When the tide of opinion turns

Charles Cowling



“Afore ye go.” Remember the slogan? You will if you’re old enough. It spoke to us oldies (Scots: auldies) from billboards everywhere, advertising Bell’s whisky. It echoed the invitation offered as a matter of course in those days to every dinner guest or pub boozer when they announced they were going home: “One for the road?”

Yes, in those days we fortified ourselves with a generous nip before driving back in our Rovers and Austins, whether we’d washed down good food with lashings of fine wine, or 4 packets of pork scratchings with 10 pints. Everybody drove pissed then. A lot of us reckoned we drove better. Then they brought in a law against it.

Get caught over the limit now and you’ll get no soft soap from friends about stupid laws and how dare they interfere with individual liberty. No, you’ll hit a brick wall of universal disgust. Drunken driving may be illegal: it’s also become socially unacceptable. In addition to the ban and the fine, you receive a stigma. You never live that down.

Oldies have seen lots of once-tolerated practices become intolerable in this way. In the recent past, it’s fox hunting; that’s why it’ll never be re-legalised. Smokers are increasingly regarded with puzzled revulsion. You can’t shout at people at work any more; dammit, you can’t even grope them. I can think of all sorts of things that have been socially exiled in my lifetime (I’m 62). If you’re young, my prediction is that you’ll live to see the end of the acceptability of eating of animals.

If you’re in funerals there’ll be an end to practices now taken for granted. An example is undertakers walking in front of hearses. Family members will do that. There will be changes in the way undertakers interact with clients. Shroud-of-service, martyr-to-my-vocation undertakers will give way to less up-themselves, more collaborative undertakers. No stigma will attach to the old ways of doing things, though; they’ll just be regarded as quaint. Embalming will pretty much die out as clients opt out.

The mouth suture, though, well that’s something else. It’s not offered as a choice. It’s done without the knowledge or understanding of the client. Sure, it’s performed by very nice undertakers with the best of intentions. But when people discover what was done to their mum they are going to be appalled and furious. To them it’s going to seem brutal, high-handed, repugnant. How dare you damn well do that without even asking? Get your coat and glasses off and come outside.

It’s almost certainly the undertaker’s role as ‘custodian of the body’, together with the disempowering effect of grief, that leads them unilaterally to do certain we-know-best things in what they reckon to be the emotional interests of the bereaved, and in doing so to drift from their expectations. Sorry, ‘They don’t need to know’ is no defence. The client is always right.

If you’re one of those undertakers who sews up the mouths of the dead, watch out. Stop now. Use one of these. There’s a backlash brewing.

15 thoughts on “When the tide of opinion turns

  1. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Thank you for all that, Hazel. Reports from the front line are authoritative and it’s good to have your informed, thoughtful views.

    You say: “Whilst it’s not for us to assume we know best, I think it is the nature of our role that makes this such an issue compared to other professionals whom most of us would consider to know best in their fields of knowledge.” I would respond that because the object of these skills is a recently-sentient person, they need to be practised with regard to the feelings of those arranging a funeral.

    As to embalming, while I don’t personally sign up to the never-on-any-terms views you refer to (are you thinking of that recent NDC e-mag?), we note the strong feelings of revulsion that embalming arouses in many people. Taken with the greater availability of information about what it entails, I would simply say that undertakers now need to insure themselves against adverse subsequent reaction by spelling out what they’re going to need to do and securing informed consent. There is a principle here: the FD is the custodian of the body; the nok is the lawful possessor. As the arranger’s agent, a FD needs to be especially collaborative.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Hazel Pittwood

    *I should point out, my reference to a majority of people having lived long lives is with relevance to their age and the values upheld from their lifetime, which are usually, in the family’s words as far as funerals are concerned, ‘traditional’.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Hazel Pittwood

    Thought provoking as ever Charles, as you can tell from my lengthy response! (apologies!)

    The changes you mention may come, I have noticed changes in attitudes, but for the time being the majority of people who die have had long lives. Their family members tasked with arranging the funeral service (their next of kin being sons or daughters in most cases) may not want a traditional funeral when their own time comes. However, for the person who has died, what is seen as the traditional is deemed by the family (the most important point, it is of course their choice) to be an appropriate, respectful way to say farewell to that person. I know some funeral directors tend to look after a younger generation of people who have died because their way of doing things better aligns with, in their own words, the ‘alternative’ to traditional service and the very fact that these funeral directors exist shows there is a need and that attitudes have changed.

    Although I agree it isn’t right to have ‘we-know-best’ assumptions towards families as you suggest, Charles, there is an element of feeling with families, experienced time and time again, of trusting us to know best in some things in their best interests. Otherwise, why use funeral directors? With us not being a legal requirement and an additional cost to consider, what is the benefit of enlisting our help? The benefits are predominantly emotional and practical ones. Whilst it’s not for us to assume we know best, I think it is the nature of our role that makes this such an issue compared to other professionals whom most of us would consider to know best in their fields of knowledge.

    Regarding embalming, actions such as mouth suturing and eye caps form part of the practices of preparation of the body so, if someone isn’t being embalmed, we wouldn’t use those practices either.

    I am an embalming realist though. When faced with articles saying that embalming disfigures or shames people, as I recently read, I wonder what purpose such provocative language serves. Does this mean the use of embalming is completely refused regardless of circumstance? It suggests the entire purpose of embalming comes from an intent to cause even further harm to those who are beyond earthly suffering, the implication seems to be that ‘they have already died, haven’t they been through enough?’

    Whatever our personal opinion is, I strongly feel we shouldn’t let it cloud our judgement, we have a duty to deal in reality; ‘you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts’ as the saying goes. The way embalming is currently reported by the people who are against it would have you believe that every family who has ever seen a loved one who has been embalmed ran out of the room screaming and the sight that met their eyes has resulted in nightmares ever since. For how many of us is that reality?

    I also wonder how many people holding that opinion approached the matter with an open mind and observed an embalming being carried out and then came to their conclusions, or how many faced it with contempt from the beginning, never giving due consideration to the greatly varying situations in which people can die and, therefore, the individual, unique physical appearance of the body? Yes, I concede it isn’t a natural process, but many things we do every day aren’t natural! I make this point because it is interesting that ‘natural’ has become the term used as the ideal to aspire to.

    In response to Richard, I’m a non-smoking eco-minded vegetarian – I wonder what relevance these characteristics have to the discussion regarding changing attitudes towards funerals? Do you think that they are the sole motivations for having such services? Considering the things that you mentioned are choices in life not in death, sure, people with those choices may have funerals reflecting those characteristics, but they are just that: choices. As individual as the person who held them. In relation to funerals, I would say that the only term used which applies logically to changes in attitudes to funerals may be the term ‘anti-traditionalist’.

    I strive to always be nice, I’m not that modern, but I sincerely hope I’m not a bore! I can say with absolute certainty I’m not intolerant though, and there is some irony to me in saying ‘intolerant’ having used the aforementioned stereotypical labels.

    It’s as important to be respectful to earth loving, fosters drinking, incense burning funeral attendees wearing tye dye leaving the chapel to Bob Marley as to families of very wealthy shooting enthusiasts wearing their finest suits leaving the chapel to a recording of their musically skilled deceased loved one playing a rendition of a classical piece. The aforementioned (save for the Fosters drinking) may be more aligned to my own attitudes and values than the latter, but I have equal respect for both and their life choices.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    What an excellent site this is: strong opinions expressed with vigour but without rancour; GFG editor gracious in response (and courageous in issuing the challenge) but unbowed in the mission.
    Not the site to go to for unearned LOL’s and smileys.
    LOL you’all.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      Charles, what is frustrating is the way you tend to be a harbinger of doom for the funeral industry, somehow predicting either solutions for problems that don’t really exist or foretelling changes that won’t happen.
      Nothing has really changed in the 20 years I have been a funeral director.
      Families aren’t suddenly demanding more personal services than they did a decade or two ago. They always demanded that. And mostly got it.
      Like everything else, some funeral services offer a better level of service than others, but that’s not really any different than any other service sector.
      We don’t really advertise – our number isn’t in the yellow pages or any other directory. We just have a fairly basic website and live by our reputation. Service is everything. And knowing what you’re doing.
      I used to enjoy the blog – it was entertaining and good for a discussion but maybe, like most funeral directors, you’ve got to that stage where the GFG has exhausted new idea’s and you end up rehashing old issues or making issues up that aren’t really issues at all.
      The window display thing is a prime example. Its easy to criticise fd’s for picking on remembrance day but that’s a bit like slagging off florists for promoting valentines day. Its not about national pride, its just a good opportunity to change your shop front in a vaguely relevant way. I had pictures of eco-coffins in our front for one day before I had 3 complaints.
      We’re an easy target really. People don’t want to know and don’t want to be reminded until they have to be that we even exist.

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Charles Cowling

        Ian, you are perfectly correct in pointing out that there’s little that’s new being discussed in the blog, but that reflects what’s going on ‘on the ground’. Readership remains very high, and people seem to like having a little talking shop (though we never hear a peep from most of them). I think some people drop in once in a while and others are new joiners who have not read old posts. And I think we do a, well, fairly good job of finding new angles for old stories.

        Regarding two issues you raise, first, I remain convinced that the ‘industry’ as a whole needs to make the case for the value of a funeral. We try to do this on the information part of the website by asking people to define what it is that they want their funeral to achieve. Second, regarding shop windows, if you do not need to promote your business by advertising, why have a shop window at all? Wouldn’t a suite of rooms do you just as well? If I were a FD (note: I am not) I would find it a nightmare trying to make my window look good. As things are, a great many FDs’ windows are depressing and detract from the image of your profession causing clients to walk in with their hearts in their boots.

        We’ll try and bring you more variety and less pessimism, Ian. Thank you for the nudge.

        Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Ian, I think the value of a blog which allows anyone to say anything is that it enables people to correct wrongheadedness. Everyone who writes anything here puts themselves on the line and leaves themselves wide open to correction or denunciation – and I bet it makes them think twice before publishing their blog post or comment. Everything anyone says here is subject to scrutiny and tested — and some responses can be pretty harsh. That’s why, when anyone asks me who (the hell) I think I am or calls me a self-appointed expert, I point out that I expose myself to criticism; it Iwere sure of myself I wouldn’t. As a funeral outsider, albeit a gobby one, I speak for lots of other funeral outsiders, and it’s useful to receive constructive criticism from people like you. I never post a blog without being aware of a knot of fear inside me. The value is that we learn from each other. I hope there is balance here, too. In its various activities, especially the Good Funeral Awards, the GFG has promoted a great deal of very positive and appreciative coverage of the funeral business. I mean it when I say thank you for being there for us when we need you – because I couldn’t do what you do.

    I think there’s a growing awareness that a ‘personalised’ funeral is no more than an accessorised funeral. What people really want is a personal funeral, which is not the same thing at all. Same with ‘celebrations of life’ and un-gloomy funerals. Most funerals are sad and for a very good reason: someone died. People want real funerals where what is said and what is done count for a lot more than blingy extras. In my opinion.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    As a funeral director (and not in any way a fuddy duddy old fashioned one) it gets irritating to hear people who clearly have little real extensive knowledge proclaiming to know the answers to questions that don’t really exist.
    I would never ever embalm someone without prior authorisation. No properly trained embalmer would. It is part of the BIE (of which I am not a members) code of conduct.
    I would also always advise a family as to the poor state of a body.
    This is one of the few forums I have found for discussion of views and for that I think it’s great. The problem is that there seems to be a massive assumption that somehow a few bad funeral directors are representative of the rest of us. And sometimes things are done a way for a real reason. There are a few ways to close a persons mouth, and not everyone who come into our premises is sutured. But being realistic – most people who even mention this part of the job assume that we stitch up lips.
    I expected 10 years ago to see a huge increase in more personalised funerals. It hasnt happened. If anything the rise has been in middle of the road, don’t want to get ripped off but don’t want to have a cheap option funerals. Sorry if that doesn’t help to serve people trying to flog wacky coffins ‘expressing individuality’. Its just the honest truth.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    I would prefer to know it my daughter’s dead body were green and oozing black smelly slime, and I’d be angry to discover it had been humanely hidden from me by someone who put his beliefs about my sensibilities before the truth; but I’m aware my views are not always representative.

    As an occasional custodian of a dead body, I like to think I would always talk, tactfully, to its former inhabitant’s relatives about its condition, and make suggestions appropriate to their responses that leave them with their right to make informed decisions on their own part. You may have read in the NDC handbook an account of my mother’s insistence on visiting her husband’s putrid and smelly body against the recommendation of the undertaker – maybe she’s where I get it from! – but I shall always be glad of taking her to see him, and for the good it did for her.

    However you’re right, ian, to claim the high ground of one whose work gives him far wider knowledge of corpses than mine, and I am obliged to you for your impatience with those opinionated ones who, like me, have much less experience of the territory. Still, that doesn’t make one of us right and the other wrong.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Ah, so I’m outnumbered am I? I am much more in favour of democracy when people agree with me. Good point about the neck collar, James. When I tried it on it looked good enough to convert me… but then I’m not fleshy.

    Is there not a point of principle here? The FD is the custodian of the body but, in law, the nok is the possessor: it is their responsibility. Can you, should you not negotiate from that position? Ian? Describe the predicament and then describe the options? If the buck stops with the nok, so should the decision, surely. Where decomposition has set in, something clearly needs to be done, especially if the family want to visit. But the vast majority of cases are not so dire as the one you describe. I’m not knocking the cosmetic effect of suturing, what I’m putting to you is that when people discover how it’s achieved it’s possible that they may reckon it unacceptably high-handed. Some will be scandalised. I believe it to be unarguable that invasive interventions should therefore receive permission — just as permission is required to embalm. As knowledge about what goes on in undertakers’ mortuaries becomes widespread, undertakers are, I believe, placing themselves in jeopardy.

    Richard, I am not surprised to see a person of your extreme right-wing views espouse back-to-the-jungle views and decry the advance of civic civility. There is an apparent and attractive Darwinian element to drunken driving, but unfortunately it tends to be the innocent who are thereby deselected. Your bracing rant lacks stringency. As an anarcho-leftie I simply refer you to English Common Law and the sometimes invidious responsibilities which, as a consequence, a person who claims a dead body may face when preparing it, or superintending the preparations, for its disposal. Someone of your atavistic disposition ought to be gratified to learn that our disposal-of-the-dead laws were adapted from the ancient Romans. Rigour, Richard, rigour! Forward, backwards!

    Ian, I am sorry the blog is getting dull or dimwitted. I can’t offer you your money back — but I can invite you to write something for us. I will publish what you say, we like to reflect all points of view. If you do not think your views are represented here, the remedy lies with you, or perhaps with someone you know? Please consider it.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      Right wing and atavistic? Why, thank you! Lacking rigour and decrying the advance of civility? Hmmph! We’re all optimistic about progress. It’s how we define it that sets us apart.

      As for embalming, you may well be spot on. As I said I found your piece thoroughly readable. Nor do I see you as anti-trad because you hold some views that challenge the status quo.

      There’s good trad and bad trad, good progressive and bad progressive.

      Yours truly

      Reformed Troll

      Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    I have mixed feelings about this one, Charles. I like it because it’s so well-crafted and entertaining, but find myself leaning towards the embalming realist commentators, even though I myself would rather avoid the practice.

    I’d also question the inevitability of so-called progress towards hippy-drippy, tea-total, non-smoking, vegetarian, anti-traditionalist, nanny state and bureaucratic EU-loving, eco-fantasist, politically-correct, history-revising, wrong-headed, aren’t-we-so-nice-and-modern-but-really-we’re-intolerant bores.

    The backlash has already begun.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    I gave up reading this blog for a while because it got tedious and it looks like its heading back that way…
    …everyone is, of course, entitled to their opinion but I would really like to know how many dead human bodies the people who deem embalming so awful have had to deal with.
    Today I brought 2 people back from different hospitals. Both were green from their genitals to their chests. The smell was pretty bad and it’s hugely unhygienic. One had putrid black liquid pouring from his nose and mouth.
    I’d love to know how to deal with that properly and hygienically without embalming. Or suturing anything.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    Have you ever used ‘one of these’? It seemed a great product, and I bought different sizes; however it pushes the skin and flesh up and out, making the person look worse than left gaping imho..

    I think GFG’s outstanding pioneering for people’s rights may be slightly asquiff here; a bit like innoculations ‘simply more poisoning of the blood’ as an eminent homeopath once told me; and that a neatly closed mouth is worth doing – even with suture.
    Yes, perhaps undertakers should always ask permission, and maybe explaining the exact procedure will shock a family into refusing. At least they had a choice. But they may regret this on subsequent visits. Bared teeth and gums are not friendly.
    GFG may argue this is a good thing ….. to face up to the reality of death.

    I’d rather educate all those involved at/shortly after the death to pop the teeth in and close the person’s mouth with a towel rolled under the chin for a few hours.

    Charles Cowling

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