For example, many people who imagine that wicker coffins are a relatively recent innovation should do a little research regarding Francis Seymour Hayden… Questioning funerary practices isn’t something dreamt up by baby boomers. Sadly the great American poet Edna St Vincent Millay is rather overlooked these days; in 1923 she wrote a sonnet which includes the words ―there need not be The stiff disorder of a funeral It concludes I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies The main difference between the times in which Seymour Hayden and… Read more »


Your right about the shyness too. Either offer direct cremation or don’t. It’s not something to be ashamed of just another choice.


I agree with Nick (where have I heard that before…) what we are seeing now isn’t about the death of the funeral, but the arrival of choice. For a very long time, for most people living in the mainstream of society, there has been only one way of marking a death. While society, family structures, relationships and religious affiliations, have all fragmented and diversified the traditional funeral has remained remarkably unchanged. You can infer all sorts of reasons for its persistence: a concern to do the right thing; an unfocused but deep seated superstition about the rites around death and… Read more »


I wonder if people realise that when they say, ‘I don’t want a funeral’ their families are still going to end up paying a lot of money. The only truly cheap way to get rid of a body is to wrap it in an old sheet and bury it yourself in someone’s back garden. Invite a few people round to say goodbye and you have a free funeral.


Good Afternoon Lucy, David, Nick & others soon to comment, Totally agree with all the remarks here, 1 or 2 have hit a nerve about the divide with location / Postcode and the difference in costs, a true but sad fact in the world we live in. I lost my father 6 years ago and whilst working for our local coop in Suffolk, I had no Intention of using the same in Liverpool, I had also worked for Dignity in Suffolk and a Independent was a must find. With all my family still Living in Liverpool the Job of arranging… Read more »

Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams

I am 67 years old and I do not want a funeral service when I die. Nor do I particularly want to go in a hearse, I would much prefer to go in the compartment underneath and be taken directly into the crematorium. I only have two adult children, no other family, so limousines and a service would be a waste. I have contacted practically every Funeral Directors in Liverpool and they all have a set price and the cheapest one is extortionate on all of them. I would like somebody who would just charge for the doctor’s fee, no… Read more »


A Google search brings up Barringtons who are Good Funeral Guide recommended independent FDs and offer direct cremation – which seems to be what you are asking for, Shirley, contact them here: Telephone 0151 928 1625


Hi Shirley, I am over 250 miles away from you but I have my family living in Dovecot, Prescot and Ecceleston as you will know these areas are just round the corner from you, I will be only too happy to assist you in all what you are asking for, I will travel in my estate car and stay with family overnight, the estate car can be used as a means of transport.Please make contact with me and I will explain all what needs to be done, everything can be done over the phone and email. My prices are all… Read more »


There is not one comment David has made that I don’t agree with! I too think there is huge value to those left behind if the funeral is right for the person who died. Over the last month, each funeral I have arranged and conducted have been completely different. For one family, money was no option and they wanted all the bells and whistles. One family didn’t have to worry about money and wanted a wicker coffin and a recycled paper ashes casket. One family just wanted me to take the coffin (that they had ordered online and had delivered… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell

I couldn’t agree more, Lucy!

Ru Callender

Charles, how dare you make me fume before supper.
I thought Mumsnet never recovered from the great penis beaker debate…..


Funerals don’t do any good? Nonsense! The same old, same old service that people tend to expect has dubious value, but a funeral that has family input and is personal is very useful within the grieiving process.. It is true that the changes are small steps rather than big leaps with the babyboomer’s but surely the change from religious to celebrants is a large step. As you say one of the big problems is the expense. We had a family come in a couple of weeks ago who had been quoted £4300 for a simple funeral service with a large… Read more »

Nick Gandon

‘morning David. I agree very much with what you have said. I also think that many families in the North West don’t realise that others in the rest of the UK have to pay somewhat more for funerals, as a rule. To “chip-in” on your point regarding direct cremation (couldn’t help myself), I do believe that you are absolutely correct in saying that more funeral businesses will be looking to take a slice of the cake, so to speak, and offer this option as part of their regular services. This was always going to happen. Unlike yourself though, many others… Read more »



I’m not sure that it is an increase in demand or an increase by some businesses in thinking that there is easy money to be made from funerals, but small margins need volume, which is why the pay per click adverts are bombarded by certain direct cremation companies.

Kind regards,