Guest post by Mark Shaw
All this talk of change has led me to look back. As I do, I have to accept I am old enough to have witnessed many changes. Not as many as some, and I hope many more still to see.
The supermarket where I would once accompany my mother for the Saturday shop has since changed ownership and corporate name no less than 6 times. But still Heinz, Kelloggs, Colgate and Hellmans get my vote.
At the age of 15, as church organist in a rural Highland village, I played for all the village funerals. It was this introduction to funerals that led me on this path. They were not glamorous affairs – how could they be with an Austin Princess hearse? They were however smart, dignified community occasions. Any less than 300 attendees would be seen as a poor attendance. I knew most of the funeral script – that’s just the way funerals were. Local family businesses where funerals were conducted as required, between other services which the family business was involved in.
My first real venture into funerals was while on school work experience. In the big smoke of a nearby town. A full time, relatively large scale and somewhat more grand set up given the volume of funerals done. This was the best, most educational and interesting week of my school days.
I now realise how fortunate I was to get in to this profession. The week after I left school, I started as a trainee funeral director 80 miles away in a city to which I had rarely been.
This firm, part of a chain, was involved with the best part of 2000 funerals a year. It was run by staff and managers, following head office policy, rather than the 3rd generation of the family whose name was above the door.
I was surprised that my rural ways and enthusiasm for a job I knew little about was not welcomed more warmly. That said, 22 years down the road, I can understand how the novelty of multiple night time calls wears thin and can make you grumpy.
In my own mind however I was always destined to work for myself which I eventually did when excuses not to take the plunge ran out.
So, changes? Well there were no celebrants, humanists or family led ceremonies in these days that I can remember. Eco coffins? (I think you could still buy aerosol CFC’s.) Woodland Burial? No. Direct Cremation? Would possibly have been seen as a sign of disrespect – and the funeral directors might even have attended out of sympathy. Funeral estimates were a new thing. Having said that, If I am not mistaken, the DWP (DHSS) would have paid the full amount of a moderate funeral to eligible applicants. In any case, a family might have seen it as a matter of honour to pay the funeral account and so no need to ask for money up front. The majority of client families of course remain happy to pay a fair price for a good service.
So the dinosaur of funeral directing has seen changes even in my short time. Changes which challenge our industry / profession. Changes which have seen our role and prominence grow as some funerals become more elaborate. Other changes around the marginal edges of the bereavement sphere see some families try to “Do It Themselves”, whether out of budgetary constraint, or as an expression of love and devotion to loved ones. And yes, I have been loosely involved with DIY funerals done for both reasons.
Family circumstances have changed. Splits, distance, free thinking and the associated tugs on loyalty as people want to do things differently rather than in the prescribed manner. This all poses a challenge to the function of the funeral director. Not to mention obesity, traffic congestion, legislation and all the other things that have changed.
So our micro world of funerals along with the macro world of life has changed.
A few taps of a mobile phone gives us much of the information we need on any matter including death, dying and funerals. Our shopping is delivered to the door if we wish. Our society can no longer function without technology, systems and organisations.
How these changes are made manifest within our profession is inevitably going to be a matter of debate. As cars get bigger, faster, shinier and can no longer be repaired with a hammer, it follows that hearses will do likewise and be a source of pride to their owners.
Corporate tactics, accounting policies, aggressive marketing and all the associated problems of that will be applied to any potentially profitable activity. Lets accept that funerals will not be excluded.
Ultra low cost funeral companies running on a shoe string, or out of love need to prove sustainability. Lets not forget the other areas around deaths that need resources. Whether in servicing coroners’ contracts, international repatriation, high profile / state funerals all of which need grit, determination, and a sufficient return on the necessary capital.
We all work hard in our own sphere. Let’s keep it up, do our best for the clients who find us, and relish the challenge which our profession hands to us on a plate.