“We lost our son at 22 weeks … My husband and I were not religious so we had a small cremation. The funeral company did not charge us for the service. A humanist also held a short service for us and yet again there was no charge. I know money isn’t everything but it was so lovely to know this wasn’t an additional thing to have to worry about.” A mum on Mumsnet.
Commodification is when something done for nothing becomes something sold for money. The dead used to be cared for, free, by members of the community, whose work had no market value. It does now, though. It’s been commodified.
Bereaved people often find it hard to get their heads around this business of making money out of misery. Many undertakers aren’t entirely comfortable with their commercial function, either, which is why the word ‘service’ is so prominent in their vocabulary.
Presumably it’s also why hardly any of them charge for the funerals of children.
What does that say? It’s not as if the workload is any less. On the contrary, it’s likely to be far greater, both physically and emotionally. Sure, many parents are unprepared for the expense of arranging a funeral, but they’re not the only ones. Is it because the death of a child is particularly, poignantly tragic? Okay then, what about the death of a young bride on her honeymoon? What about suicides? Hit-and-run victims?
Is it that charging for adults is bad enough, but that charging for children would just be going too far? If that really is the message, it shows some undertakers to be very unconvinced commodifiers – as, indeed, some are. It’s why a few of them hardly charge enough to put food on their tables. They’d love to be able to wind the clock back and do it for nothing.
Some undertakers may feel like this, but not all. Offering free funerals for children is cynically reckoned by some to be an eyecatching loss-leader. It lends an aura of compassion to what is actually an act of ingratiation, because one child’s funeral earns you, what, three adult funerals? Someone in marketing, we may be sure, will have done the maths.
So: who pays? There’s no such thing as a free funeral, obviously. No, the funerals of babies and children are subsidised by either by the profits of the funerals of adults, or the marketing budget, or the undertaker. If the undertaker is taking a personal hit every time, I don’t know that I can think of a single good reason for that. Can you?
Celebrancy, too, is commodified. Some celebrants lead babies’ and children’s funerals for nothing, others don’t. Some don’t get to decide either way. A celebrant told me:
“I’ve come across a funeral directors’ manager saying she would never employ a celebrant again who charged money for a child’s ceremony. She still uses Interflora and all the rest who charge, doesn’t expect the local petrol station to fill the hearse for nothing and, as far as I know, she still keeps that part of her salary relevant to organizing the funeral. Are there double standards at work here? It may be admirable if you want to decline payment, for anything at all and for whatever reason, but why would it be an expectation?”
Why indeed? Do doctors and nurses who treat children decline pay? Do the grief counsellors of bereaved parents waive their fee?
An undertaker told me:
“It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? Some parents appreciate the gesture, but I think that some parents don’t want ‘pity’, ‘charity’. They actually want their child to be ‘worth’ something like a ‘real person’ would be – they somehow feel the life is validated by paying for the funeral. One father said, ‘I’ll never walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, but I can give her the best funeral.’
“But then we run the danger of getting into the conspicuous spending loop, don’t we? If we do one for ‘free’ and they spend thousands on flowers… what do they think of us charging nothing? What are we saying by charging nothing – that we don’t want to be sullied by taking money associated with their child’s death? That there’s not so much work involved? That we feel that not charging somehow could help mitigate their loss?”