A word from our patrons

Fran Hall

Following the blog post about the online direct cremation providers published on the blog on February 1st, we have had some responses from two of our patrons, Carolyn Harris MP, and Ken West MBE, both challenging some of the points made.

This is warmly welcomed – the Good Funeral Guide has always welcomed debate, and alternative viewpoints such as these make a valuable contribution. We are particularly glad to have patrons who are so engaged and interested in the work we do, and who take their roles as patrons so seriously – they’re definitely not patrons in name only!

Here are their thoughts – the first, from Carolyn, in the form of an article by Gabriel Pogrund that first appeared in The Times in January:

‘A Labour MP whose father has died has spoken about the “strangely intimate and liberating” experience of grieving during the pandemic.

Carolyn Harris, the deputy leader of Welsh Labour and Keir Starmer’s parliamentary private secretary, lost her father Don over the festive period.

A funeral for the retired bus driver, who died after getting a chest infection aged 89, took place in Swansea on Monday, with just nine people permitted to attend.

Harris, 60, whose son Martin died aged five, has campaigned on funeral poverty and secured a government fund for parents unable to afford to bury their children in 2019.

However, the former barmaid and dinner lady said that having a no-frills funeral was surprisingly satisfying because it meant that she could tell the truth about her father.

According to a transcript of her eulogy, she said: “You all knew him well and there’s no point in me painting the picture of a saint or a paragon of virtue.

“He was a man whose working life was loved behind the wheel of a bus. A man of few words, and ‘this round is on me’ was not one of them.”

Harris told relatives that, despite his flaws, he was a “good man”: “I was the entire focus of both my parents’ worlds. They indulged my passion for ballroom dancing and they also encouraged my weird obsession with politics when I was eight years old.

“Although he never told me, I know he was proud of me and was always asking his neighbours if they had seen me on the telly,” she added.

Harris said that the funeral was refreshing because “I didn’t feel I had to create a personality to please an audience”.

“I didn’t want to say my father was the kindest, most generous man ever, because people in the room would know that he wasn’t. The times I’ve gone to a funeral and people are saying, ‘He’d give you his last,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no he wouldn’t.’

“We’re the ones who lost him and I was really glad not to share it with everyone. Saying what I wanted to say helped me grieve.”

Nor was she distracted by “who did or didn’t turn up”, “whether so and so sent flowers” or “keeping up with the Joneses”, she added.

The funeral was a direct cremation, which involves either a basic service or none at all, and is attended by only a few people. The option is usually reserved for those facing funeral poverty or the dead who have no next of kin.* Editor’s note – this is actually factually incorrect. A direct cremation is an unattended cremation that takes place with no ceremony of any kind, and can be chosen by anyone, not just people facing funeral poverty or without relatives. Carolyn’s father had a simple cremation.

However, they are naturally more Covid-compliant and have become common during the pandemic.

Harris said the event cost her £1,300, which, according to the Money Advice Service, is less than the average cost of a cremation (£3,250) or burial (£4,321). She said: “It’s phenomenally cheap. People are paying £4,000 – £5,000 for funerals but are they paying that because it’s what they want or it’s what other people expect them to do?”

Despite declining to put a notice of her father’s death in local newspapers, Harris spoke out about her experience of grieving to take away the stigma of certain types of funerals today.

“I still haven’t put it in the paper about my dad. I didn’t want to tell people and then they would be asking, ‘When’s the funeral?’ I wanted to tell them in a month or two, ‘It’s happened and it’s all over’. I don’t want to make anyone else feel guilty or think about what to send or say. I wanted it to be about us and ultimately him”.’

Ken West had some further observations about direct cremation, which he was happy for us to share:

“Although I dislike the concept, I feel that personal animosity must not be allowed to intrude. Did I imagine it or did the CMA appear opposed to the idea by stating that the market for Direct funerals would not become significant? Stating this, they seemed to be reflecting the universal objection of funeral directing to the idea. None of us should say that because there can be no objection whatsoever to a family disposing of the body and then holding a memorial service subsequently. When Nicholas Albery from the NDC died, his funeral took this route. His natural burial was private and we all attended a subsequent service in a church in Piccadilly. The adverse criticism I hear about direct cremation, all apocryphal, suggests that the problem arises when people book direct cremation but don’t understand what they are buying. They then expect a service to take place which they can attend. All these stories are clearly intended to demean the concept and I hear little that supports the idea. 

The promotion of Direct Cremation as ‘simple’ or ‘no frills’ also rather annoys me. In the 1990’s, when I managed funerals at Carlisle, we did many ‘Family Arranged’ funerals. The bereaved arranged these with one of my staff, all of whom became adept at organising a funeral. In truth, some funerals of the elderly, with few family or people involved, were arranged in little more than 30 minutes. The claim by the NAFD that 80 hours input goes into each funeral is absurd. The cremation application was quickly filled in. The family had to subsequently deliver the registration certificate and doctors forms to our office. We had a supply of coffins to buy and they could deliver the coffined body to the crem, where it was put into the fridge. They had to supply any flowers or order an obituary.  If they could not collect the body themselves, we had a number of funeral directors who would pick up a coffin, collect the body and deliver it to the crem for around £100. 

With the coffined body in the fridge, it was little or no work to slide it through to the chapel just prior to the service. A celebrant or vicar took the service in the usual way. At no time would we deny them a service, neither would we dictate that they used inconvenient times, like 9 am. The clergy and celebrants knew we offered this service and they were not surprised if a member of the family, rather than a funeral director, rang them up to arrange a service. I see a Community Service offering this option. It does not require a funeral director or a hearse and limousines, which dramatically reduces costs. It puts power back into the community, not least because the clergy and celebrants appreciate their revised role and are freed from all funeral director influence and control.”

He goes on:

‘Overall, I disagree with the disruptors post. I come from 1950’s council house poverty in rural Shropshire. What this post suggests is that a person in poverty goes cap in hand to a local funeral director to ask for special treatment. That is demeaning, especially when we know that so many local funeral directors are part of a larger group. This approach might have worked in the 1950’s when a local funeral director understood and cared for his community. He knew the address and school of the deceased and could, if he so wished, reduce charges almost to a cost base. He would deftly handle the family without highlighting their poverty.  I accept that there are funeral directors who still operate this way, but they both rare and difficult to find. Overall, the industry has failed. Most funeral directors are now employees and, even if sympathetic, don’t have the ability to reduce prices.  

The value of Direct Cremation, whether we like it or not, is that the family don’t have to disclose their financial situation, and they stay in control. In many cases, what they are doing is what the bereaved asked them to do on their deathbed, that is, to avoid funeral debt. Holding a ceremony at a later stage over the ashes is not fundamentally wrong, just a new way of doing funerals.  

These disruptors have identified opportunities created by a failed funeral market. Their offering is promoted on price alone, which is a big risk. A further risk is that the CMA Report cast doubt on whether the Direct Funeral would increase at all. The disruptors are doing this because the funeral industry has clearly ripped people off and one of the internet’s roles is to shake up failed services.  How the body is handled, how it is stored, who does this and where is it kept, these are not valid considerations in respect of these funerals. They are typical subjective issues which have always been used by funeral directing to justify high prices, even though they often failed. When I recall local funeral directors, I knew of cases where bodies were dropped down stairs, or where the widow was excluded from the bedroom when the partner’s body was collected. Small bodies were routinely put in big coffins and rattled about inside. Bodies were (are) transported miles to funeral hubs. People are entitled to ignore these issues, even to see the body as an item of waste. 

It is also misleading to suggest that local funeral directors are all of a kind, that is, sympathetic to the disadvantaged. I worked with hundreds of small funeral directors over my work period. Some served rural areas or council estates, had no airs or graces and used old vehicles. Others, with the new shiny hearse and matching limo’s, saw themselves as above such standards, that they were up-market. I know that many of these did not offer lower prices and simply did not want working class funerals. They must still exist and would, I believe, maintain their prices through arranging loan or credit facilities. They would base this on promoting the traditional funeral and demeaning all alternatives, such as Direct Cremation. They are not, and would not operate, as a social service. 

My comments are not an endorsement of what these disruptors are offering. Indeed, it begs the question as to whether any crisis purchase should be allowed through the internet, which is altogether another question. Transparency is essential though, no matter who does the funeral. However, I would not take a firm view until consumer surveys gives us reliable evidence of their impact on the market.’

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James Leedam
6 months ago

What wonderful patrons. Carolyn’s experience was not ‘direct cremation’ although it does highlight the liberation that many people feel at not having to organise or endure a large funeral. A ‘simple funeral’ is an opportunity to bring together those who were closest and most important to the person who has died. There’s no need to put on a performance or ‘hold it together’, to dilute the intensity of what has happened. It is a warm, friendly supportive hug when it’s needed most. There’s no one to judge, no need to waste money on distracting funeral bling. Its modesty enrichens the… Read more »

Mark Shaw
6 months ago
Reply to  James Leedam

Interesting discussion. Equally James, what if crematoria/burial grounds could be run by volunteers and make no profit? The concern for me is when direct cremations seem to be auctioned of to the highest bidder on Google Addwords, often by firms claiming to offer national coverage from a single location. This meets none of the criteria above. Definitely not firms which the likes of GFG should lend support to. One thing above, is that all recognise the significance of care, and of involvement in some part of the process, or ceremony. Undoubtedly, many have been freed from “stage managed” funerals in… Read more »