More to it than wearing a hat and making a face

Charles Cowling

Carson

 

 

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.

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John PorterCharles CowlingNick GandonAndrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)Michael Jarvis Recent comment authors

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John Porter
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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… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
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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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

“…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.

J

Kitty
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Kitty

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

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

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… Read more »

Anon
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Anon

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.

Kathryn Edwards
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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… Read more »