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!