Posted by Charles
A relatively new element of the Christmas experience is the themed winter wonderland. We’ve already had our first hilarious example of 2016 in Bakewell, Derbyshire. The Sun headline captured it neatly: WINTER BLUNDERLAND. Bakewell Winter Wonderland slammed by families as ‘pile of s***’ that is ‘so bad even Santa f***** it off’. The shocking muddy conditions saw the festive event likened to the Battle of the Somme.
Bit of a downer, obviously, but not enough to sully the good name of Christmas, a festival that remains robustly evergreen. Everyone complains how expensive it is. It has no utilitarian function. We do it the same way every year, ritualistically, so we know exactly what’s going to happen and what part we’re expected to play. Yes, it’s lovely to look at. But it celebrates an event – the birth of Christ – which to most people is of no relevance. Sure, there’s always a few bah-humbuggers who opt out, hunker down and have a no-Christmas Christmas instead, but vanishingly few, and their example is not influential. No, the overwhelming majority find the money and give it the full turkey. We love Christmas. Cheap at half the price.
If only we could say the same about the traditional funeral. It’s got most of the same ingredients as Christmas. Everyone says it costs too much. It has no utilitarian function. Its format never varies – it’s ritualistic. Everyone knows what’s going to happen and what part they are expected to play. It is undeniably eyecatching. It was once the vehicle for a Christian funeral, but to most people now that’s of no relevance. And yet, and yet, the number of people copping out and opting for a no-funeral funeral – direct disposal – is growing exponentially. People are increasingly unwilling to find the money for a trad sendoff. Why?
I mean, a ‘traditional’ funeral is a heritage cultural artefact. It can trace its origins to the heraldic funeral of the middle ages. In a country that loves its pomp and ceremony, this is the British way of death. Where did it all go wrong?
I’ll tell you. The undertakers, finding themselves caught in a spot of commercial bad weather, had a straightforward choice to make and they called it wrong. They slashed their margins and introduced cheaper alternatives to the the product we call the traditional funeral. Hardly a creative response, nor a plucky one.
Steady the Buffs. When people say that funerals are too expensive, is this what they really mean?
Listen hard and you’ll discern that what they really mean is that funerals aren’t worth what they cost. They offer poor value for money. That’s not the same as too expensive.
The problem is not with cost, it’s with value.
Last Thursday, Dignity bottled it and launched a direct cremation service under the branding of Simplicity Cremations. There’s a lot of the usual sales bilge on the website employing words like ‘dignified’ and ‘respectful’, as you’d yawnfully expect. There’s also a Ratneresque Cruise missile strike against the traditional funeral:
A full service funeral can be an expensive occasion that takes time and effort to arrange. You’ll often need a Funeral Director and a whole team of staff to co-ordinate the required services, vehicles and personnel, book the time with the crematorium, deal with paperwork, manage tributes and announcements and ensure everything runs smoothly on the day. And then there are also additional costs for items such as flowers, service cards, music, maybe a memorial or headstone and often a wake. It will usually take quite a few face-to-face meetings to arrange, not to mention several thousands of pounds.
In other words, yep, our flagship product is a bunch of crap. Too much time, too much effort, too much money. Don’t buy it.
Why would Dignity do that? These are clever people. Why diss the product that yields the best margin? This is industrial strength, Santa-killing insanity.
On the same day that Dignity was raising its cowardly white flag, Team GFG was, by happy coincidence, in London meeting a high-level ceremonialist with excellent connections and a strong belief that all is not lost. Because, dammit, we’re not giving up on the traditional funeral. We think the thing to do is to fix it – fix this issue around value.
What is a high-value funeral? It’s closely related to a high-value Christmas. It is something which does people a power of good. In the case of a funeral, it is transformative of grief.
For undertakers, ‘funeral flight’ represents an urgent existential threat. The business model of a funeral director is structured to provide all or most of the elements of a traditional funeral. Bankruptcy is hovering. When most funerals are private events or non-events, where will be the job satisfaction? For people grieving the death of someone, the consequences of the death of the funeral are quantified by John Birrell – here.
Christmas happens when we need it most. The days are short and dark, the weather awful. We all need cheering up. The retailers, whose livelihood depends on us splashing out bigtime, cleverly meet our needs with both the right merchandise and also cleverly pitched marketing messages – those supermarket tv ads are all about the feelgood factor. Retailers understand that they will only sell us stuff if they can show us the Christmas is going to be a richly meaningful experience.
When commercial interests align with consumer needs you’ve got the makings of a thriving market, one in which everyone does well. Our undertakers would do well to ponder this, and so would our celebrants. Funerals happen when we need them most, too. If the public, processional, ceremonial funeral is, as we believe, the best way to deliver a high-value funeral experience – a funeral worth every penny – how can it be updated and repurposed in such a way as to accomplish that?