Back to Top


Charles Cowling


What effect does the sight of a hearse have on you? Does it make your spirit soar? Does it put a spring in your step and a song on your lips?


Or does it throw a Hammer Horror chill around your heart?


What would be the effect on you of the spectacle of a procession of 100 hearses? Would you think that the Black Death had broken out?


The British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD), at its annual conference, is hoping to break the world record for the number of hearses in a parade by doing just that: sending 100 of them through the streets of Croydon. Is there, you splutter, a world record for this sort of thing? Yes, there is a world record for everything – and that includes, of course, anything.


But there is more to this enterprise than boldly going and conquering pastures new on virgin summits. The BIFD’s president, Adrian Pink, says: “The BIFD wants to open up the profession and its suppliers to their market, to make the whole process less intimidating.”


Less intimidating?


He goes on to say, “My motto is MAD – make a difference – and I’m sure with this record attempt we will be able to do so.”


No, Adrian, mad means mad.


All this puts me in mind of my friend Geoff.


“I’m seventy-five,” he said to me a while ago. “It’s time I made arrangements. I’m looking for a good undertaker in my local area.”


Geoff knew as little as most people about how funerals work and, when he tried to find a simpatico undertaker by scanning the display ads in his local paper, he found himself no nearer his goal.


“Why on earth do they advertise,” he exclaimed testily, “if they’re all going to say nothing about themselves?”


Geoff made a good point here. Conventionally, businesses spend good money on marketing in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and declare a USP. The new breed of green and alternative funeral directors does this. But most of the trad majority stand in line and share the same descriptive vocabulary. They offer a service which is ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘caring’, ‘respectful’. Excellent. Just what we all want. But then they throw in ‘dignity’, and that’s where Geoff and many like him take a step back. What is this dignity? It sounds formal and distant. Pompous. It sets up a barrier.


Geoff is an adept silver surfer and he persisted in his researches, this time on the internet. What did he reckon? “They can’t use the English language!” he expostulated. “Full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, misplaced apostrophes.”


He’s right. There’s a lot of semi-literate text up there and it disparages the professional competence of those it represents. Geoff might have added that the design of many funeral directors’ websites is crude, cluttered and clunky. Horrible.


Geoff’s researches eventually dumped him back on square one. Dismayed, he gave up. “I’ll ask around, see if anyone knows a good one.”


Adrian, here’s some helpful advice for you and your fellow funeral directors: the purpose of marketing is to offer a relationship of warmth and trust with potential clients – to draw them to you.


They don’t want spiky gothic typography in your ads. It is ecclesiastical and anachronistic. It carries associations of gloom, wretchedness and Dickensian melodrama. Your other favoured graphic design elements similarly mystify or repel – religious symbols, horsedrawn hearses, stained glass windows surrounded by clustering roses. Your trade association logos look impressive – but does anyone actually know what they mean?


Most people glance at your ads, shiver, and hope they’ll never have to go anywhere near you.


Adrian, they say that death is the last taboo. It’s not. People want information. They want to be able to drop into your funeral home informally and indulge their curiosity, chat, read and find out.


You talk about the public service element of your work. The quality of that service would be greatly enhanced were you to offer accessibility and empowerment, warmth and trust.


What has choking the streets of Croydon with hearses got to do with that?

Charles Cowling

When I blogged about FuneralCare derecognising the GMB union I invited the press officer at FCare to respond in the interests of fairness and right to reply.

Phil Edwards of FCare duly responded by email: “This deserves a reply. How much time do we have?”

I told him to take his time. But this was on 21 August, almost a fortnight ago.

I subsequently asked the GMB for any response they would like to make.

Now, the Good Funeral Guide is not a campaigning or a mischief-making publication. But this blog needn’t be quite so buttoned up and well-behaved. Where there is a case to be answered it will fearlessly seek answers, not be brushed aside as if it were a busy flea.

So, Phil, let’s be having you.

While we wait, did you read about Scott Ralston, FCare funeral director in Glasgow with 16 years’ unblemished service, sacked for driving a van with four dead bodies in it, without regard for dignity or respect, at speeds up to 7mph? He’s just won £30,000 at an industrial tribunal, which commented that it could not accept that a reasonable employer would consider this one isolated incident would justify dismissal.

Tsk tsk.

Charles Cowling

Here’s an interesting and not unconfusing series of pics from today’s Guardian. Entitled ‘Behind the Last Closed Door’, the photos are by Laura Peters and are on show at the Lighthouse Gallery, Wolverhampton, from 3-18 September.

‘What,’ asks the Guardian, ‘happens behind the scenes at crematorium [sic]? A new exhibition of photographs solves the mystery.’

Mystery? What mystery? What could possibly be mysterious about a place where anyone can go? There’s no need to peek at someone else’s photos of it, as if through your fingers from behind the sofa. If you want to know what goes on up at t’crem, stride boldly in and ask if you can have a look. They’ll be pleased to show you.

That the business end of a crem should be capable of being reckoned a mystery serves to illustrate the euphemistic way we burn the bodies of our dead. At the moment of committal the curtains slowly close in front of the coffin. It’s a high-drama ritual which normally elicits sharp sobs, cries, even, from the congregation. If you’re the celebrant, trust me, you feel a bit like an executioner as you push the button on the lectern. People’s uninformed imaginations then conjure up all sorts of outlandish pictures of what happens next.

If only they knew the bathetic truth: that the coffin sits there patiently until everyone’s gone, and may not be cremated for several hours.

There’s no mystery for Sikhs about what happens behind the scenes: they customarily go and witness the coffin going into the cremator (or furnace, as the Guardian has it; a term somewhat discredited by the Nazi death camps). There is no mystery, either, for those too-few others who wish to see the process through; who need to see that everything is done properly. The last time I, as a celebrant, arranged this, for three brothers (who had previously stood behind the lectern and, together, pushed the button) the crematorium technician had kindly and thoughtfully allowed the cremator to cool sufficiently so that the coffin containing their mother did not spontaneously combust as it went in.

Ms Peters’ photos are not especially revealing, truth to tell. But pic number 3 is very alarming: it shows lots of empty coffins standing on their feet. So it’s true, is it? They do pull the dead people out of them before they burn them, and re-use them? That’s terrible!

Further research reveals that Ms Peters has actually also photo-ed another mystery no-go area: behind the scenes in a funeral home — the coffin store and the mortuary. Hmmn, it’s really a very clean mortuary. And look, the funeral director is wearing rubber gloves. Full marks, chaps. Things are not ever thus, not in every mortuary by any means.

The real mystery, it seems to me, is that the place where a dear, dead person is cared for and kept should be reckoned a mystery. It’s only a mystery because people dare not ask to see.

Is that really so surprising?

Yes, when they gaze instead on Ms Peters’ photos.

If you want a much more graphic and informative picture of what goes on behind the scenes at a crematorium, have a look at this clip from the Australian Museum Online. It could be anywhere in Britain.

Charles Cowling

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there…

Here’s an instruction more honoured in the breach than the observance. These, the opening lines of one of Britain’s favourite funeral poems, highlight the contradiction inherent in our complex psychological need to mark the spot where the body or ash of a loved one is laid or strewn.

Most people, whether religious or atheist, agree that, wherever their dead person is now, he or she is not there, not at the spot that they memorialise. Yet still they feel, nevertheless, strongly impelled to mark that spot.

Can you explain this?

Dr Johnson asserted that “grief is a species of idleness”. If he was right – he was a lifelong depressive so he may have a point – then one remedy for grief is activity.

A memorial certainly offers opportunities for therapeutic activity. It gives mourners
· somewhere to go
· something to do

If there’s anything in this theory, then it’s the physical rituals and observances associated with journeying to and tending a memorial or a grave which are emotionally nourishing. They enable you to do something about how you feel, and something for the dead person.

You can mark the spot in all sorts of physical ways, as you know, whether with a headstone, a folly or a tree.

But have you come across the virtual way: the online memorial site? Yes, now you can memorialise a dead person in cyberspace.

I think there’s a great deal to be said for the idea behind the online memorial site. It is zeitgeisty, closely related to social networking sites like Facebook. It can bring together a community of grieving people who may be widely scattered geographically. It gives you somewhere to go and something to do.

Are these sites tasteful or tacky?

Here’s a question which applies to everything funerary. Views polarise. One person’s meaningful is another person’s maudlin. A willow coffin is either a thing of rustic loveliness or it is a giant picnic hamper. A horse-drawn hearse: is that heritage or gangster?

There’s no distinguishing between what is seemly and what is sentimental.

Online memorial sites are evolving fast. Some have already fallen foul of natural selection. Some have fallen foul of entrepreneurs: looks set to make millions from digitised tears worldwide: it hosts online obituaries for more than 650 newspapers, including The Times, and its database contains every dead American since 1937.

Two really good sites out there are, in my (it’s only my) opinion, GoneTooSoon and, best of the lot, MuchLoved. Both are free. Highly recommended. Check them out.

Charles Cowling

It took just a couple of playful chomps for the bull terrier to sever the puppy’s retractable lead, rendering it a total loss. Fruitless to pelt him with acrimony: when a bull terrier does a bad thing the accompanying expression of comical delinquency disarms all rage.

Expensive things, these retractable leads. Sharon found a replacement on ebay. Buy it now, just £1 plus £2.95 p & p. “Bargain!” she cried.

It arrived a few days later. She pulled it from its padded envelope and we cursorily inspected it. I stepped on the pedal of the bin and she dropped it in, no word spoken. By way of consolation I revealed the German model I had bought from Pets R 4 Xmas just in case. £8.95. Best buy.

There will always be those who seek a cheap funeral.

There are the puritans, hair-shirted, often green, left-leaning types for whom even sackcloth and ashes are luxury lifestyle accessories. They resist the solicitous intervention of undertakers. The cardboard coffin is emblematic of their often joyless rejection of the follies of frippery.

You could generalise and say that it’s the educated middle class which inclines towards palaver-free, cheap funerals, and it’s the working class which likes to put on a bit of a show. This would be a mistake. It’s social confidence that empowers people to ignore what the neighbours think and say no, if that’s how they feel, to posh coffins and long black limousines.

To the puritans and the socially confident you can add the skint. All these will be attracted to a cheaper funeral. They may or may not suppose that funeral directors make more money than they ought.

None of us wants to pay more than we need. When a dead cheap funeral suddenly pops up, we all sit up and take notice.

Direct Funeral Services will do you a funeral for just £960 plus disbursements. Bargain!

How do they do it? I rang to find out. The helpful but clueless receptionist couldn’t tell me, so she put me through to the office. After a period of silence, the phone went dead.

If Sherlock Holmes were alive today he’d never get out of Google.

Go to Nominet. Type the domain name into WHOIS. Done.

Registrant: Richard Sage.

Pause for audible gasp.

Can this be the same Richard Sage who has been pursued for almost 15 years by BBC Radio 4’s John Waite for “ripping off staff, customers and National Health hospitals to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds”? The same Richard Sage who has been sentenced to a total 12 years in prison for fraud? The same Richard Sage of whom one of his previous employees said this: “It got to the point of going down to the crematorium or the local graveyard and collecting other people’s flowers – wreaths and bouquets – off another funeral, which wasn’t even to do with our company. Taking them back to the office, re-spraying them with water to make them look fresh. And placing them on the coffins – was our jobs”?

Even if this is a different Richard Sage, beware.

It’s a fact: margins in the funeral business are already very tight. Funerals are pretty good value. And, if money is tight, or you want a stripped down affair, almost every funeral director will offer you a basic funeral package as prescribed by the National Association of Funeral Directors, the price of which varies nationally.

You can negotiate a cheaper funeral than this by unpacking the package and buying fewer services. Do you, for example, need the funeral director’s staff to carry the coffin? Are you happy for the body to be left in the hospital mortuary until the day of the funeral and brought to the crematorium or cemetery in an estate car rather than a hearse? Many funeral directors will resist this sort of whittling; the best will happily collude.

There are very few crooks out there, but funeral directors are unregulated; there’s no way of keeping crooks out. So, if a funeral director is not a member of the NAFD or SAIF, tread carefully.

Charles Cowling

Ethical is the new virtuous. Saints don’t wear haloes any more, they wear little whirling propellers on their roofs to, I don’t know, charge their iPhones, is it?

Ethical living used to be about more than remembering to bring your bag for life to the supermarket or taking as much pride in your compost bin as your new 4×4. Ethical people were less self-righteous, more altruistic.

I’m a sucker for heritage ethics – ethics born of ragged-trousered courage and struggle. The Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Rochdale Pioneers. These are just some of the heroes who float my ethical boat. I suppose it’s this sort of ethical nostalgia which impelled me all those years ago to open an account with smile, the Co-operative Group’s online bank.

I talked last week to John Mallatrat. Do you know John? He and his wife, Mary, founded Peace Funerals in 1996. Mike Jarvis of the Natural Death Centre (sic transit…) once described them to me as latter-day saints, an epithet they would modestly but firmly rebuff. Others must be the judge. I reckon them and their team to possess irrefutable heritage ethical qualities. I first encountered John when I was arranging a funeral for the brother of a friend. He’d died in Hendon and there was very little money available. John, operating out of Sheffield, was able not only to do the funeral for considerably less than the Co-op just outside the gates of the crematorium, he also brought an empathic, personal touch, which established exactly the right tone. It was a wonderful funeral.

Reason for my call: I’d been researching these pay-now-die-later funeral plans which all funeral directors are presently obsessing about as if their future depends on it – which, truth to tell, it urgently does. It seemed to me that there are three significant players: the conglomerates (Dignity and the Co-op); the independents under the banner of Golden Charter; and, way out in left field, Peace, whose Funeral Plans Online are marketed as ethical. What, I wanted to know from John, does he mean by ethical?

It’s not as if anyone supposes that the Co-op’s plan funds porn, nor that the Dignity plan arms the Janjaweed in Darfur. But it’s true to say that they don’t say precisely how they grow their clients’ money that fast, either, and Peace, it turns out, are the only funeral planners who categorically assure their clients that their money will not be invested in armaments, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, human rights abuses or pornography. For people to whom this matters, it’s important to know.

I fell to brooding about ethics in the funeral industry, and what may be seen as a grave betrayal of its founding principles by the Co-operative Group.

This year, at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival – a gathering of all that’s best about Heritage Labour – the Co-op, direct heirs of the Rochdale Pioneers, were thrown out. Why? Because of the de-recognition by Funeralcare of the GMB union and its alleged victimisation and harassment of its shop stewards.

The Co-op de-recognising a trade union? It’s a bit like discovering that the Church of England has airbrushed the teachings of Jesus from its theology. To carry on trading under the banner of Co-operative looks like, doesn’t it, a species of deception?

It is well known in the funeral industry that the Co-op has bequeathed to this country some of its finest funeral directors. They are those plucky independents who began their careers in the Co-op, where their values and principles were forged in their deep antipathy to the way the Co-op does things. Their zeal is the fruit of their indignation.

It is also well known that there are, within the Co-op, some outstanding and very caring, if grievously underpaid, funeral directors.

You wonder if an organisation so ethically incoherent, which treats its employees so badly, can possibly be an effective force. It would be good to hear a defence.

In the meantime, can anyone out there tell me where I can find an ethical bank?

Charles Cowling

Life teems with ticklish antitheses. In the midst of life we are in death: in the midst of death we are in life.

It’s a summer’s day which feels like late November. Rain is spitting; the leaves on the chestnut trees are browning. The funeral is over (I was the celebrant) and I pause to survey the scene before driving away – the huge, shagged-out cemetery, the sparse, tussocky vegetation, the numberless never-visited graves, the rows of mute headstones tied to stakes by the topple-testers, secured with bright yellow strapping. A mature burial ground like this makes visible the slow-mo obliteration of the unforgettable. Memory succumbs to amnesia.

In its forlorn heart, at the crematorium, the cherishing and commemoration of the dead goes on in the customary series of corteges and dispersals, the glossy black limousines, the laid out, cellophaned flowers, the little knots of mourners straggling back to their cars. There’s a certain sad majesty in this, a certain brave beauty. It’s a matter of taste.

The crematorium manager touches my elbow. “Your CD, mate.” It’s the CD of music we played at the funeral, which I had forgotten to pick up on my way out.

I put it on the passenger seat where it jostles another, the object of my next destination, another place suffering from municipal world-weariness, the register office, for I am to be married tomorrow. This other CD contains our wedding music. Important not to confuse them. As a springboard to connubial bliss, Michael Buble’s Lost arguably lacks upthrust.

Pop goes the corn. We’ve chosen Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. He’s a local boy, Elgar, a Wolves fan, and we like his little tune unapologetically. Oh, yes, of course, the registrar’s heard it before. We’ve chosen readings. I announce to the registrar: “This one’s an Apache blessing,” and she says “Oh yes Apache blessing” in a voice which disconcertingly reveals that we have selected the Henry Scott Holland of wedding readings.

On the day of days, James (a funeral director, as it happens, and a most remarkable one) reads the Apache blessing in his warm, shamanic voice. But, here’s the thing, unknown to us he has rehearsed everyone there in the last line and, when he reaches it, they all break into And may your days be good and long upon the earth. It’s a magical, wonderful moment. It breaks the mould of the one-size-fits-all ceremony and reclaims it for us – for everyone there.

We didn’t do the Rolls Royce and the fancy dress and the country house. We didn’t release doves or balloons or fireworks. We might have, but we didn’t. This was a simple wedding, a basic wedding, not an arm and a leg wedding.

But the ceremony had, we think, looking back, the two essential ingredients which doves and balloons fireworks and a country house and an Abba tribute band might have complemented and even vastly enhanced, but could never have substituted.

First, thanks to James’s masterstroke, it was shared. It belonged to us. All of us.

Second, just this: people came. They came from miles and miles away, some of them. They gave up their time, their Saturday, for us. None came without considerable inconvenience to themselves. Their showing up, their being there for us, their physical presence – that meant more to us than anything. It always will.

Never again will I not quite be able to make it to anybody’s funeral.

Charles Cowling

An entertaining way of assessing trends in the UK funeral industry is to have a look at what’s going on in the US. The best way I’ve found of doing that is by following Tim Totten’s blog, Final Embrace. It lends perspective to the view. And Tim is sharp, with an engaging quality of bright-eyed energy and optimism.

DIY and green funerals are becoming the rage over there, but rarely, intriguingly, do we see any reference or homage to the ground-breaking work done in the UK. I find it hard to believe that there are not some very well-thumbed and indispensable samizdat copies of the Natural Death Handbook in circulation. A pioneer DIY group is Final Passages. I think you’ll agree that Jasmine looks terrific. And while we Brits may, in our smug, post-Mitford way, suppose that American death rites are suffused with euphemism, you may find yourself reflecting that we don’t often see prurience-free pics of corpses on our own websites.

Tim’s blog is currently enjoying a tiff with the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog org whose boss, Joshua Slocum (yes, really) was recently quoted savaging undertakers in an article in Newsweek. It’s pretty bog standard fare — undertakers rip you off; the only way is the DIY way — but the comments are worth reading. There are lots of them, not a few from funeral directors. You wouldn’t get that in the UK; funeral directors here don’t do online. Pity.

Undertaker-bashing is a sport for dullards. What interests me is the pervasive belief that the only good funeral is a cheap one. A similar attitude to husbandry does not apply to birthdays, weddings, baby-namings or coming-of-age celebrations.

Actually, birthdays provide an apt analogy.

Ahead of the event, you protest that you don’t want anyone putting themselves out on your account — you don’t want any fuss. After your arm has been twisted, you helpfully hint at what presents you’d like and what sort of celebration. Then you sit back, wait for the day and, hopefully, enjoy the ride.

There are two sides to your birthday celebration:
o the joy of receiving (yours)
o the joy of giving (theirs)

The part you play is mostly passive. You smilingly, gratefully, undergo what has been planned for you.

The part played by others is active. The more they do, the more fun it all is. Your birthday may cost them a great deal of money or very little. This is of little or no account compared with the amount of thought and hard work they put into it.

If they’d listened to you, it would have been crap.

Moral? Disregard the self-deprecatory utterances of dead people (when alive, of course) and give them the funeral you think they deserve.

We don’t, most of us, work hard at arranging funerals; we just trail along, endure, undergo. The undertaker and his or her staff do all the work, and not very much of that — oh, and the celebrant, of course.

I have a theory that, channelled properly, grief can be much more empowering. If we work harder and leave less to others, a funeral can be a great occasion enhanced by the one element missing from all of life’s other great ceremonies: finality.

How much it all costs is a matter of little or no account.

Charles Cowling

It’s a ticklish business, if you’ve never done it before, launching a website.

Launch? That’s a big verb. It’s not what it felt like: no tarantara, no wild whooping, no champagne-dripping prow.

Nothing like that at all. Simply, Harry, my webmeister, emailed late one uneventful evening. “You’re live,” he said. I inhaled a deep breath of expectation and held it (as you do).

Nothing happened.

That suited me very well because I was then struck down by the sort of virus that has all the malignant force of an inept practical joke. It makes the world whirl nauseously, then moderates and settles down to conducting a guerrilla campaign against your sense of balance. You feel drunk all the time, but shabbily so. It’s called labyrinthitis. I hope you never get it.

While my world spun and I lurched, the bathos continued. I had supposed that people would eventually spot me, stroll up and have a chat. I felt vulnerable, of course, though this is the point of the exercise: to encourage collaboration. But I know (you too) that there are jealous, angry egos in the world of death and funerals; and we know, too, that there are also bedlamites in cyberspace ready to squeak and gibber at us in foam-flecked lower case in which even the plurals are unapostrophised. In these last days of passing unnoticed among strangers I have relished my anonymity, my peace and the decorum of my inbox.

I have broken cover. I have been talking to the well-connected blogger Zinnia Cyclamen, whose prose has that limpid quality which is the product of intellect, fastidiousness and rigour, and in whose presence one’s own punctuation and grammar reflexively adopt their best behaviour. Zinnia is a writer and a humanist funeral celebrant whose adventures are a must-read.

Zinnia has read a tranche of my text and critiqued it with an acuteness which has both enriched my thinking and exposed my prejuduces. Dammit, I’d meant to keep them tethered; I don’t want the Good Funeral Guide to be a manifesto. I must go straight to work and dig the me-ness out of it, especially in the section Creating the Ceremony. The process of evolution has begun.

Zinnia has also written about me on her blog and invited her e-chums to have a gander. You are very welcome.

I hope that, together, we can make something we are all proud of.

Oh heck, I’ve just checked my inbox. While I’ve been writing this, the first-ever comment has come in.

It’s nice. Thank you, Jan!