Photo credit: Rachel Wallace Photography
Day 271. Almost nine months into this new existence.
The last couple of weeks have been difficult. I’ve been feeling unwell, symptoms of a bad cold which are, apparently, also symptoms of someone double vaccinated who has contracted the Delta variant. A lateral flow test was negative at the beginning of the week, but the Zoe app instructed me to take a PCR test and isolate. So, I’ve been home alone. Wondering if I have caught covid again.
By Friday I had completely lost my voice and had to take part in zoom meetings using the chat facility and miming. On Saturday I discovered that as I hadn’t made a note of the barcode on the PCR test, my missing results couldn’t be traced so I had to wait for another test to be sent out. Dear reader, please make a note of your barcode if you take a PCR test!! This is not mentioned in any of the instructions, nor on the government website, but if your results don’t appear, without that barcode you’re back to square one.
So, I’ve had a lot of thinking time, between coughing. I’ve been trying to work out how I am at the moment.
Fragile, I think, is a good description. I’ve never felt fragile before, but I’ve been conscious of a gradually seeping feeling of anxiety edging up from my subconscious, an anxiety that now seems to be part of my daily existence. On the surface, all is ok, but the slightest stressful thing cracks that veneer and exposes frightening depths of fear and misery underneath. Waiting for the test results has been more stressful than I realised and losing my voice (on top of my ongoing loss of taste and smell since the last time I had covid) was horrible. Isolating again has been really hard.
It feels like I have no idea who I am anymore. Everything is so different now. The me who I used to be has vanished. All the foundations that my life was built on have crumbled and gone, and I don’t recognise myself. Thinking back, I marvel at how strong and confident I used to be, how fearless.
When Steve and I first met, I had built a good life after some difficult times. I had a job I loved, my kids were grown, and I had a fun social life with friends from all over the place. I dated lots of interesting men. I was busy and independent and happy. I wasn’t looking for anything, but then Steve crashed into my life and suddenly everything was in technicolour. I knew it was different at once. I felt completely safe with him, immediately, and that feeling never left me.
When we became a permanent item, everything felt complete. Together, we were so solid, so strong. He supported me in everything I did, he was interested in everything I had to say, we talked and talked about everything, and I only wanted to be with him. Our life together was completely enough, for both of us.
For all the years we were together (other than once, for a few weeks when circumstances were difficult and he needed to exorcise ghosts from his past) – all the rest of the time, those weeks and months and years together were completely immersive and nourishing for us both. We never, ever argued. He was mystified by this, and often wondered why not, but there was nothing to argue about. We were, he sometimes said, like one person in two bodies. Completely unified and solid and strong.
He totally had my back in everything, and his constant strength and love and support made me the best me I could possibly be. He encouraged me, and counselled me, and laughed at me and made me laugh too, and he was always, always there. If we were apart, we’d speak on the phone throughout the day, but mostly we were together as much as humanly possible. It was the easiest, most perfect relationship I have ever had. We completed each other. Constant, complete love. We occasionally appreciated just how lucky we both were to be experiencing so much security, so much safety, to be both adored and adoring, but mostly we just thrived and grew, separately and together.
With his grounding, I could fly, and I did. I became a stronger voice, a more determined advocate for what’s right, a better contributor to the discourse about the subjects I cared about. I could write and speak and lead, I became better known, better respected, just better generally. Always with his advice, his balanced Libran opinions in the back of my mind. I listened to him and tempered my more extreme ideas; I grew stronger and wiser. He kept me on track, but never stifled me. He was the perfect counterbalance.
And now he’s gone. The me that I had become, the me that had blossomed from the fertile soil of love and support and interest and generosity that he had poured into my growing – that me died with him last year. There is absolutely no way I can be that person anymore, not without him. I am left staring at the wreckage of my life, trying to find the bits that can be fitted back together in some resemblance of that person I used to be, knowing full well that it’s impossible.
This, I suppose, is the long, hard work of grieving. Of reassembling, re-membering who I am. Working out which bits of me still resemble the me I used to be and can be useful in the future, and which bits are lost forever. It’s difficult to get the perspective you need when you’re dealing with the ebbing and flowing of grief; self-analysis is difficult at the best of times, let alone when your heart feels like it’s shattered into a million pieces. I have to do it in dribs and drabs, noting when I feel like me (rarely), and accepting when I feel like someone completely other (the rest of the time).
I’m at my best when I’m assuming my old persona, when I’m working. It’s like putting on a familiar coat, being the Fran that people recognise. I can be effective and decisive and have opinions that I can back up, I can focus and pull things together like I used to do. But the minute I stop – and I can’t yet keep it up for long – the minute I switch off the computer or end the zoom call or hang up the phone, I feel the illusion of normality dissolve away, and the now familiar uncertainty wash back over me.
I can push it away by distracting myself too, by walking, by letting my subconscious thoughts surface as I go, my brain creating some order of the random memories and thoughts and fears. I can focus for a while on writing, or on tracing my family tree on Ancestry.com, or on reading or baking or gardening or cleaning and tidying – all these things help a bit with managing how I feel. But there’s an underlying ache that never goes away. And none of my distractions help me piece myself together into the new me. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know where to start.
I don’t know how to carry my grief into situations either. With people close to me, it’s not a problem. Steve is a presence in our conversations, despite his absence, his existence is acknowledged, and his importance is accepted. But with other people, people I know less well, I don’t know how to be, how to bring Steve with me.
He either becomes the central player in my tragic story of being someone who married the love of her life and then lost him to covid three weeks later, or an awkward unmentioned ghost who hovers over conversations until I invite him to join us by mentioning him – at which point the tragic story takes centre stage and changes everything. How do I introduce myself, trailing this invisible ghost with me? How do I navigate conversations when I know he’s there and the other person doesn’t? At what point do I detonate the hand grenade of the horror of what I have experienced and let the pieces of my story fall over someone I’m talking to? It’s too huge, too horrific, too difficult to precis into a sentence or two.
I’ve done this once or twice and it is gruelling, for me and for the other person. Ghost Steve is as big and strong as real Steve was, and once he’s involved in a conversation, he draws all the oxygen from it. He’s better contained when he’s pre-framed by my identity as someone bereaved by covid, in my role within the community and as a spokesperson of the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. Ghost Steve behaves better in that scenario, he’s easier to accommodate and reference. I feel safer and more recognisable in that place too, with him pre-introduced. I am beginning to find whisps of my old confidence coalescing into the new, ‘tragic’ me.
So, when I’m working, check. When I’m doing something purposeful with my grief, check. The rest of the time, I’m fumbling along trying to look after myself and be patient. The only way to survive a loss like this is to keep going. Eventually, after enough time has passed, I hope that I will one day have gathered enough pieces of my old self together again to be recognisable to myself. I hope that I will have more time feeling strong and less time feeling lost, less time ambushed by the tears that well up unannounced, less time feeling stabs of envy at seeing couples together, less time feeling completely alone.
This week of enforced lost-test-imposed isolation has brought my actual real isolation into sharp relief. I am alone now. I am without my anchor. The rest of my life will be lived without Steve. I cannot fill the gap that he has left with anything or anyone. I have to grow the new me around the hole where he used to be. This is the most difficult thing I have ever faced, the hardest task I’ve ever been given. There’s no escaping from it, no other path to take. Oh, and there’s still a global pandemic raging. And a government seemingly determined to wash their hands of keeping us all safe.
I think feeling fragile is a reasonable thing right now.
A dear friend sent me a poem at the weekend. Technically, she re-sent it, she had shared it with me soon after Steve died, so the words were familiar, and yet the second I started to read them, the fragile skin I have so painfully grown over the depthless well of tears inside me fell apart, and I cried and cried.
It has been 220 days since Steve died. I have no idea how I have survived 220 days without him. To all intents and purposes, I am ‘doing well’. I keep being told this. I have no idea against what I am being measured. There isn’t anything to measure how I’m doing against.
The me who I was when Steve was alive died with him. Of course it did. Everything changed in that moment. And in the hours and days and weeks that followed him dying, I changed too. I have no idea who I actually am now. On the surface, I look and sound like the old me. A wearier, older, sadder me, but there’s enough of me left to be reassuring to others.
I can function now, I’m working, writing, doing admin, sorting invoices, attending meetings, giving people advice, doing what I have always done. But to be honest, I don’t know what else to do with myself. If I didn’t distract myself with work, or with looking after the children, or with doing the shopping and cooking and cleaning that needs doing, the weight on my shoulders and in my heart would drown me.
For a brief time, being involved with the National Covid Memorial Wall caught me up in a feeling of purpose. Being proactive and doing something for other people really helped turn me away from my pain, and my involvement with the campaign group continues to buoy me. I’ve been asked to be part of a sub-group working on government support for people bereaved by covid, and that is really important to me, I will throw myself into it and have already secured support for our efforts from some of the leading people in the field of complicated grief and bereavement.
Acting as one of the media spokespeople for the group is good for me too, and I will happily speak to journalists when I’m asked to. All this is positive, helpful stuff. But the yawning emptiness inside me, beside me, stretching ahead of me – it never goes away. And as the community and impact of the wall has ebbed away as the weeks go by, the temporary lift that it gave me slips away with it.
Nobody told me that the days would get harder. Grindingly, relentlessly harder. I suppose that the trauma and shock of the aftermath of Steve’s death was such that telling me such a truth would have been cruel. I’m not sure I could have borne it in those early, mad, broken days. It was enough just to get through each day in one piece, I couldn’t think ahead more than a few hours. I just lived for the moment, like a recovering alcoholic, one day at a time.
I continue to do so, I think. It seems the safest way, in these crazy uncertain times, with roadmaps and variants and insane government decisions. I’m double vaccinated now, so I’m as safe as I can be, but the invisible threat of the virus and the suffocating, choking cruelty of the glass lungs it causes continue to dog my thoughts. I shan’t be doing any socialising any time soon.
To be honest, I don’t feel like I’ll ever want to socialise again. My circle of friends is small, I’ve never been a great keeper of friends, and once I found Steve, he was all I needed. We just loved being together, all of the time, and didn’t need anyone else’s company. Both of us could do a good job of being sociable, he more than me, but we were never happier than when we were alone together, at home. And now I’m alone, at home, and he’s gone. Just typing the words makes me hold my breath.
My shoulders are tense and tight, all the time, unless I consciously make myself relax them. What has happened to me happens to countless thousands of people every year, how on earth did I not realise that so many people are walking around weighed down by the invisible leaden heaviness of being left behind, trying to live without the person who made life worth living?
I miss him so, so much. He was my best friend. My absolute best friend. The person who loved me so much. He knew me completely, as I did him – we saw each other in a way nobody had ever seen me, nor I them. It was such a wonderful, wonderful thing to be known and seen and adored. He didn’t proclaim it publicly, not until we married last year – but that was ok. He had reasons for being circumspect about how he felt about me to the rest of the world.
But I knew, with a knowing that was instant and ancient and visceral and unquestioning, I knew he loved me utterly, as I did him. He used to describe us as one entity split into two beings – I am you, and you are me. I got that, it described how I felt too. We had grown and entwined ourselves into one, over the years, but from the start, we had recognised ourselves in each other.
Seven months have passed. Seven months since my heart was ripped from my body and broken into a million pieces. I try, now and then, to remember that last, precious, irreplaceable hour as he lay dying. I remember that I knew at the time that I needed to try and etch everything in my mind so I would remember, but of course I have forgotten much. I held his hand and didn’t let go, not for a second, I remember that.
I remember that I played him his favourite piece of music using my phone, so that he would have it in his mind as he approached the precipice of death. The theme tune from ‘Out of Africa’. He couldn’t watch the film without crying; when he heard the music, it always made him cry. He spent his early years in Africa, and the film and the music resonated with those early memories of the sunshine and sounds and scents and languages of his childhood.
I chose the track to play when his coffin was carried into his funeral ceremony, and I have heard it only twice since then. It played on the radio as I walked into the living room on my 60th birthday, after being made to wait at the foot of the stairs by my daughters, just I had used to make them wait when they were young. The second time was 6 months to the day after he died; it came on the radio just as we were about to leave the house to go to the woods to visit his grave.
Both times, I cried. We all cried.
I remember telling him how incredible he was, how happy he made me, how much I loved him, how much he was loved by so many people, what a wonderful, wonderful man he was. I remember asking him if he had any regrets, and how he shook his head. I remember him looking up towards the corner of the room and me asking him if he could see someone there and him nodding, and me asking if it was his parents, and him nodding again, and me telling him that they had come to get him, their golden boy, and that it was ok to go with them.
I remember me telling him that he had the heart of a lion, and that he was the best and the bravest person I had ever known. I remember telling him he had to promise to be there for me when I died, and that he must try and let me know if he was still with me and around me after he had gone. I remember telling him that he could let go now, that he didn’t need to keep struggling, that everything would be ok, that I would be ok, that his children would be ok. I remember just trying to surround him with love.
And I remember the moment when he went. The moment that my gorgeous man died in front of me. The moment that he was gone, and his empty shell of a body lay where a millisecond before he had been. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I’ve often tried to go over that hour in my mind, hoping I will remember more. There must have been so much more, I talked and talked to him for an hour, between the nurses leaving us alone, and me opening the door and asking someone to come in and verify that he had died. I know there’s so much I have forgotten. One of the first times I really let myself go back to that hour and try and really think back to what I said and how it felt was just a few days after his funeral, three weeks exactly after he had died.
I was walking the dog, thinking and thinking and trying so hard to remember. It was November, and there were leaves on the ground. I remembered the bit of me telling him he had the heart of a lion as I walked, and AT THAT EXACT MOMENT, as I thought that thought, there in front of me, laying in the leaves on the path, was a toy plastic lion.
I picked him up and brought him home and he has sat in front of the photo of Steve and me on our wedding day ever since.
There have been a lot of things that have happened since Steve died. Call them coincidences if you will, but I’m not so sure. White feathers litter my path when I’m walking and thinking about him – where do they all come from? I was walking on the golf course one evening, thinking, of course, about him, and there was one white feather after another on the grass. I said out loud, ‘I’m sick of these bloody white feathers all the time’ and instantly, as clear as a bell, I heard Steve’s voice in my head, saying ‘I gave you a f***ing lion for f***s sake – what more do you want?’ Laughing out loud on your own could easily be taken as a sign of madness, but I stood and laughed and laughed that night.
Are these the signs I asked for? I don’t know. I think they might be, but I don’t know. The one person who I would be talking to about whether I was making myself believe in something that didn’t exist is gone, so I’m left wondering on my own. Nobody knows the answer to this existential question. My thoughts go round and round – where are you? WHERE ARE YOU???
Ultimately, it doesn’t make any difference. He is gone. I am here. I have lost him. I have to be me without him. I don’t know how to do that, but I just have to keep going. One day, I’ll work out who I am now.
I have commissioned a memorial for his grave. It has a carving of a lion, standing on top of the plaque, which has a Swahili phrase on it.
In the film Out of Africa, a love story like no other, the lions come to lay on Denys’s grave.
It feels like the circle has come complete.
When I die I want your hands on my eyes:
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me one more time
to feel the smoothness that changed my destiny.
I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep,
I want for your ears to go on hearing the wind,
for you to smell the sea that we loved together
and for you to go on walking the sand where we walked.
I want for what I love to go on living
and as for you I loved you and sang you above everything,
for that, go on flowering, flowery one,
So that you reach all that my love orders for you,
so that my shadow passes through your hair,
so that they know by this the reason for my song.
“Now is not the time”
On April 7th a document published by the Ministry of Justice quietly appeared in the public domain.
It was the government’s ‘Response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s Funeral Market Report’, and it does not make for good reading for anyone who believes that the funeral sector needs to be regulated. Or for the 69% of those who responded to the CMA’s survey who assume it already is.
If, like us, you have been following the progress of the CMA, from the launch of their market study into the funeral market in 2018, you will have seen the case for regulation gradually being developed. After years of painstaking and in-depth work by the team involved, the Final Report, published in December 2020, outlined the serious concerns that the CMA has about the funeral sector. We wrote about it in our blog post in January.
Despite the pandemic having severely restricted the CMA in fully developing all of the remedies that may otherwise have been pursued, the Final Report proposed a number of ‘sunlight’ remedies, intended to improve transparency of pricing and focus on the hidden ‘back of house’ practices in the funeral sector.
In addition, the CMA made one recommendation to government – that:
“The UK government, and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales, should establish in England, Northern Ireland and Wales an inspection and registration regime to monitor the quality of funeral director services, as a first step to the establishment of a broader regulatory regime for funeral services in these nations (Scotland already has a similar regime).”
The government has had a think about this, and after a couple of weeks, it told us its decision.
It said no.
While agreeing in principle to a form of regulation and inspection and stating that it believes that ‘such a move in the long term would assist in achieving the overall objective of an improved customer experience’, the government then goes on to make clear it has little appetite to ‘improve customer experience’ in such a way any time soon – now is, apparently, ‘not the time to move to wholescale regulation’.
Instead, the response goes on to outline the next steps that the government is willing to take. Which are not exactly onerous.
Apparently, they will:
- ‘Work collaboratively with the sector and user groups to develop an agreed set of quality standards (such as a voluntary code of practice), as part of a co-regulatory model, that could be introduced in summer 2021, in parallel with the CMA’s work on price transparency, to achieve a quicker outcome for users of funeral director’s services
- Support the sector in developing a system to encourage all funeral directors to follow these quality standards and enable users to raise points of concern through a more formalised mechanism than at present
- Commit to evaluating and reviewing the effectiveness of this co-regulation model
- Monitor the effectiveness and success of the Scottish regulatory system that has just launched (and which applies to organisations who provide services in Scotland but may be based in Scotland and / or England) after a year’
‘In the context of the ongoing pandemic,’ the government goes on, ‘we believe that this is both a proportionate and appropriate approach.’
Over on Twitter, the Quaker Social Action account noted how bitterly disappointed QSA are with the UK government’s response, “There has never been a more important time for robust action to safeguard bereaved people and ensure that the funerals market is working for consumers” they say.
A statement from Lindesey Mace, manager of the charity’s funeral costs helpline Down to Earth adds that the number of clients they supported doubled during the second peak of Covid-19 deaths between December 2020 and March 2021.
Lindesey continues, “We believe the UK government could, and should, commit far more to protect bereaved people, especially those affected by funeral poverty.”
We at the Good Funeral Guide are wholeheartedly in agreement with Quaker Social Action and share their frustration and disappointment at the government’s decision.
The position of the National Association of Funeral Directors, in contrast, is somewhat different to that of QSA – the NAFD has warmly welcomed the government response in an article on their website, saying:
“The NAFD looks forward to working closely with the Ministry of Justice to demonstrate that our revised inspections regime and comprehensive industry code of practice (The Funeral Director Code), which has been created in consultation with consumer bodies and representatives from across the sector through the work of the FSCSR, and our work to create the Independent Funeral Standards Organisation (IFSO), an independent body which will oversee standards monitoring, inspections and complaints, will provide Government with the assurance it needs that the funeral sector is committed to acting with transparency, high standards and in the interests of bereaved people.”
(The FSCSR is an initiative by Dignity PLC that began in 2018 and was quickly expanded to include other ‘stakeholders’ and an independent chair. The FSCSR is funded “through the funeral industry through the NAFD with additional financial support from Golden Charter, Funeral Zone and Ecclesiastical Planning Services.” We wrote about it in a blog post in 2019 here.)
The IFSO was set up by the NAFD as a ‘new regulator in a previously unregulated space’, according to the advertised role of chair of the board and was done so to ‘provide the Government with a viable solution to address the CMA’s (and our) concerns about the limitations of the current voluntary regulation of the funeral sector,’ as outlined in the article on the NAFD website.
So. In summary.
- The Competition and Markets Authority has recommended that government step in and regulate the funeral sector in order to protect and benefit bereaved people.
- Government has declined to follow this recommendation.
- The National Association of Funeral Directors (the trade association representing the interests of funeral directors) has set up and funded a ready-made ‘independent regulatory body’ as a solution.
We offer no comment on this generous action.
After years of hard work by the team at the CMA investigating the funeral sector, it is dispiriting and dismaying to see their recommendation to government being dismissed.
It feels like a missed opportunity, one that has been 20 years in coming since the Office of Fair Trading Report published in July 2001 called for more openness and transparency, warning that the funeral industry could be taking advantage of bereaved people.
We feel that in choosing not to follow the CMA’s recommendation for regulation, government are ignoring bereaved people and downplaying the vulnerability of bereaved people as consumers.
We would like to ask one simple question to government.
If now is not the time to move to wholescale regulation of the funeral sector, then when will be?
While doing research for this article, it was fascinating to come across the new look ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for Funerals and Bereavement’.
It has a shiny new website, and has moved up in the world by including not just MPs, but also members of the Deceased Management Advisory Group (DMAG) – a collective of organisations representing both funeral directors and those who manage, provide and work in cemeteries and crematoria. The DMAG was formed to address the challenges posed to the funeral sector by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is a very interesting and new development.
In the past, we have approached the APPG for Funerals many times, requesting that the Good Funeral Guide be allowed to attend meetings with MPs to represent the views of bereaved people (referred to in the full title of the group) but in each instance we have been turned down – although, we were assured in the polite refusals from various Chairs over the years that occasionally guest speakers were invited and one day that invitation might come to us. It never did.
The NAFD historically has been the only outside organisation involved with this particular APPG – indeed it is referred to by a former President of the NAFD as ‘the NAFD’s APPG’ in an article commemorating the bestowing of Honorary Membership on a colleague – ‘Nigel has been involved with the NAFD’s APPG on Funerals and Bereavement since its inception in 2002 and has worked with 6 different Chairs in that time. All of whom he has ensured have returned excellent value for the NAFD.’
In the past, the APPG for Funerals was the beneficiary of a secretariat funded by the NAFD, however, from a skim through the minutes of the new-look group, a new public affairs agency, JBP Associates appears to have taken over this role. The funding for their services is not apparent in the public register (see page 609, to save you ploughing through all 1,239 pages).
Anyway, we digress. The new ‘APPG for Funerals and Bereavement’ offers direct access to parliamentarians for members of the DMAG, which are as follows:
The National Association of Funeral Directors
The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management
The Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors
The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities
The Funeral Furnishing Manufacturers’ Association
The Association of Private Crematoria and Cemeteries
The Cremation Society
(You might note the absence of organisations representing bereaved families among the list above, hence why we choose to refer to this particular APPG as the APPG for Funerals.)
According to the APPG for Funerals’ glossy brochure, downloadable here, the first stated intent of the group is:
‘Fair and Proportionate Regulations – We are campaigning on behalf of the sector for fair regulations and suitable legislative change.’
We offer no comment on whether this campaigning is proving effective.
Love writ large.
That’s something I heard a passer-by say quietly as they walked along Albert Embankment this week. They were walking along the National Covid Memorial Wall, with tears running down their cheeks. Thousands and thousands of others have walked the 500m length of the wall of 150,000 painted hearts, often stunned into silence at the immensity of this piece of art, created by ordinary, bereaved people and sympathetic volunteers helping us.
I’ve been there all day, nearly every day, for almost two weeks, immersed in an experience that has lifted my soul and my spirits and made me feel alive again amongst strangers. After the long, long, icy isolation of grieving in lockdown, grieving in a pandemic, what these last two weeks have given me is precious beyond words.
On Monday March 29th I took an early train into London and walked along the South Bank towards Lambeth Bridge. The previous week, I had seen a post asking for volunteers to take part in a commemorative art installation that was being planned by the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice – a group I’d joined after Steve died after struggling alone in hospital for twelve days battling the virus. At the time, I didn’t know what I was signing up for, but as I have all the time in the world now, I thought I might as well offer a few hours to a good cause.
On Friday 26th we had been invited to a confidential Zoom briefing where the details were outlined to us. We were to be part of the creation of the National Covid Memorial Wall, painting a single heart for every single person who has died in the UK with Covid-19 on their death certificates since the pandemic began, along the wall on the South Bank opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The artistic impression was breath-taking, and the power of the messaging, the positioning of this stunning reminder of our immense collective loss was instantly understood. Right in the heart of London, visible to those who are making the decisions about us, decisions that have led directly or indirectly to so many thousands of deaths and the heartbreak of loss.
The legal briefing was sobering – we didn’t have permission to do this, and technically, by painting on a wall as planned, there was a possibility of arrest, particularly on the first day – we could be at risk of being prosecuted for criminal damage, with fines of thousands of pounds and a potential prison sentence. The legal advice that had been received was that this would be an unlikely outcome, given the poor PR that would result from arresting bereaved people creating a commemorative memorial to their dead family members, but still…
I actually remember feeling even more compelled to be involved at this point, there’s a rebellious side to my nature where I see injustice or a cause that I believe in, so, along with everyone else at the meeting, I was undeterred. I committed to doing a shift of three hours on the first, most risky day.
Over the weekend, I let my children know what I was doing and what the outcome could possibly be, and also remembered to tell Jane and Isabel, my fellow executive directors at the GFG – I thought it might not be a good look for the CEO to be arrested without them having prior warning of the possibility, even though I was doing this in my personal capacity and not representing the Good Funeral Guide at all. Everyone was amazingly supportive, although my daughters were obviously a bit concerned.
So, there I was, half an hour early, sitting on a bench looking at the Houses of Parliament waiting for the 08.00 meeting at the assignation point. Gradually people drifted together, a group of perhaps twenty of us gathered by a coffee van, the small number of organisers laying out tabards and branded face masks and handing out paint pens and hand sanitiser – and with a brief instruction of how to get best use of the pens and the size guidelines for the hearts and the importance of social distancing at all times, we were put into small groups, donned our tabards and set off back towards Westminster Bridge to begin painting on the wall.
Each group had a section of perhaps 20 metres length of the pale sandstone wall. It’s about 2 metres high. The hearts we had been asked to draw were about 10cm in height. We had 150,000 to do, each one painted for one person, one family. It was important to do each one with reverence and mindfulness of what we were representing.
As I painted the first heart, I felt a brush of air and a strong sense that Steve was close to me at that moment. It was very strange, but it felt like I was doing something really important. For him, for me. I was placing his memory where his name would stay to be seen by thousands of people. I think I cried as I painted. It was very, very emotional.
Then, with Steve safely named on the first heart that I drew, I set to work. For others. Alongside me, at a distance, the other volunteers worked quietly. Gradually a scattering of hearts began to gleam on the wall. Quiet conversations began as we worked, the occasional offer of coffee, passers by stopping to ask what we were doing. The organisers had everything set up beautifully, replacement pens were ready when we ran out of paint, boards went up proclaiming this to be the National Covid Memorial Wall, the recently appointed Campaign Manager for the group, Nathan and his lovely Campaign Assistant Clara who was starting her first day in her new job were amazingly supportive and effective, and we worked and worked. As the morning went by, camera crews began to arrive – the pre-event PR had been extraordinarily good, and word was out that something important was happening.
We painted and painted, and gradually talked and talked, to each other, to passers-by, to journalists and presenters and camera crews, to anyone who wanted to know what we were doing and why. I told Steve’s story over and over and saw the shock and sadness in strangers’ eyes when they heard he had become ill the day after we married and died just three weeks after our wedding. And because I was able to speak to cameras about it, Clara asked if it was ok to bring news crews to interview me, and I said of course, and the day began to be filled with journalists from international news stations and newspapers, all asking me about Steve. Politicians came too – first Florence Eshalomi MP, who I was introduced to, then Sir Keir Starmer arrived and met some of the volunteers, voicing his support. Councillor Jack Hopkins, leader of Lambeth Council came on that first day and committed to trying to help make the wall permanent.
My three-hour shift had turned into a whole day, and I was so captivated by the immensity of what we were doing, I promised to go back the next day to help again. And the next, and the next – I cancelled everything I had planned that week and just went back to the wall every day, to help make it happen. It cost me a fortune in rail travel (is there still such a thing as a rush hour? Tickets for the early trains cost 50% more than the ones running after 10am, why on earth is that, during a lockdown?) The later trains were no good, I’d lose three hours painting time. I was on the 06.26 train each day to get me there for 8.
We were desperate for more volunteers, each heart was taking around a minute or so to paint, and at one point one morning there were just three of us, me, Richie and Sophie. But the media coverage was growing. The support from Opposition MPs was growing. The wall was capturing people’s hearts as we painted, and members of the public began offering to help.
As days went by, the wall was news across the world. We had coverage from international news organisation Reuters, articles in US newspapers The New York Times, The Washington Post, French radio (France Inter, France Info and France Culture), Ireland’s RTE, Australian ABC TV – Japanese, German, Czech news teams and so many others too all found their way to talk to me and many of the other volunteers
Here in the UK, The Guardian picked it up on the first day, as did ITV and BBC London news channels early last week, and as time went by we had more and more coverage on our national media. LBC Radio covered it, Sky News covered it, Emily Thornberry MP tweeted a lovely video of her visit which has been viewed almost 40,000 times. On Good Friday we had an early morning live to air piece on BBC Breakfast which I was asked to do, and they showed photos of Steve as I talked. The numbers of volunteers soared after that, and the wall kept growing and growing and the camera crews kept coming, and the politicians came too.
I took the weekend off to do Easter with the family, although it felt strange not to be in London after five days of such intensity. Then on Monday, I went back again and was astounded at the amount of hearts that had appeared over the weekend. I spent the day on the desk, handing out pens and tabards to the steady stream of volunteers who had signed up to help, then planned on having two days off to catch up with work.
It had been exhilarating and extraordinary, and not a little exhausting. We had painted in all weathers, rain, wind, sun and snow, and the days had been long and emotionally draining, even though I had loved being there all the time. But then I had a call on Tuesday afternoon, asking me to come in to do a piece for Newsnight with Emily Maitlis, so I had to quickly change into something suitable for the wind chill along the river and get back to the South Bank.
On top of all the many media channels we’ve had interest from, the extraordinary coverage we received from the BBC in the two pieces that were aired on national TV means that millions of people now know about the wall, and both Charlie Stayt on Breakfast and Emily on Newsnight were so very supportive and kind – generous with time and so gentle in their questions.
The target of 150,000 hearts was reached on Wednesday evening, then the ONS released the latest figures on Thursday morning, so the organisers scrambled to add another several hundred more hearts, to bring the wall up to date before the official ‘Come and Walk the Wall’ ceremony at 12.00.
Having inadvertently become the featured spokesperson for the project, I was asked to talk to the assembled press, and then paint the final three hearts. I can’t remember exactly what I said into the microphone, for the first time speaking to cameras, I felt the emotion welling up and overcoming me at the immensity of what we had done for the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who are unseen in their grief. It was overwhelming, and I had to choke back the tears and turn away from the lenses to paint the last hearts.
For the rest of the day on Thursday, I walked along the wall, reading the inscriptions, taking in the huge, huge toll we have paid, tears close to the surface all the time. The messages that had been added to some of the hearts, the names – so, so many names – the heartbreak that had been given a home, a place of honour – to have been part of helping create this was completely humbling.
I was so proud, and so, so sad. Everything that I had said into countless cameras over the previous ten days was absolutely true. We need to see the scale of the horror of what has happened, we need a place where the grief and the loss and the anger can be channelled into a powerful visual rage at our loss. A statement that cannot be ignored by the people in power, across the river in the Palace of Westminster.
On one of the walks, I was accompanying Dawn Butler MP, and halfway along we met London Mayor Sadiq Khan. They were both impacted as much as everyone who has seen the wall, the length of it and the horror of what it represents. Nobody could fail to be moved.
Dawn Butler MP and London Mayor Sadiq Khan visit the wall
The media coverage of the completed wall on Thursday went across the world, thanks to a piece from the Press Association by Caitlin Doherty – it has been picked up by many, many news outlets, in places as far away as Barbados. It’s a source of tremendous private pleasure to me that Steve has been publicly proclaimed as ‘my husband’, far and wide, to millions and millions of people. Our three weeks of married life were the worst they could possibly be as he succumbed to Covid, apart from me for almost all of the time, but he is forever now my husband. (Just Google ‘Steve Mead news’!). But he is needlessly dead, he shouldn’t have died when he did, in the way that he did.
More than one hundred and fifty thousand people have gone. Vanished. Dead. Before they needed to be. They died, mostly, alone. These hearts that we have painted represent the beating hearts that have stopped. That have been stilled. Every single one a life. A person.
And their bereft families have been grieving alone. I have met some of them during my time at the wall, and we recognise our own pain in each other’s eyes. We know this unique loss, this guilt, this common feeling of being the nation’s guilty secret, the thing everyone needs to move on from, the weight that is stopping everything from really going back to normal, the fleeting thoughts that perhaps we should have done things differently, never called for an ambulance, never let our darling person go to hospital, never had to break a promise to be with someone we loved until the absolute end. We know the raw jolt of pain at hearing the deaths of our beloved fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, our flesh and blood, our kin – described as numbers, statistics by which government action or inaction is judged. We know what it is to grieve for a life lost to a pandemic, to be completely alone, unhinged, unhugged, uncomforted.
A community has grown through our commitment to do this thing – I have met the most wonderful, wounded souls who have a fierce determination that our dead people WILL NOT be brushed away from our nation’s memory. My own grief has been reflected back to me with love and kindness and generosity by people who understand. And we have a determination to work together, to channel this grief we share into a collective good.
I cannot thank enough the two people whose idea this was – Matt and Jo, both bereaved by Covid, the founders of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group. And the extraordinary team who helped make it happen – Ollie, James, Nathan, Clara, Veronica, Alex, Dom, Jack and others whose names I am sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Thanks also to London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his support in our quest to keep the wall as a permanent memorial, and to Dawn Butler MP for offering to ask a question in the House of Commons about the government’s support for this aim.
After the long, long, brutal isolation of the winter, it has been a balm to be back among people again. I’ve met so many lovely people over the last two weeks. Wonderful fellow volunteers – particularly Becky and Richie and Sioux who were there so much. Catherine and Sophie and Leena and Karen. I’ve cried as I’ve heard the anguish, the sorrow of the stories I’ve been told. Strangers who stopped to talk, kind passers by offering us money and gratitude and hot chocolate and food. People who travelled from all over the country to come and be at the wall for their dead family member, for themselves, for their grief. Old people, young people, children, dogs. I have been surrounded by people for the first time since Steve’s funeral, and I feel alive again. I’ve spoken so much, to so many people, and I have been privileged to be asked to be the voice and the spokesperson on behalf of all of us who have had someone die from Covid-19.
It has been a profoundly important thing for me to have been involved with, and a healing and cathartic experience that I will always remember. I hope that Steve would forgive me for committing criminal damage – I think he would approve, after rolling his eyes and sighing at my unruly behaviour. He believed in justice, and this wall, this beautiful harrowing wall, is a call for justice. It’s a profound piece of art. It’s soaked in grief and pain and tears. It’s a place of loss, and reflection and community. It’s a living, people’s memorial.
I’m so proud to have been part of it.
Cartoon credit – The Guardian
NB – To date, no government minister or Tory MP has visited the National Covid Memorial Wall.
Every MP received an invitation to do so, at the start of the first week. Perhaps, when they all come back from their Easter recess, they will all have the decency to walk across Westminster Bridge and turn right to walk along the wall*
*Update 28.04.21 – apparently the Prime Minister visited the wall ‘under cover of darkness’ during the evening of Tuesday 27th April. Helpfully avoiding meeting a single bereaved family.
I think I understand now why the sea is so often used as a metaphor when talking or writing about emotions.
When I’m trying to understand how I’m feeling, the descriptive words in my mind are almost always found in analogies to do with the oceans – the waves, the storms, the undercurrents, the sense of going under, of staying afloat, of drifting, of floating, of swimming against the tide, of sinking, of drowning, of being unmoored, of being ‘all at sea’. All of these words richly describe those invisible emotional states in such a simple, comprehensible way, painting pictures of feelings.
Just thinking about the sea, the endless oceans, the emptiness, the richness, the depths, the mythology – it fits exactly with the moods and emotions and feelings that are part of living with grief, allowing me to describe my state of mind to myself, in a way that makes sense.
The sea represents the enormity of everything – the huge, unknowable expanse of waters that stretch away to the horizon, the power and the mystery of the sea – all this correlates exactly for me with the vastness of the unexplored feelings that surround and subsume me.
I can explain myself to myself by thinking of my life in the context of water, water representing the depths of emotions that I have experienced, am experiencing.
Perhaps if I write it then it will make more sense. It might be helpful, both reading it back myself, and also for others to have a glimpse into how it is being me, being grieving, right now.
You will have to come with me in my imagination as I explain it.
This is what it’s like. Here is my sea analogy of my life.
Imagine a beach. A beautiful, sunny, sandy beach. It’s as if, for years, for my life, along with everyone else around me, I have been wandering along this beach, through the shallow waters, wandering the edges of the beach where the wavelets splash and sparkle in the sun, the waters rhythmically coming and going, trickling pleasantly over my feet. Around me, everyone else is doing the same. Wandering in the shallows. Laughing and playing, smiling as we pass each other. Living life in the sun.
Occasionally a bigger wave might come, surprising me and unbalancing me a little, perhaps un-footing me as the sand beneath my feet suddenly felt less stable, but then a few more steps and the gentle lapping of the water resumed. On I went. This was how life was.
When I fell in love with Steve, he joined me on my metaphorical beach. We wandered along together, hand in hand, feeling the waves of life gently sloshing over our feet, steadying each other if there was a rogue push or pull or splash from the water, from troubles or problems. We did this for years, easy together, happy together, strong and steady together, loving each other, laughing, enjoying being alive. Wandering in the shallows.
And then one day, things changed. He was diagnosed with cancer. We were suddenly wading through deeper water together, much deeper. We’d somehow left the shallows, those sparkling splashy carefree wavelets, without noticing. We were suddenly waist deep. This was suddenly different. Still holding hands, still walking together, still supporting each other, still catching each other when we stumbled – but there was a new sense of separateness from others, from the rest of the world still splashing happily, back in the safety of being on the beach. We were apart from everyone now. Everything had changed.
Suddenly we were a little further away from land than everyone else, sensing colder undercurrents brushing past us, beneath the surface. We were still at the beach with everyone else, but we were not quite with them now. The waters around us had a different feeling, more urgent, swirling more strongly, pulling a little. I held tighter to his hand as we got used to being further out to sea as we walked on. Steady, together, but no longer so carefree.
You do get used to it, being deeper in the sea. The darker emotions of fear. You get used to the chill, your stride lengthens a little to compensate, your feet find solid footing under the water. You keep going, walking through your life. Wading through the water. You allow yourself to notice where you are and note that you’re not still paddling in the sparkling froth on the sand, you’re in a quieter place, a lesser-known place, a little unnerving in its strangeness. And if you lift your eyes and look around you, you remember the immensity of the ocean stretching beyond. How deep it is. How unknown it is. You don’t want to think about that, it’s too huge, too incomprehensible. So you carry on being in your new depths.
But then suddenly everything starts to change. Waves arise in the distance and bear down on you, the currents around your legs strengthen and grasp you and drag you, and you feel a sense of panic beginning to grow as you suddenly realise that you’re in danger, you’re both in danger. And you hold on for dear life to the hand of the person you’re with, the warmth and tightness of your grip giving each other strength and hope, even as the waters pull you further away from everyone else oblivious on the shore. Further and further out you go together, helpless as you’re pulled, clutching each other tight, heading to the unknown, to certain death, as they say.
And then it happens. Quicker than you can comprehend. An enormous wave thunders relentlessly towards you and crashes over you and tears your hands apart and tosses you under the surface and steals him away instantly, dragging him into the depths, never to be seen again.
That’s what it feels like, looking back now to when Steve caught Covid and suddenly became so ill and then died. It was as if a tsunami came roaring in to my life and swallowed everything that I knew, ripping everything apart, tossing and turning and hurling me upside down and around and around and churning me out into a different landscape.
The sheer feeling of horror, of fear, of desperate searching and casting around and surfacing empty handed and alone and bereft is palpable and real. This is what haunts my dreams and wakes me with my heart racing. This memory is visceral, the dreams are allegorical and vivid and full of deep, deep loss and helplessness and despair.
And now it feels as if I am standing alone, in the sea, deep, up to my neck. Buffeted below the surface by powerful forces that pull and push and drag. Great waves of grief come and go. Sometimes the waters recede a little and I feel freed and lighter, and then they rise again, and I am back, trying to keep upright and stop myself from drowning. Occasionally I get pulled under, down, down, down into smothering depths of emotions that threaten to overwhelm me. Mostly I am just balancing, on tiptoe, trying to withstand.
Back on the shore, far in the distance, the sounds of laughter are carried on the breeze. The people there don’t know that one day they too will be where I am. Pulled out to sea, gone as far as I could go with Steve, before he was gone forever. I don’t know how to get back. I don’t know if I want to go back. I don’t think I can go back. I have to stay here, feeling the force of the sea of emotions. As far as I could go with him – this is where my new place is.
I have to learn to get used to it, to being smacked around the head by loss, to having mouthfuls of salty sorrow forced on me, to being pulled under the water by despair, to coming up spluttering and gasping for breath every time I go under, to defiantly keep living in these new deep waters of emotions I never wanted to discover. I’m furious and terrified and dreading the time ahead of me swirling with the currents that surround me.
If I look around me, there are others. Alone. Deep out to sea, standing in their grief, their depths, their quiet. Pummelled and pounded invisibly under the surface. Standing brave and strong and resistant and silent. Getting used to where they are now. The lonely survivors.
We have been asked to write about a new book, ‘We all know how this ends’ by end of life doula Anna Lyons and progressive funeral director Louise Winter. It was published yesterday by Bloomsbury and celebrated with virtual tea and cake in a moving, inspiring Zoom session last night.
Buy it. Today.
This beautiful book should be on every bookshelf in every home in the country. It should be in every library, in every hospice, in every doctors’ surgery, in every workplace. It should be handed out to anyone when they are given a terminal diagnosis, offered to everyone facing life changing illness, shared and shared and shared again.
Once you have read it, you will want to buy it for your friends too, and for anyone you know whose life is touched by the knowledge that we are all going to die.
Everyone who reads it will find something empowering, comforting and wise within the pages, something that will help change the way you think about dying and death and funerals and bereavement. It’s a treasure trove of nuggets of beauty, woven together by expert hands who want to share what they have learned with us all.
We know Anna and Louise well and admire their work at Life. Death. Whatever. tremendously. They are dear friends and strong advocates of the Good Funeral Guide, and their wise, gentle voices take you through the book, weaving stories and thoughts and insight that they have collected from the many, many people they have worked with.
This book is a collective call for change, a sharing of experience, of heartbreak and tears and humour and wit and wisdom. It’s inspirational and informative, written by real people who want you to know what they’ve learned.
Buy it now. You need to read it.
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.’
It was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the launch of a new initiative in funeralworld this week – the Environmental Stewardship Group ( ESG) was launched on Monday, with a virtual online event attended by many well-known names and organisations. The recording of the launch event and the slides presented can be found here.
The ESG is a voluntary collaboration between the public and the private sector, with four organisations* coming together in late 2020 with a goal of helping to shape the bereavement sector’s response to the Climate Emergency – their aim, as stated on the home page of their new website, is ‘to lead the bereavement sector to sustainability’.
This is not a small task – as outlined in the opening remarks by David Richardson, the sector is valued at over £3 billion per annum, and is comprised of over 300 public and private sector owner/operators, more than 5,000 funeral directors and thousands of other supporting businesses, a huge and disparate number of stakeholders who will all need to be persuaded – or regulated – into changing their ways.
The four founding organisations have agreed that the first step towards a sustainable bereavement sector in the UK is to raise awareness within the sector, which they have identified must involve all key sectors being engaged and motivated to take collaborative and positive action.
The stated objectives of the ESG are to:
- Protect the environment – to take a series of measures to reduce existing and negative impacts by 2025
- Promote continuous improvement – to establish an industry wide approach to driving positive change and innovation
- Shape regulatory requirements – to influence legislation, guidance and advice that reflects the industry as a whole
- Communicate commitment – to embed within the sector proactive and positive commitment to promoting the sector’s actions and efforts
The Deputy Chair of the Environment Agency, Richard MacDonald and the Environment Agency’s Director of Regulated Industry Lee Rawlinson both contributed to the launch event, with some sobering statistics and information. Professor Hilary Grainger OBE from the Cremation Society outlined the aims and background of the ESG and Martin Birch from the ICCM explained the establishment of this year as ‘Year Zero’ and the activity that is planned – meeting with representatives and interested parties in the public and private sectors in all of the groups represented, with a series of virtual round table events scheduled between March and September 2021.
The findings from the round tables will be collated and used to generate a report in mid October, the final version of which will be published just ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in early November.
Details of the round tables can be found here and places are available to the first 80 individuals or representatives from organisations from each sector (Government, Owner Operators, Funeral Directors and Suppliers).
To reserve a place, email the ESG at email@example.com
The GFG is going to be attending and is offering our support and encouragement to the ESG as it embarks on this challenging task of hauling the bereavement sector towards the UK’s goal of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – having tried our own GFG version of encouraging funeral directors to assess their environmental impact in 2019, when we were met with a resounding silence, we think the ESG will need as much support as possible, so we encourage anyone involved with funerals who has any sense of responsibility for our impact on the planet to get involved.
*The founding organisations of the ESG are the ICCM (the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) theFBCA (the Federation of Burial and Crematorium Authorities), The Cremation Society and The CDS Group (Cemetery Development and Environmental Solutions)
Years ago, in 2008, I was crew on the Spirit of Fairbridge for the Tall Ships race. Spirit was a beautiful 92’ schooner dedicated to giving disadvantaged young people new opportunities in life and being part of her crew was a huge privilege – and an unforgettable experience. I was lucky enough to spend several trips on board, and the Tall Ships race was something I was really looking forward to. Meeting new people and sharing such a memorable trip would be exciting and exhilarating, the privations of sharing an eight-berth cabin and sleep deprivation in 4-hour watches came as part of the whole package and just added to the whole thing.
And it was memorable. After a night of the volunteers and permanent crew and the young people all getting to know each other in the bars of the marina, we set off from Liverpool to sail more than 800 nautical miles to Bergen in Norway. When I’d been on Spirit before, on a trip from Southampton to Bristol, we’d gone round the Lizard peninsula in a Force 9 gale, a particularly terrifying experience of unimaginably huge waves relentlessly throwing the boat from side to side – so I was expecting similar buffeting and pitching and rolling as we headed up towards Norway across the notorious North Sea.
Instead, a few days out of Liverpool, we were completely becalmed. There was no wind. The ship stopped. For days, we just bobbed about, going nowhere. Any chance of winning the race ebbed away as we sat, waiting, not able to do anything other than just accept that we were helpless, at the whim of Nature. We played cards and read books and fished for mackerel and cleaned below decks and sunbathed and shared life stories and smoked endless cigarettes – and just waited. It was a strange, strange, prolonged period of enforced nothingness, when we’d all been expecting adrenaline and excitement and rope pulling and exhaustion and the sheer exhilaration of sailing a tall ship across the waves. It was weird and unnerving.
Eventually, of course, the wind came, and the sails trembled and flickered and filled and the rhythm of the ship stirred and awoke again, and we finally made it to Bergen for several days of partying, which is a whole other story. But those still, stagnant days, that feeling of being in the doldrums, of waiting for something to change, the awareness of being small and human and impotent and at the mercy of ancient endless powers – I remember that far more clearly than the boat parties and celebrations that followed.
Four months into Steve being dead and I recognise that same feeling. It is permeating my every day, sometimes a faint trace, an ever-present sense of ennui underlying my thoughts and colouring everything with a tinge of grey – other days it’s an overwhelming feeling of nothingness. Of absence. Of waiting for something.
I’m going nowhere at the moment. There’s no feeling of movement, no sense of going forward. The days just come and go. Every day I get up, pull on dog walking clothes, walk for an hour or two, then come home and get on with whatever I feel I can manage. There’s a framework of a kind to the days, vaguely cleaning and tidying the house, working at the computer, occasional trips to the supermarket, looking after Leo, Albert and Amelia, walking again, trying to sleep. But this framework is just a superficial construct, something that I’ve adopted to just keep getting through one day after another, marking them off in my head as another day done.
I appreciate how lucky I am not to have to go to work at a job where I am expected to perform. I can choose when I work, which is a bonus, but I have to make myself choose to work, which is a challenge. Self-motivation has never been my strongest characteristic, I had become used to Steve being my conscience, nagging me to get on with things I was avoiding. He was particularly good at knowing when I was deliberately side-stepping boring tasks or necessary admin, I couldn’t get away with not doing stuff because he just knew, he’d look at me in a way that somehow made me laugh and give in all at once.
That just knowing everything about me is irreplaceable. It is the fabric, the weft and weave of our relationship, knowing each other inside out, sharing everything, from the mundane to the mysterious, from the tedium and humdrum stuff of daily life to the precious, precious moments of total connection and completion. Among all of the million and one things that are missing from my life now, it’s the shared existence that we had together that is the loudest in its absence.
It’s what I’m waiting for, the feeling of completeness, of the wind gradually returning, softly stirring and stroking the sails, the ship quivering into life in response, lifting her bow and beginning to move forwards in a joyful recognition of the return of her lover giving her energy and strength, taking her onwards. Without the elemental, elusive presence of the wind, the ship just drifts with the waves.
I don’t know what to do without him. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
A new kind of ‘disruptor’ has arrived in the world of funerals.
The Good Funeral Guide has long championed those who could be described as ‘disruptors’ – small, ethical, progressive companies who are trying to change the rigid funeral sector for the better.
Many of these have started up in unconventional ways, sharing facilities with established companies and hiring vehicles instead of having their own (expensive) fleet of cars.
With the companies on our Recommended list, this creative approach is always transparent, and the people involved are happy to explain and stand by their ways of working. We have absolutely no problem with this, in fact we welcome ways for intelligent, empathetic, emotionally mature people to find a route into what has traditionally been a very closed world of funerals.
What we are not so happy with is a new phenomenon that appears to be spreading rapidly in the UK – just like a virus.
These new ‘disruptors’ are something very different. They’re offering a quick fix to the problem of someone dying; a click of the mouse and a credit card transaction and ‘ta da’ – it’s all sorted for you, and in a few weeks’ time you’ll receive a neatly packaged ‘hand delivery of your loved one’s ashes’.
Rapidly growing, tech-based companies are targeting bereaved people, with online funeral arrangements cutting thousands of pounds off of the cost of a funeral, often by providing a direct cremation service where no funeral ceremony is involved. Huge amounts of money are being spent each month on Google advertisements, positioning digital businesses as local providers throughout the UK, promising ‘meaningful, beautiful send-offs at affordable prices’.
Many of these companies are opaquely anonymous, the names of the people involved, when you find them, are unknown in the funeral world. They are tech specialists, algorithm writers, engineers, brand experts. They are people who sense an opening in a sector ripe for ‘disruption’. People who sit at computers and deal with phone calls. Probably few, if any, have lifted the weight of a dead body. Or cared for a broken-hearted family. Or kept vigil in a chapel of rest over a coffin of a child that they have promised won’t be left alone. These people are not the kind of people who are called to work with the bereaved. They are not funeral providers. They are middlemen, white labellers of funeral products.
These companies dispense with the age-old customs of keeping our dead nearby, historically at home, or more recently in the care of a local funeral director. They dispense with the relationships between those who have chosen to work in the funeral sector and the bereaved people they serve. They dispense with the rituals and comforts involved in coming together for a funeral ceremony, and present bereaved people with a simplified, low-cost package, where all of the emotional labour has been sanitised and taken care of.
Understandably, a low-cost funeral is attractive to many people, but at The Good Funeral Guide, we view this new development of online funeral providers with deep concern.
(As do the existing main players in the funeral world, all of which have launched their own, online, direct cremation services in an attempt to stave off loss of marketshare to the new online start ups – you may not be aware but Simplicity Cremations are owned by Dignity PLC, Budget Funeral is owned by Funeral Partners Ltd, crematorium operator Memoria operate their own Low Cost Funeral by Memoria service, and Co-op Funeralcare also operate a direct cremation service.)
For many of the new online companies, there is no funeral home or mortuary, no place where they care for the dead. The collection and care of those who have died is outsourced to anonymous subcontractors or existing funeral companies who are willing to carry out the practical aspects of a funeral for a few hundred pounds.
With the online companies advertising their low-cost funerals for around £1,000, there is little room for manoeuvre if they are to make a profit – we have heard of some small companies being asked to provide an entire direct cremation service for one of the online companies for £700 (including the doctors’ fees of £164 and the crematorium fee). As ever, big business profits from the work of small companies, who have to cut corners in order to make a living – ultimately, the quality and calibre of the care involved has to suffer.
We regret so much that these online companies exist. If the funeral sector were functioning properly, there would be no space for them. But as they are here and rapidly advancing, with millions of pounds to promote themselves, and with many thousands of families unable to afford to pay the high prices asked by many existing funeral providers, we would like to suggest a few questions that you could ask them, if you are thinking about using one of them.
- Who are you? Who owns this company?
- Who will collect my relative?
- When will this happen?
- Where will they be taken?
- Will they stay there? For how long?
- How will they be looked after while they are in your care? Will you wash them? Will you dress them in their own clothes if we provide them? Who will do this?
- Will you place any items with them if we provide them?
- May we spend some time with them in their coffin before the funeral?
- What about any personal possessions? How do we get these back?
- Where will the cremation / burial take place?
- When? What time? Do I have any choice? How much extra would this cost?
- How will my person get taken to the place of cremation / burial?
- Can people be there to see the coffin arrive?
- Will there be a funeral director?
- Will there be anyone to say words of committal? Or a prayer?
- What if I want a ceremony? Can you arrange this? How much extra would this cost?
To make these enquiries is, we know, an additional stress and strain on people who have been bereaved. You shouldn’t need to be asking these questions of someone who is offering to help you, to minimise your difficulties, to make things easier for you. This information should be available on the shiny websites. But it’s mostly not. Instead, the focus is on how cheaply your dead person can be disposed of. And how you can move on with your life free of the awkward issues involved with a funeral.
Unsurprisingly, at the Good Funeral Guide, we think you deserve better than this.
A funeral is a hugely important life event, a public full stop to a life that was lived, even if that life only lasted for just a few seconds.
Even during the restricted times of the pandemic, with limited numbers permitted to attend, a funeral is a marker, a moment of proclamation that this person lived, a ceremony where the body that they lived in is honoured and bid farewell. It is a time of comfort for those left behind, an opportunity to say a public goodbye, to be supported by the love and respect that others had for the person who has died.
A funeral matters.
Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living; we need to have a way to make sense of death, and funeral ceremonies help to provide this. To dispense with funerals in favour of a direct cremation, to let this become the norm is to diminish us, individually and collectively.
Without a funeral, we are left with a simple disposal of the flesh and bones that were the physical embodiment of the person we loved. A disposal that takes place out of sight, at a time unknown, in a place unknown.
How have we come to this? How have we become susceptible to the clean lines and glossy allure of attractive websites with clever marketing and branding, offering to take all of the problems of organising a funeral away from us? How have we come to accept a distant disposal, an unknown incineration somewhere, unattended and un-honoured, as an appropriate ending of a life of a person we love?
Much of the reason for the success of the new online companies is the failure of the funeral sector to put the needs of bereaved people first. Despite the protestations of the main players, serving bereaved families has, for many years, come a poor second to serving the bottom line, to making the profits required to expand, to make good money for shareholders and owners alike.
Small, honest, decent funeral directors have always provided a good, value for money service to their communities, but the sector has gradually become tarnished by the greed of those who sought to take advantage of bereaved people. The general public’s perception is now that funerals are exorbitantly expensive, and this viewpoint is supported by annual ‘Cost of Dying’ reports that inflate the costs of funerals to five figure sums.
The recent Competition and Markets Authority Market Investigation has confirmed that the funeral sector is not operating properly and is implementing remedies this year – remedies that will apply to existing funeral providers, but which may not have the required scope to cover the online providers that are now entering the market.
Fenix Funerals, Farewill, Pure Cremations and Beyond are all private equity funded companies who are fast making inroads into the traditional funeral market, while assorted other smaller providers are also springing up around the country. Just do an online search for low cost funerals in your area and see what comes up.
Meanwhile, investment news shows investment banks and private equity firms pumping millions of pounds into the handful of new companies who are challenging the existing funeral sector; Farewill, possibly the most ambitious of the ‘disruptors’, has £30 million of investment behind it, and has used information gained from their will writing service to tailor their recently launched cremation service.
Matt Morgan, Farewill’s General Manager of Funerals wrote on Linked In, ‘As a will-writing company, we have a unique insight into peoples’ funeral wishes – what they want to happen to them after they die. We have seen that 90% of people don’t want a traditional, religious funeral, and 40% opt for a direct cremation, once they know of the service.’
He went on to say, ‘We are at a turning point in the industry. The brand, team and technology that Farewill has built put us in a unique position to take advantage of this opportunity.’
Eliot Kaye, investment director at Puma Investments and now a director of Pure Cremation after a £7.5 million investment into “a very disruptive business model within a very established market” was also quoted as saying “there are going to be more established American-based providers who may very well be interested in expanding into the UK and could therefore joint venture or acquire these guys in due course if they get it right.”
This is not the future we want for our society. Our dead need to be part of our lives, they need to be recognised and remembered and honoured. They don’t deserve to be treated like a logistics problem, transported and packaged and dispensed with.
Ultimately, we wish that everyone could have a meaningful funeral ceremony. Even those whose lives have ended without family to mourn them. No life should end anonymously, unattended, disposed of without ceremony – we are better than that, our society is better than that.
If you need to arrange a funeral and you don’t have the money to pay for it and are tempted to choose an online funeral provider because of their low prices, we urge you to contact a small local funeral director first.
Some of the best people in the world are funeral directors – you might find that you have one on your doorstep who will help you to find a way of honouring a life without it costing you the earth.