Funerals, who needs em?

Charles 24 Comments

Screenshot 2014-01-18 at 16


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?


  1. Charles

    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 company. This cost was significantly lower with ourselves, but how do you get the message out when families go back to the same firm that they have used for generations even though it is now owned by a large firm and the original owners have left years ago?

    Also the direct cremation providers have a problem, they are working within a shrinking market. It is a niche that is being filled by more and more businesses. Traditional funeral firms will eventually catch on and start providing direct cremation if they don’t do that already. My business will match a direct cremation quote for the same service if that is what the family want.

    We regularly meet families who feel that other funeral businesses just don’t want to help them. They don’t print service sheets, order flowers, charge more to place a notice in the newspaper, have arcane and confusing pricing of their funeral fees and are secretive of what we do.

    As you say in your post the funeral is mostly for the people who remain to get together and remember. The feedback we get is that a more flexible open minded and helpful service is what the clients want rather than nothing at all.

    1. Charles

      ‘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 appear to want to distance their existing business from their direct cremation offering – by trading under a different name. (Can’t think why….)

      I’s a free world, or so they say, however, what really worries me is the increasing number of websites that offer direct cremation (and simple funerals) where the only contact detail is a mobile number, with no address and no operators name. These sites seem to come and go, but some are actually operated by established FDs who must either be exceptionally coy, or “don’t want to be associated with that type of thing”, but they don’t want to miss out either….

      The increase in firms offering direct cremation may well be countered by the increase in demand for this simple service. Also, those firms offering this choice “incognito”, may well have unknowingly stumbled across the path to good marketing. A substantial number of our clients approach us because they don’t want to use a traditional undertaker. They don’t want to walk through that door. They don’t want to have to talk through all the other options first. And they really don’t want to pay for all those erroneous running costs that will be ultimately factored-in to the final bill.

      Because we specialize, our prices are typically a third less than most FDs currently charge who offer this service, though cost is not everything.

      Surely CHOICE is the thing…

      Best regards,


      1. Charles


        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,


      1. Charles

        Charles, I am still recovering from the penis beaker debate. I was traumatised 🙂

        We find that people are looking for good value and an increasing number are taking the ceremony themselves, although this is still a minority, but most are not abandoning the idea of a funeral in droves.

        Many are suspicious of us to start with but when we do not try to upwell and explain very clearly where every item on the account comes from they generally change very quickly.

        Not quite Dunkirk yet, I think.

  2. Charles

    “a funeral that has family input and is personal is very useful.” Couldn’t agree with you more, David. The more FDs empower their clients, the more satisfying their clients’ experience is likely to be. For FDs, of course, this means being prepared to play more of an enabling role, which will, paradoxically, make them much more important than by snaffling up the ceremonial role so vital, it seems, to the self-esteem of so many. Have you thought of writing a pamphlet entitled something like What A Funeral Can Do For You? I don’t think enough people realise.

    Good celebrants are brilliant, but there are too many, now, who aren’t. The market is being flooded by the nice-little-earner crowd. FDs need to be more selective, and they need to do more, imo, to help people find the one who’s right for them.

    As to cost, we are told that a funeral is one of the biggest expenses people will face, but it’s notable that many of the same people manage to find the money for other things. The price of a funeral wouldn’t buy a reliable second-hand car. A high value funeral is affordable.

    The way things are, a private family ceremony for ashes is beginning to look like the way to go. The trad funeral is suffering from disrepute.

    1. Charles

      I know I have said this to you before, Charles, but I think you are seriously underestimating the difficulty people have in paying for a funeral.
      People choose to buy a car, or a sofa, or a holiday. They choose when to buy it and have the opportunity to save up for it or budget it into the family finances in some way. The same is true of funerals.

      If you have NO spare money then a funeral, particularly an unexpected one, will cripple you whether it costs £5,000 or £500. The ones who struggle most are those on a low income who are therefore not entitled to any state help but are already barely making ends meet.

      This is something that is making me particularly angry at the moment. I don’t know how we address it, as a country, but something has to be done as a matter of urgency.


      1. Charles

        What I was trying to say is that a high-value funeral is worth the cost — if you can put a price tag on these things. My fear is that people are beginning to think in droves that no amount of money is worth spending on a funeral. Yes, agreed, it’s the unexpectedness of a funeral that finds them skint. I don’t think I underestimate the number of people finding it difficult. They are, in effect, picking up the tab for someone else unless that person really did have no spare money to squirrel away for their funeral. I think there is, on the one hand, genuine need and on the other some irresponsibility.

        But back to the main point: funeral people need to explain to the public what good a funeral is going to do them, because people are doubting whether it will do them any good at all.

        The spectre of direct cremation is a commercial threat. But direct cremation also affords an affordable alternative to a conventional funeral at the same time as offering a high-value experience.

        What’s to be done about the rising tide of funeral poverty I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does, do they?

        1. Charles

          Genuine funeral poverty is a huge spectre and no, I don’t know what to do do about it. We have tried, in the little way that we can to help and, largely, failed.
          However, I take your point that more needs to be made of the value of a funeral!

          I don’t take Direct Cremation as a commercial threat for a number of reasons. One is that they will never suit everyone. We have done very few direct cremations or ‘simple funerals’…not because we don’t give people the option but because they don’t choose them. Maybe its a geographical thing. The main reason, though, is that as a business we have no issue with providing direct cremation when that is what is required! As Nick says, there is still a need to ensure that Direct Cremations are offered by honest and honourable folk!

  3. Charles

    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 to my office) to the hospital, place Mum in and dress her in a gown, go straight up to the Crematorium and they helped me put the coffin onto a bier, wheel her into the chapel and they helped me place her on the catafalque. I used my VW estate with a deck in the back to transport her and as soon as she was in the Chapel, I was free to go.
    All completely different funerals, but absolutely right for those families.

    There are two things I do in my business. I have a breakdown of all the charges and people can mix and match anything they like. I also have a ‘simple service option’ where I still allow them to choose a different coffin other than the one I provide. I will still dress them in their own clothes. I will still ask them when they would like the funeral to be. I will still let them come in and view the deceased…even on a Saturday. How many big companies would do this?

    Direct cremations are possible but in Oxford, Dignity owns the crematorium and won’t discount the price. Neither will the other two crematoriums in Oxford so direct cremations are a bit of a postcode lottery.

    The most important things are choice and flexibility. Independents have the most amazing opportunity to embrace these two concepts and there are some brilliant funeral directors who do. They are the one’s who put their clients first and bend over backwards every day of the week to make the most simple funeral spectacular and their clients wouldn’t even notice. That is the sign of a brilliant funeral director.

    I was tweeting with Alice Arnold (ex BBC radio broadcaster) about her father’s funeral. She didn’t say much about the actual service, but on the way to funeral in the back of the limousine both her and her brother told her Mother she looked beautiful.

    After the service, the funeral director said to her Mother ‘Your children are right…you do look beautiful.’

    Again, something so simple and so thoughtful to say to someone and that gave enormous value to that particular family. Maybe they wouldn’t have got that if they had had a direct cremation or had gone to a large chain?

    Often independents are cheaper than the large chains, but why aren’t we all banding together and shouting it from the rooftops?! This infuriates me more than anything else.
    Out of everyone, we are the most flexible 90% of the time are cheapest and I genuinely believe better value for money…but we really shout be telling everyone about it. I just feel that this is yet another wasted opportunity to tell everyone how good we are.

    Of course there are exceptions…there always is. How long do they last though?

  4. Charles

    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 the funeral and having a part in the decision making I spent a few days doing so with the family.
    We contacted a Independent from St Helens and agreed a time to visit him, 100% praise to the chap that looked after us, he was remarkable in every detail, very laid back attitude yet he listened to us all, my Mum, me and my 3 sisters all had our say, he made notes in what looked like a pocket diary, nothing to formal, and nothing was too much trouble for him.(Charles If requested I can name the Funeral Directors in Question )
    When the choosing of the coffin arrived all my sisters and Mum selected for the last supper coffin as my father always had a sandwich, or something to eat before he went to sleep, I broke the mould here and mentioned the fact we were discussing the possibility of a 3rd limousine, yet couldn’t really justify the cost, and I mentioned the fact the last supper had a plastic mould on the sides and apart from that the coffin was Identical to the 2nd one we had been shown yet had a £220.00 difference. I asked my family to be practical and use there heads and not there hearts, we all agreed the 2nd coffin was suitable and we had the 3rd limousine.
    The Funeral Arranger agreed with me.
    As for the comments on Direct Cremations personally I treat each and every family the same, I dislike the word client, I think family sounds more personal and the word client sounds far to much like what a big chain would use, like Lucy I will happily open my chapel during the weekends, and evenings, I will dress the deceased in a gown provided by us or the deceased’s own clothing.
    Each funeral is as unique as the person that has died, and the cost nowadays is a issue, I am happy for a family to use as much or as little of my services as needed, if the family buy a coffin of the internet and only want me to collect the deceased, look after them, and transport them on the day of the funeral then I’m ok with this, I will adjust all my fees accordingly so the family only get charged for the services they need, I’m sure some of the Independents locally to me will do the same, I’m not convinced the big chains will.
    A funeral is a time to say goodbye to a loved one, not your savings.

    1. Charles
      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 embalming (although I worry myself sick that maybe I would not be properly dead, and this would make sure I was) as even today you still here about people who are thought to be dead but aren’t, then direct delivery to the crematorium with no religious service. Is there anyone in the Broadgreen/Huyton district of Liverpool who could do this and reduce the cost please. Thank you.

      1. Charles

        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

      2. Charles

        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 on my website and if you need to discus this in more detail please call me on 01473 80613, Mobile is 07957491059 and email is

  5. Charles

    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.

  6. Charles

    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 the consequences of getting it wrong; an unwillingness to engage directly with the process, handing it over to ‘the priest and the doctor In their long coats running over the fields’, the funeral director, with his business model rooted firmly in the old way of doing things, not far behind.

    What we are seeing now is, in my view a huge cause of optimism, because at last the old hegemony is losing its grip. People are more engaged, more anarchic, freer to do something that satisfies their sense of what is right. Above all they are less deferential and much more confident that what they choose will be ok: no one in this world or the next will be too bothered if they make something up for themselves.

    What we are seeing reflects this. Funerals aren’t disappearing (whatever we say the traditional funeral is still far and away the most common) but the spectrum of rituals to mark a death is broader and the variants from the norm less marginal – from no or minimal ritual to plumed horses, gun carriages and archbishops.

    This, surely, is cause for celebration rather than grief?

  7. Charles

    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 Millay queried the status quo and now, is that we have at our disposal the benefit of wide-reaching and instantaneous platforms for discussion and the dissemination of ideas.

  8. Charles

    Ah, Hayden, the earth-to-earth burialist; unquestionably one for the pantheon. I think he was a papier mache man, too. Yes there is nothing new under the sun, not in Funeralworld, where progress is, as you say, Michael, marked by bouts of reinvention. Forward… backwards.

    I don’t want to be picky, but in the cause of debate I’d point out that Hayden had access to some pretty impressive platforms: his views informed parliamentary debate, and his speeches and writings were reported and discussed in depth in the quality press in the context of, both, the activities of the Cremation Society with which he was at war and, also, a general and urgent anxiety about hygiene issues concerning the disposal of the dead. There was a lot of intellectual seriousness and much heavyweight debate: people took it all very seriously as only Victorians threatened by graveyard miasma could. But the focus was very much on materiality.

    The cemationists, of course, won.

    In our own time we enjoyed that brief but glorious period when the material concerns of environmentalists marched in step with the empowerment agenda of the NDC, Fox and Gill & co. All the talk was of experiential value allied to Earth-friendly disposal. And Nicholas Albery was a genius at channeling the zeitgeist and persuading journalists to write about death and funerals. Heady days. I don’t know that we have managed to match that momentum (I think we clearly haven’t), and there’s more to that than the dissolution/wearying of the consensus around CO2.

    I think my feeling is that the future lies with the actions and example of doers rather than the product of discussion forums. Such forums tend to be clubhouses colonised by industry insiders talking to each other; their discussions have not inspired in the media a great deal of serious treatment of the experiential value of funerals. When the media contact me, which they do a lot, I put them in touch with people.

    The practitioners are the primary movers and shakers – the great undertakers, the great celebrants. The stories that get published in the media are the ones about people. Forums like this have their value, but that value is secondary.

    If forums serve to create community among great doers, that is their raison d’etre.

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