What’s for love and what’s for money?

Charles 3 Comments

If there’s one thing that really vexes people in the funerals business it’s the question of who gets paid for what – and how much.

Take the business of conducting a funeral. In England, when C of E clergy moved their fee up to £160 + travel, lots of people howled. Everyone in England is entitled to a C of E funeral whether they attend church or not. The C of E is the state church. Vicars are paid wages to lead parish worship and attend to pastoral duties. How therefore can they define a funeral as an extra? Well, up in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland is the national church, not the state church, ministers make no charge for conducting a funeral. But the C of S is running out of money and looks like not being able to afford to do this for much longer. Conducting funerals for nothing is a luxury it cannot afford. Every altruistic enterprise needs revenue streams.

In the case of secular celebrants, the contract with clients is apparently clearer cut. They sell their skills for a price the market will stand. Theirs is unmistakably a commercial service. A good many celebrants are thereby able to generate a reasonable income by knocking out up to 10 or so funerals a week, working from a template with slot-in readings, etc  — a liturgy by any other name, nothing wrong with that — comprising also a treatment of the life of the person who’s died which probably goes little deeper than rapidly gathered facts + dates + a few notable attributes.

Alongside these fast-food merchants are the altruistic adherents of the Slow Funerals movement for whom the creation of a funeral is an evolving process requiring much talk, much listening, much thought and, as a consequence, a treatment of the life lived which calls for a great deal of ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’. The result is a funeral which goes deeper and is more personal. A better funeral, in other words. But to work in this way, and conduct a very few funerals a week, requires either acceptance of poverty or the existence of another form of income, whether in the shape of a pension, an inherited fortune or a supportive partner. In commercial terms, it is an uneconomic way of working.

So: how much of the time put in by these Slow Funerals people do we count as being given for nothing? What part of their work, in other words, counts as voluntary work?

This question doesn’t apply only to celebrants. There are undertakers, too, who believe in Slow Funerals, and who may also believe in doing their best for those who struggle to find the funds for a funeral. They generate a great deal of social capital but many of them don’t bank a lot of cash. It’s the same with every vocational occupation, of course, the difference being that most vocations we can think of pay at a level that makes going the extra mile an affordable luxury. Many of our most caring undertakers, by contrast, live close to the breadline. Many, but by no means all.

Funeral shoppers have always had a difficulty with acknowledging and accepting that a funeral is a consumer product just the same as any other. That’s changing. Two factors above all are responsible. First, it’s a product which 1 in 5 people struggle to afford. Second, it’s a product whose experiential value is being increasingly questioned.

Did I say two? Add a third. Until recent years, the state enabled everyone to buy a decent one-of-those, what-everyone-has, funeral. Any notion that the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment will be restored in this, the era of the benefits cap, looks delusional. So something’s got to give, and that something’s almost certainly the way we do it now.

The time-consuming part of an undertaker’s and a celebrant’s work, which calls for high expertise and wisdom, is the emotional support of the bereaved, helping them come to terms with, and make some sense of, what has happened. The easy bit for an undertaker is the care of the person who’s died. Any good celebrant will tell you that only a small proportion of the value of their work can be judged by the script they read at the funeral.

You’ll not find the pastoral element of the work itemised and charged for at an hourly rate on any bill submitted by an undertaker or any celebrant. You can’t place a commercial value on that, you can’t charge people for kindness. If you’re an undertaker, it’s the care of the body that has to cover it. If you’re a celebrant, the rate for a template funeral. Reputation will help, too, of course. You can put your prices up a notch if everyone agrees you’re worth it — but you might not want to do that if it means making you unaffordable to people of slender means.

Whatever you think of all that, the fact remains that the what-everyone-has funeral, reckoned expensive by those who can afford one, is now out of reach to an increasingly large segment of the population. We need something more affordable.

conference held at the International Longevity Centre in February this year proposed a cheaper way forward that we’ve discussed on this blog: There is considerable potential to review the funeral service itself, separating the ritual from the committal. This could enable people to have more time to consider the ritual aspects and costs of the service, separate from the more functional aspect of managing the remains. When they say committal, they mean disposal, of course. Do read the report, it’s good.

Separate the disposal from the ritual. Take the corpse out of the funeral. Bring in cheaper cremation and the re-use of graves, and the costs begin to tumble. If, that is, the resulting ritual is reckoned timely and satisfying. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course. 

Kate Woodthorpe at the University of Bath takes it a step further and proposes that there may be roles for “public, private and third sectors in both preparing individuals and their families pre-death, and when bereaved.

That’s interesting. Third sector. Volunteers to share the work of listening and supporting bereaved people. That would redefine the roles of undertakers and ritualists. But is it really a viable alternative to the way we do things now?


  1. Charles

    A complement, perhaps, but certainly not an alternative. Good undertakers and ritualists would spend the same hours listening and supporting, as it’s what makes them good and their jobs worth doing.

    An unofficial body of people who got together and found a way to reach recently bereaved people would be a good resource. A friend and I have recently set up a ‘bereavement cafe’ (distinct from death cafe), where people help each other in grieving and managing death, and from which we will butt out as soon as it becomes self-supporting, achieving among other things some useful empowerment in grief.

    But if we were to start thinking about a formal organization of trained volunteers along the lines of, say, Cruse, we’d get back to the problem of how to pay for it. Cruse is currently in bed with Interflora, Amazon and Funeral Planning Services Ltd in an effort to boost funds, so I for one would treat that as a warning before embarking on anything too structured. I just fear that people who use that kind of “public, private and third sectors” Soc. Spk. may be not as good at making well-judged decisions on behalf of ordinary grieving people as ordinary grieving people are. And it would still do nothing to affect the affordability of a funeral.

    Or am I being prejudiced?

  2. Charles

    I’ve known priests who happily accept payments less than the going rate for funerals, or no payment at all, out of selfless compassion for poor families. That’s vocation. Even nurses, however much they go beyond the realms of duty, expect overtime pay.
    A priest, who devotes his life to God, should be this exemplary. They do also have a roof over their heads which comes with the job, they’re not going to starve by giving a couple of hours to those in need without any worldly gain to themselves.
    It’s different for most ‘lay people’ who work to pay the bills. Like undertakers, florists, etc, civil celebrants are not charities. They often need to be paid a going rate to get by. If they go the extra mile, that’s their prerogative, just as a freelance journalist might accept an average fee for a piece that’s involved weeks of investigative research. Call it speculating to accumulate. Call it the thrill of doing a good a job well.
    However, I wouldn’t want to regulate the free market. The big chains benefit from volume savings and should, therefore, offer value for customers. If they fail to do so, customers can vote with their wallets and go elsewhere. Indies who offer better service and value need to shout louder about their superiority (or the big chains’ flaws).
    I wouldn’t want more reliance on state funding either. A downside of the welfare state is the creation of a sense of entitlement. Some people receive more money for not working than they’d earn in a job, and they’d rather let others do the low paid work while they claim benefits, funeral aid and any other freebie they can get their hands on.
    There’s no stigma in pauper funerals anymore. While some have no choice (and they should be helped), others have the ability to earn, save and stand on their own two feet. They should not be offered easy loopholes by the state, spending taxpayers’ hard-earned cash. I’d rather charity, community spirit and DIY ingenuity than state entitlement.

  3. Charles

    If we say “statutory” (bodies that exist by law) instead of “public sector”,” private or plc companies that aim to make a profit” instead of just “private sector” including some social enterprise companies that can be set up in different legal ways and, finally the “not-for profit third sector” instead of just “third sector” we may be nearer to the real sectorial landscape (of course we would also have to grapple with the thorny issue about how surplus is used and what is reserves are really needed to satisfy the Charity Commission’s recommendation – ask Guide Dogs for the Blind!). I am saying this because the distinctions and definitions have become a little fuzzy around the edges. I was a Social Enterprise Manager in a national charity and income, income, income was always on my mind. If we did not generate it we could not fulfil our charitable objectives. Sorry for the long intro.

    My main point is that charities have to earn income in order to survive in today’s economic climate. They have to operate according to heaps of legislation about every area of their operation. It is expensive. Ad-hoc groups of volunteers are not bound (at least they think they are not but everyone has to live according to the law!) by the same quantity of procedures and policies that charities are. You cannot guarantee quality but does that matter if it is “peer bereavement”? People could get hurt. Who is to blame?

    I’m training to be a celebrant and don’t really want to be a “disbursement”. Counsellors charge mega bucks by the hour, bad ones create dependency (and therefore a steady income) but to be registered they have to comply with rules and ethical standards. Yes, like doctors do (many people have a story to tell in this regard)!

    I suggest that one way to slash the bill of death is to have truly itemised menu of each activity and service from the moment a person dies to some point after the funeral/disposal of the dead person’s body – AND who provides it. Each item to have a cost and, where there is an option, a price band and what you actually get (or source yourself) for your money. This raises the issue of who is contracting with who? Is it really easier for bereaved people just to pay a funeral director and let them sub-contract (I have seen cash change hands between FD and de-frocked RC Priest officiant before cremations!) to printers, crematoriums, cemeteries, florists, celebrants and faith officiates etc?

    If things are going to change then maybe we should be radical. With funeral poverty gradually closing in like a blanket we must do something. Talking about death would help. Making a will would help. Expressing our wishes about how we are cared for if we get really sick would help. Expressing and recording our funeral wishes would help. Pre-paid funeral plans may or may not help. Savings accounts that can only be accessed after death may help.

    I dislike the “Ca-Ching” of the death industry. We need an honest open discussion about what vulnerability means. Let’s learn from disability campaigners and hate-crime experts about this. It is about context not a person’s disability that may make a person vulnerable. Translate this to raw bereavement and we could make progress. A few volunteers supporting each other in grief is great but I think we need a fundamental shift to create genuine choice, fairness and value for money – whoever controls the purse strings or generates the income!

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