Dignity in Blunderland

Charles Cowling

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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? 

 

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Jane Duncan Rogers
Guest

Lucy Coulbert – very wise words! Listen to what people want, and then act on that. This could apply to all kinds of industries! What would the world be like then, I wonder?

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

I think it is just common sense really and how I would like my family to be treated, but sadly this doesn’t always happen. After working for larger companies, the onus was always on “selling” things like and hitting targets on services like embalming. Anything out of the ordinary like a willow coffin was always made to feel like such a big deal. It wasn’t advertised anywhere or in any of the brochures. Traditional funerals where a service is held is still the norm but are taking a slightly different turn. From the outside, a traditional service in a crematorium… Read more »

Tim Morris
Guest

Many local authority owned crematoria offer early morning times at a reduced fee for full services with the use of the chapel. In other words the only difference between the 9.00am service and the more popular 2.00pm service is the cost and time. The uptake of the ‘unpopular’ times is high according to feedback from Institute members therefore it must be those bereaved people wanting a more traditional funeral whilst saving a few hundred pounds. Whilst local authorities will also use these times for public health funerals the direct funerals need no chapel time. Time will tell if the large… Read more »

Douglas Duckworth
Guest

I think Dignity are just bowing to the inevitable in a sensible manner. They know the market for direct cremation is growing and they want a slice of it without including it as part of their standard menu of services, because they know if they advertise it in their shopfronts quite a few people will chose it who would otherwise have bought a “traditional” funeral. I think the “traditional” funeral like the “traditional” wedding is slowly dying (sorry about the pun) not because people especially want to save money (it doesn’t stop people spending a fortune on weddings), but because… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

We had a letter today from our local Dignity owned crematorium – offering a new service! A no-frills early-morning cremation for just £499. Are these new ‘products’ linked?

Fran Hall
Admin

I’ve looked and looked but see no mention of this price busting new service on Dignity’s website – can anyone else find it?

http://www.dignityfunerals.co.uk

David Holmes
Guest

Now there’s a surprise Fran!

My feeling is this cunning plan was hatched after your Sctish funeral poverty discussion? They can now claim to offer arguably the lowest cost ‘funeral’ in the UK. If the public can find it of course 🙂

David Holmes
Guest

* Scottish – note to self, read posts before posting.

Nick Gandon
Guest
Nick Gandon

David – my best guess is that this venture by Dignity has been in the pipeline for quite some time, and was, in any case, inevitable once Memoria (and now the CoOp) have begun offering direct cremation.

There is little doubt in my mind that Dignity have arrived at the near-perfect nationwide business model within the DC market.

Frances
Guest
Lucy Coulbert
Guest

I’ve had a letter from my local Dignity crematorium and now the 8.15am and 8.20am slots are open to all funeral directors for £499 for direct cremation services and not just reserved for those who have a contact with Environmental Health or the Department of Human Anatomy which it was previously. For once, my local Dignity crematorium is less expensive than my local Memoria crematorium for direct cremation services. Memoria will be putting their prices up on 1st January to £599. Some funeral directors were using this service in an inappropriate way and not actually using it for a direct… Read more »

Fran Hall
Admin

I understand that the letter that has gone out to funeral directors announcing the low cost early morning slots now being available to all is to ensure that Dignity comply with their commitment for their crematoria not to favour their funeral homes, so the £499 crem fee has to be universally available to everyone. One has to wonder though how easy it will be for non Dignity / Simplicity FDs to book an early time at a Dignity crem should the company’s new arms-length direct cremation service takes off though. Those early morning slots could be booked up for weeks… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

South West Middlesex crematorium have today informed us that they are offering an 8.30 am contract cremation for £245. I was not aware this was previously offered – but it’s great news for anyone choosing direct cremation, and the funeral directors who advise them.

And there was me thinking nothing much changes in funeral-world, we’ve had enormous change in a week!

Andrew Rush
Guest
Andrew Rush

I notice that one of the FAQs is:
“is the deceased given any less care, to help save money?”

Answer:
“With us, absolutely not. A Simplicity Cremation does not mean sub-standard care. From the moment the deceased is collected to when the ashes are returned or scattered, every step of the process is carried out with dedication, expertise and compassion.”

A somewhat sneaky implication that some FDs *do* take less care to save money…

Mark Shaw
Guest

Some FDs are very open that their care of deceased in direct cremation cases is minimal. I guess the question is “does process equal care?”

Mark Shaw
Guest

Race to the bottom!!

Charles Cowling
Guest
Charles Cowling

Quite so, Mark. Of greater gravity, even, is Dignity stating publicly that they have no belief whatever in the value of what they exist to do. Who in the history of the sale of goods and services has ever marketed their flagship product under the strapline ‘Pointless waste of time and money’?

Karen
Guest

Hello. I think it is all about choice – offering that and letting people make their own decisions. There is definitely a place for direct cremations out there and I have found it a popular choice for pre planning. Elderly people with no children don’t want a service with no-one there, not even their partner. Very often they have discussed this and a memorial event, such as a favourite meal is what they prefer rather than attending the crematorium. Single people often chose this Option but just as often couples who have no religion and simply don’t believe that a… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest
Charles Cowling

Hi Karen – Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment. My feeling is that people aren’t led by cost, they’re led by value. Sure, they say that funerals are too expensive, but we shouldn’t take this at face value. Funerals would have a better reputation if they made a bigger difference to how people feel. I have reservations about people choosing direct cremation for themselves. Ours is becoming a very me-me culture. I think they should think more about what those who will mourn them might need and let them plan the sendoff that’s right for them. Lastly,… Read more »

Jane Duncan Rogers
Guest

Good points Karen and Charles – about value, choice and options. I also believe that people are voting with their feet and that your points re value are very ‘valuable’ (!) Charles. It seems to me there has been some complacency in the funeral industry and that this may shake it up. However, I also think that if death were less of a taboo subject, and that more open discussions were happening (it’s beginning thank goodness), then many more would have planned in advance what they wanted, have discussed it with family and friends, and it would all be out… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Brilliant comment about Ratner’s! We have also seen a rise in direct cremation but still a small proportion and never, with us, purely on financial grounds. Usually because the person who died requested it and the family are often uncomfortable with it. On two occasions family have asked to be present to witness the coffin onto the catafalque and the curtains closing. (Important idea, ‘witnessing’, I may come back to it later. Ritual, when done well, it not worthless, it does a job. How do we ‘save’ the traditional funeral? Well we could stop calling it traditional for a start.… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Personally, I think the direct cremation service does have it’s place. Of the seventeen I have carried out since March, ten were because the families were so international that they couldn’t get home and so planned a memorial service instead. Five were because the person who died was explicit in their instructions that they didn’t want a funeral in any way shape or form and only two were because the cost was a lot less than a more “traditional” funeral. After attending a load of funeral related events this year, I finally had that dreaded conversation with my partner about… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Charles:

For me to agree with you (well, largely) will not surprise too many. My first thought when reading Dignity’s online blurb launching their direct cremation offering was: ‘Gerald Ratner rides again’. If one assumes that those who wrote and approved it are not total numbskulls then one has to conclude that they are awash with the conviction that they are more intelligent and perceptive than the general public whom they can easily hoodwink.