More to it than wearing a hat and making a face

Charles Cowling




Guest post — At the request of the writer, her name has been withheld for the time being

I first became aware of this blog when I was researching the effect of Downton Abbey on British attitudes to what used to be called domestic service. What caught my attention was the theory expressed in this blog that Funeral Directors see Carson, the butler, as the personification of the perfect Funeral Director.

In my line of work — I have a consultancy position in a company that trains butlers, valets, etc — I am able to testify to the accuracy of this observation. Whilst most of our recruits come from the armed forces, we have always had a steady flow from the funeral industry. Many of them are ‘naturals’ and are now employed in great houses all over the world. When you think about it, there is an obvious connection between butling and funeral directing, both appeal to the same personality type.

However it was not until just over a year ago, when I attended the funeral of a family member, that I began to see the ways in which mourners are not receiving best-possible service from their Funeral Directors. Even the ‘naturals’ fail to make the grade only because they have not had the specialist training they need to make the most of their in-born talents. A little research quickly taught me that the sort of training they need is not available to them. I began to consider how my company could fill the gap. In order to do so, I attended many more funerals as an observer, auditing the ceremonial role and appraising the performance of Funeral Directors in many parts of the country.

As I did so, I became aware that there are as many different levels of service demanded by ‘funeral consumers’ as there are in the world of hospitality. The market for DIY or home funerals equates with self-catering. ‘Direct cremation’ is the equivalent of the home delivery pizzeria. A business like Evelyn’s is the equivalent of hiring a top chef to cater for your dinner party. Where the analogy breaks down is that most funeral businesses don’t specialise. They try to be all things to all tastes. But there’s no inherent problem in that.

For those of their clients requiring a full-service, ceremonial funeral, the provision on offer is, I have found, generally wanting. The ‘chain’ funeral directors offer the service levels of Little Chef at Savoy prices. Many independent funeral homes, even the oldest and most prestigious, offer little better than the equivalent of the provision offered by a seaside boarding house. Some of the best hardly rise above Premier Inn. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. Just one or two London funeral directors are exemplary. Edinburgh also enjoys very high standards. Following the lead of this website, I also witnessed impressive service in Cheshire. I was not impressed by the conducting style of one particular Funeral Director whose flamboyance, in my opinion, brought proceedings down to the level of the fairground. A good Funeral Director, like a good butler, must never be attention-seeking.

Two things especially struck me at the many funerals I observed. The first and most obvious was turnout. Far too often I saw scruffy and inappropriate footwear and cheap, unpressed uniforms. I saw personnel whose appearance, bearing and grooming were wholly unsuited to a ceremonial occasion.

But what struck me most forcibly was the lack of awareness of what a ceremonial occasion demands of the conduct of its participants. More than one Funeral Director told me that what people expect is “a bit of a show” as if going through the motions is enough. It is not enough. It is not about ‘putting on a show’. A ceremonial occasion must be invested with decorum, and this can only be achieved by creating a sense of occasion which is special and which influences the mood and the conduct of everyone present.

Here is an example of what I mean. I asked one Funeral Director why he had conducted a formal funeral without a top hat. He told me that a top hat “is not really me.” When I asked him to consider whether he was there to occupy a ceremonial role or ‘be himself’, there was silence. It is a pity more Funeral Directors do not think harder about such matters because, done properly, a formal funeral is a magnificent occasion which brings out the best in everyone.

The butlers I train are taught how to manage, say, a dinner party so as to bring out the best in everyone present by creating an atmosphere in which everyone rises to the gravitas of the occasion. This is achieved not by going through the motions of etiquette, it is achieved by expert and wholehearted role-playing by those who serve. The last thing any of the guests want is to be served by a butler ‘being himself’, and the same applies to their Funeral Director and his or her Pallbearers. There is no place for ‘self’ at either a big banquet or a formal funeral.

What is required of both a butler and Funeral Director is, above all, a spirit of devoted, selfless service to others. Both exhibit deference, but what they also understand very clearly is that the part they play is not, paradoxically, a subservient role. The writer David Katz expressed it very well when he said: “A happy butler is a Buddhist monk in tails, taking pleasure in the duty itself. Serving, but never servile.” A good butler has a healthy ego. The same is also true of a good funeral director. Both serve the occasion.

Butlers and Funeral Directors have other skills in common. They must remain unflappable in the face of both disaster and unreasonable demands. Gone are the days when butlers worked for old-money families who knew how to behave, they are now exposed to the arbitrary and sometimes outrageous whims of newly-minted billionaires. Grieving people, too, can behave unpredictably. Funeral Directors and butlers must be able to fix mishaps quickly and without fuss. They must have excellent concierge skills. The must be omnipresent but invisible. They must understand the meaning of courtesy in its fullest sense, and that it is not a matter of play-acting. On the contrary, in the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi,  “When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.” Good butlers and good Funeral Directors derive their self-esteem from understanding how powerful they are.

Given the hours they must work, together with the range of skills they must possess, many of the best butlers, I have found, are divorced or gay. I wonder if the same may be said of the best Funeral Directors?

I am in the process of developing training manuals which I believe will be of great service to Funeral Directors wishing to advance their ceremonial skills. I shall be making an announcement in due course. I am grateful to this blog and its readers for the many insights it has given me into the world of funerals. I welcome your responses to what I have written here.

12 thoughts on “More to it than wearing a hat and making a face

  1. Charles Cowling
    John Porter

    Let us imagine a funeral as an orchestra. Is the funeral director the conductor? I don’t think so. Perhaps the FD is a solo player – obvious at certain sections of the music piece but not dominant. Dignified – loud or soft depending on the music and occasion.

    I think the person leading the funeral, however described, is the conductor. They understand all the different instruments and can magically blend them into whatever the score and context require. They direct but are actually interdependent on the orchestra.

    Well, that’;s what I think BEFORE my Funeral Celebrant course next week at Civil Ceremonies.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    That’s me too, Nick.


    Yes, I wonder who he is. Haven’t heard from him for a while. Or Ian. Are you there, Ian?

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Michael Jarvis

    This post must be a wind-up, surely.

    It is preposterous to suggest that the ego-driven ‘funeral director’ could be moved by instruction to become an efficient but near enough invisible facilitator with decorum who didn’t want to command centre stage. A scenario about as likely as the feat attributed to that of Zopyrus’s mule, I would have thought.

    Memory, which might not be accurate, suggests that I first attended a funeral in 1964. How many since? I’ve lost count, but, family aside, the most memorable by far was one where I have no recollection of the undertaker at all (I’ve checked, and they were a firm to whom Charles gives an accolade). They must have performed their function with the benefit of training but I would suggest that what was taught was technical and that their other expertise was attributable to the fact that they were psychologically suited to the job.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    “…done properly, a formal funeral is a magnificent occasion which brings out the best in everyone.”

    I have to differ with you here, Anon. Often, a formal funeral is precisely what prevents raw, naked, bereaved human beings from giving vent to their yawning grief, in the forsaken void of an overbearing formality that has its origins in egotistical posturing.

    Butlers, schmutlers. Grief is not a circus; give it back its voice.


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Dying to know who you are. Lots of food for thought – thank you.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)

    An interesting take on the role of the funeral director. I particularly like “…the service levels of Little Chef at Savoy prices.”

    However, I disagree entirely that a top hat is a necessary part of a formal occasion. A top hat, IMHO, says “look at me” – which is precisely what those of us who care more about the ceremony (as in what is said during the funeral) than our shiny cars are seeking to address. A funeral is not about the funeral director. A funeral director should be unseen, but immediately available if needed. ‘Omnipresent but invisible’ as you put it – surely that is more important than wearing a top hat?

    Funerals are changing – the need for a funeral director is diminishing all the time. The role is therefore demanding different skills and different perspectives. Those of us who are accepting the need for change are enjoying a little boom. Those who insist on fighting it will eventually fall by the wayside. The requirement for Victoriana is disappearing. Fast.

    We know for a fact that the picture of the three of us on our website homepage (which we also use in regular newspaper adverts) is the reason people come to us. Our clients tell us that we look relaxed, friendly, human and warm. If you took that photo out of context, the last profession you would associate us with would be funeral directing. One of our competitors uses a photo of someone in a pressed suit looking very formal (but only since we started using a photo!) – and we are frequently told that he looks ‘scary’, ‘out of touch’ and ‘unapproachable.’ The greatest compliment we are paid is when people tell us we don’t look like funeral directors. Sure, we can do formal when required, but very often we ask our clients what they’d like us to wear, and they ask us to dress down.

    On the subject of sexuality – whilst I’d love to think that being gay made me a good funeral director, I unfortunately know rather too many gay funeral directors who are either liars or fraudsters (or both) – and these two traits should surely be completely exempt from those in our honourable profession?

    Finally (and I’ll ask this before any of the usual people do) – why do you give ‘Funeral Directors’ capital letters throughout your post, and ‘butlers’ lower case initials? Are we really that important?

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Charles Cowling

      You raise a number of interesting questions here, Andrew Hickson. Taking them in order, I would point out that a bearskins still looks good on a guardsman and the Changing of the Guard remains as popular as ever. Pomp and ceremony are a source of enduring national pride. People still say that no-one does it better than the British. I accept your point that the ceremonial funeral has lost popularity and people now wear what are, to my eyes, remarkably informal clothes to funerals. But there are still a great many people who do want a ‘proper’ funeral including me. My suspicion is that it is because formal funerals are done so badly that people are rejecting them but I can’t back that up with figures, it is a hunch.

      I have had a look at your website and I must say you present a very human face to the world. You also, if I may say so, rise to the occasion in presenting your text, which is, so far as I can judge, correctly spelt and punctuated, which is all too rare on funeral websites, so many of which boast of ‘attention to detail’ and betray this boast in the very same sentence. You also say ‘Sure, we can do formal when required’ which leads me to suppose that you cater for all tastes. If that is so, I’m afraid to say that I cannot understand why you stop short of the top hat.

      Your ‘human face’ is, I think, well judged. Speaking as the future client of a funeral director, which I write with reluctance, I would like to arrange my funeral with a ‘human’ who can, when called upon, get into character for the ceremonial part of the funeral — and then go back to being human once the funeral is over. I call this ‘adjustable status’, which is denied to butlers but is an essential skill of funeral directors. I was going to develop this idea in my blog post, but I was working to a word limit.

      Thank you for your thoughts about gay funeral directors. I am tempted to think that you are being harsh, and that the proportion of bad eggs is no higher than it is among butlers but I must take your word for it. In my experience gay butlers are among the very best so long as they don’t flaunt it outrageously.

      Lastly, you ask why I used capital letters for funeral directors. I did so because I have observed that they often use them themselves and since I was writing with them in mind, and because I knew I was going to say things they would not like, I thought it diplomatic to do so. Also, the editor did not correct me but I do not want to blame him! You will notice that I have corrected myself in the light of your criticism which, I think, makes sense.

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)

        Yeah ok, you were bored, I needed some google rankings. We all won 🙂

        Charles Cowling
        1. Charles Cowling
          Charles Cowling

          Dammit, I thought I’d logged in as Anon. I am unmasked. It’s a very naked feeling.

          I was musing on, and subsequenty researching, the correspondences between FDs and butlers — because butler schools do actually recruit a number of people from the DT — and when it came to writing it up it seemed more apt to write in character — to get a more interesting take on the topic.

          An innocent ruse, I hope. But incompetent, it seems. I shall have to work at wickedness, it doesn’t seem to come naturally.

          Send over a bunch of hyperlinks. Flattered to learn that the GFG is a useful vehicle. We never do any SEO at the GFG. Believe it or not, it’s because we think it a bit below the belt. Probably lost claim to that high ground now.

          Charles Cowling
          1. Charles Cowling
            Nick Gandon

            Charles, if I’m not mistaken, that only leaves “Mr X” to sus out……

            Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Thank you for your very interesting response, Kathryn Edwards. Food for thought there, especially your choice of the word ‘protocol’. I wholly agree with you that service is entirely respectable and laudable. In a community context I am sad to see it replaced by CSR, driven by self-interest and self-congratulation.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    Thank you, esteemed contributor!

    This post is thoughtful, fascinating, and a very wholesome challenge to the status quo.

    Declaring an interest: my paternal grandmother, who would have been born in the late 19th century, told me when I was a little girl in the 1960s that I should never be ashamed that my grandmother had been in service. (She had been a children’s nurse at around the time of the Great War.) In my childhood innocence, it had never occurred to me that ‘service’ would be a source of shame. Fortunately for my continuing evolution, the primary school I attended placed great emphasis on community and service.

    In the matter of funerals, I am interested that you have homed in on ‘ceremonial’ style. Setting aside the obscenities that can happen behind the scenes, I think a lack of understanding of what this means is indeed the nub of the shortcoming among many sub-standard funeral directors. As a ritualist, I find the concept of ‘protocol’ helpful: it is more subtle than ‘form’ or ‘formality’, being a core that can be flexed to suit the style of the gathering without losing its essence. And the setting aside of ego is indeed a crucial component.

    I look forward to further contributions from this source!

    Charles Cowling

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