Hat’s off to Ann Lee, I say. She’s the courageous CEO of St Margaret’s Hospice, Taunton who has launched a joined-up funeral service with the twin goals of caring for her patients in death and earning some much-needed money to pay for the care her hospice extends to the living. What’s not to like?

A hospice is uniquely positioned to create great funerals at a time when too many mainstream funeral providers are offering a product which, in the eyes of consumers, costs too much and offers poor value. Yes there are some lovely undertakers out there doing their best for their clients. But they’re not putting in the thinking, most of them. They’re not creating funeral experiences that meet the needs of modern mourners.

Hospices can be the changemakers we need to break this dismal cycle. Because only they can close the care gap. The seamless service they talk about makes instant emotional sense, doesn’t it?

And they’ve got the two things they need to do it.

First: hospice values.

Second: hospice ways of working. A hospice workforce is a mix of highly-skilled professionals and highly-motivated volunteers. And it’s exactly this mix of people that will make hospice funerals beacons of best practice and low prices.  

The blueprint is already out there — has been for some time, now. Communityfunerals.org.uk is a how-to guide to setting up a “funeral service which, in a spirit of common purpose, deploys volunteers and professionals as its members see fit in support of three objectives: commercial, social and environmental.”

The concept is the product of a partnership between the Good Funeral Guide and the Plunkett Foundation, the people behind community shops and pubs. It has attracted lots of interest but no-one has yet had what it takes to see it through. Now I sense its time has come.

Here are some excerpts from the communityfunerals manifesto:

A community funeral service (CFS) reclaims the care of the dead and the support of the bereaved from the for-profit sector, but in doing so it does not take inspiration from the past. A CFS is a progressive agent of social change in response to, in particular, the growing challenges posed by longevity, the changing needs of the bereaved and evolving trends in the expression of grief and the commemoration of the dead.

The community funerals movement does not denigrate the values and skills of the best funeral directors. On the contrary, it seeks to accommodate them.

A CFS promotes healthy, robust and informed attitudes to mortality by responding to the ‘death of one of us’ as ‘something that touches all of us’. In doing so it rejects as emotionally unhealthy the outsourcing of the care of the dead and the arrangement of their funerals to specialist undertakers.

A CFS asserts the normality of death and assumes ‘a neighbourly duty of care for our own’.

A CFS does not treat the death of someone as a standalone event. A CFS works collaboratively with those who care for the elderly and the dying, and with those who support the bereaved.

A CFS acknowledges that its fitness to deliver its social and environmental objectives derives from its ability to deliver economic benefits to it members. Unless it can provide a service offering better value for money than the for-profit sector it has no business in the marketplace.

And this is what the CFS manifesto has to say about how a CFS is staffed:

At the heart of the philosophy of a CFS is the belief that the bereaved would rather deal with ‘one of us’ than ‘one of them’ – that death is better handled by ordinary altruistic members of a community than by those whose exclusive professional competence is the care of the dead and the service of the bereaved. For this reason, a CFS is staffed as far as possible by people for whom the work is part-time, just as it was for the laying-out woman and midwife in times gone by.

There you have the gist of it. There’s much, much more on the communityfunerals website. Shining ideals and copperbottomed practicality. Here’s an aside: when did you last see anyone with physical or learning difficulties working in funeral service?

If you don’t mind, I want to speak direct to Ann now.

Ann, you’re clearly something of a newbie to the cut-throat world of commerce. Along with others, I think you could have taken better advice. Ours for preference. I don’t fall in with those angry folk who write Mr Hodgson off as a ‘bottle-blond muppet’ or a ‘poundshop Svengali’. But I do think his business plan lacks intelligence. No one ever made money by dishing up the same old same old.

A community funeral service, on the other hand, is tailor made for you.

So think again. Remember: i) hospice values, ii) pro-am workforce. A hospice funeral service will never make St Margaret’s a fortune but it’ll make people think well of your work and that will loosen the purse strings of your many supporters. Feed the love and you will reap a rich harvest.

If I’ve failed to persuade you and you insist on sticking exclusively to ‘income diversification’ as an end in itself, then your best bet is to open a string of kebab shops. More profitable.

You’re welcome.

Local and community

Guest post by John Porter

My first job was in a local grocer’s shop. They boiled ham in their kitchen – hmmmm, I can smell it now – and would cut three special slices, carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper for Mrs Rogers who came in every Tuesday. She chatted for a while, nobody huffed and puffed if there was a queue. The shop was stacked with huge range of products – a small quantity of each. The tinned stock was kept in the garage and I would go back and forth with a wire basket to fill and line up the items like soldiers at Trooping The Colour! It was not a village, just a typical suburban town in the south east of England but you did not have to go far to meet someone who would say hello.

Wind forward to November 2014. The two crematoriums where I lead funeral ceremonies as a celebrant seem a million miles away in spirit from the town I grew up in. Despite the many souls that have been burned or buried there they feel soulless places. As hearses glide up each drive I have seen bemused faces, surprised to meet a stranger in black, donned with hat and cane. The family’s shock at seeing the coffin for the first time (the dead person was kept miles away) creates tears. With no limousine bringing the chief mourners the out of town funeral director tries to work out who the client is. They often have to ask. How different when the person who opened the door of the funeral home is the person who processes in front of the dead!

I’m not harking back to some mystical sense of community but death certainly magnifies the lack of cohesion and tensions within families and communities. Families meet almost as strangers at hatching, matching and dispatching ceremonies. As so many of us know the letters, cards and telephone calls dry up after a few weeks and those left behind can suffer from a crippling loneliness, often left to cope on their own. No wonder people die of a broken heart. Families may live many miles from each other or in other countries that can prevent them from attending a funeral ceremony. This is a fact of modern living, often for economic reasons. Economics (okay, the will) often attracts them back and not always for the right reasons! The worst indicator of lack of community is when someone dies and no-one knows until the smell of rotting flesh becomes apparent or harbinger flies announce the fact. How awful!

As a celebrant I am in a strange and privileged position. I will definitely spend at least two hours with a family, often more, and usually in their own home. I will also speak with them on the telephone and via email before the ceremony to finalise the ceremony script and let them know everything is prepared. I’m there on the day before the funeral director arrives so can greet people and close family if they are not in the cortège. I will offer to return for a chat and coffee – not grief counselling! It is, and is most definitely not, “my” show yet I’m the guy at the front leading and supporting people who contribute. All this, of course, assumes a typical (on my patch) 30min slot at a crematorium chapel – less if a burial. Of course I am still a stranger. I do not know the person that died. I come from a different part of the country. It is extraordinary that families trust me to create and lead a funeral service for their dead loved one. I’m part of their community yet am not. I nearly always decline to attend gatherings afterwards. Does this make me a contradiction? No, but it is something I ponder on now and then.

When I started I visited the funeral directors on my patch. I soon realised that what I considered to be my local area was not shared by all. Only twelve miles away I was asked “Why have you come down here?… we use local celebrants and have done so for over 20 years”. I’m not going to unpick that very loaded statement but I must listen to what was being said. Walking in the high street I could sense that many people knew each other and I loved the villagey feel. In fact when I watch a Christmas True Movie from the USA something in me longs for the cosy community and the history oozing from the roads and buildings. Sentimental twaddle or is something else going on? Local cemeteries are a wonderful doorway to a town’s history. It is amazing to listen to older people tell stories that have been passed down through the generations. Here I go again getting all starry-eyed and soppy but a little bit of me longs for it. I really struggle to answer this question: “where are your roots”. I am a sojourner. I have friends scattered across the UK and the Globe.

As our poppies crumple and fall and we race towards Christmas I know that many funeral directors put up remembrance Christmas trees, write to clients and are involved with activities such as carol services etc. Others support local charities throughout the year. This helps them to feel part of a local community and may be good for business. Close communities can be great for repeat business if the service provided is good. Many people go with what they know and do not usually buy a funeral in the same way they would a car – looking at the market and researching before buying – though, hopefully this will change. This is where the independent family business has an advantage over the corporates. It is also risky in sustainability terms when business founders die and children or other family are not interested in funeral directing.

You may ask where is this blog going? I really cannot answer that… yet. I would like to start a conversation about this theme and will close now with a final thought. One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Lion is summarised as “Familiarity breeds contempt”. This is a well-known saying. There is truth in it. If a funeral director or funeral celebrant only operates in a way that they are familiar and comfortable with then both they and clients miss out in the end. I recently saw a minister lead two funeral ceremonies one after the other – same poems recited perfectly and from the heart without reference to the text, same welcome and closing words. The tribute was different but each had a familiar ring to it – maybe mine do too!? The problem is that dying, death, funerals and grieving are generally unfamiliar to us until we are forced to engage with it. The cosyness, that feeling of belonging, being familiar with and part of a local community may breed contempt but if we are watchful and motivated to serve then it is something, I believe, we should work towards.

Imagine this: when someone dies we don’t hand them over to strangers

When the GFG, in conjunction with the Plunkett Foundation, announced a community funerals initiative back in 2012, we supposed that someone might pick it up and run with it. The Plunkett Foundation, far cleverer than us, was pretty confident they would.  They contacted all their community shops and community pubs and we waited with bated breath to see what happened next.

Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Squat.

So we are really pleased to learn of the emergence of a community funerals initiative on the other side of the world – in SE Australia in the steel town of Port Kembla, a place where, according to its community enterprise website, “no one wanted to live” until recently, but “now there is a change in the atmosphere”. It does look a bit like one of those unprepossessing places that brings out the best in people.

The purpose of the Port Kembla community funerals enterprise is to “empower people around death and dying, and offer a not for profit funeral service that is affordable and highly personalised to support healthy bereavement.” It is called Tender Funerals.

Tender Funerals will “offer affordable and flexible services and a transparent fee structure, to minimise the financial impact of funeral care. It will counter the idea that the amount of money spent on a funeral is a reflection of the amount a person was loved.”

“Tender Funerals will offer personalised services that demystify death and dying, and involve a model of community support, to assist healthy bereavement. This will include unique offerings of information and support, funeral services that celebrate and acknowledge both a person’s death and their life, and support and facilitation of active participation and community support in funeral care.”

They will also create an education programme to teach people about issues around death and dying: “We will develop and implement a community development model to provide ongoing support and community awareness … By providing a more open approach to death and the process around caring for the dead it is envisaged that people will become for familiar with death as an inevitable part of life.”

“Tender Funerals is re–imagining the way in which we as a community deal with death and provide a context within which the community is informed and empowered to ensure that the end of life process is one which is meaningful, authentic and good value.

“It will be a community resource and a funeral care provider that responds to shifts in community needs, attitudes, ideas and experiences in relation to death and dying.

“It will also develop a model for not-for profit funeral care that supports healthy bereavement, and empowered decision making at end of life, which can be replicated in other communities.”

The Port Kembla Community Project already has a scheme which offers no-interest loans up to $1,000.

Tender Funerals is presently crowdfunding to raise the money it needs to get off the ground. Check out the vision statement.

Its originators have had a film made about them – you can see the trailer at the top of the page.

Here at the GFG we’ve sent them a few bob to help them on their way. And we wish them every possible success.

Today is launch day for the GFG bereavement volunteers scheme

Here at the GFG we’ve been banging on about our community volunteering scheme for some time — here and here for starters. 

The scheme is designed to address short- and medium-term practical problems facing bereaved people in the aftermath of a death. It promotes community engagement and a neighbourly duty of care. It revives, in a 21st century way, the traditions of former times when communities came together to help their bereaved members. It is arguable, now that families tend to be scattered, that the need for community engagement with bereavement is greater than it ever has been.

Community volunteering joins up the specialist care of the bereaved offered by a funeral home to the non-specialist care of the bereaved offered by volunteers. 

The attraction to community members was demonstrated on The Fixer by that nice man who said that, when he died, he hoped there would be people willing to give his wife a hand getting adjusted. He signed up. What goes around, comes around.

The attraction of the scheme to a funeral home is immense. Whilst all funeral homes pride themselves on their community engagement, in reality this presently comes down mostly to three sorts of activity: 1) ingratiation (schmoozing care homes), 2) networking (join all the clubs, sit on committees) and 3) charitable works (writing cheques, jumping out of aeroplanes for Macmillan, ). There is reputational value in all this activity, for sure, but it tends to be disparate and unfocused. It is difficult to discern a link between the service of the bereaved and a sponsored roundabout. It is hard not to feel uneasy about a sponsored bowls tournament when the competitors are so close to needing an undertaker. Some funeral directors also sponsor 4) a bereavement group – an excellent initiative. A downside is that, over time, it can morph into a social club. 

A community volunteering scheme will never foster dependency. The purpose is to enable bereaved people to live independently as soon as possible. In the event of failing to enable a bereaved person to achieve independence, volunteers will step back and refer the bereaved person to specialist agencies – eg social services or, in the case of complicated grief, appropriate specialist counselling. 

A volunteering scheme is perfectly focussed on adding value to the services offered by a funeral director. The volunteers form a human and caring interface between the funeral home and the community, bringing bereavement and funeral professionals into the social mainstream, and reinforcing the naturalness and normality of death. There is immense marketing and news value to be derived from administering a volunteering scheme, whose members will act as a funeral home’s ambassadors.

The scheme is also capable of being adopted by a local funeral consumers’ advocacy group, perhaps in partnership with a simple-funerals business targeting the no-fuss and funeral-poverty markets. It is often said that communities have disintegrated beyond repair, but it is notable that they regroup around enterprises which can make a real contribution to wellbeing and serve self-interest.

Whether sponsored by a funeral director or an autonomous co-operative of local people, volunteers will actively promote, through lectures, debates and other events, healthier, better informed attitudes to, and positive engagement with, death, dying and bereavement, seeking to establish end-of-life issues and awareness of mortality as normal ingredients of everyday discourse.

We are aware of funeral directors who have been attracted to the scheme, but have then been deterred by the risks involved. Sure, if a volunteer makes off with an elderly widow’s jewellery the potential for reputational damage is immense. 

Risk cannot be eliminated but it can be managed. In order to do that you have to build safeguards into your policies and procedures.  A volunteering enterprise needs a well-designed structure and comprehensive systems of working. This is not something you can do from a few doodles on the back of an envelope while watching Corrie. It is a seriously meaty and specialised task best undertaken by an expert. It costs money. 

Well, we’ve done it. We have put together a suite of 18 essential policy and information documents which a funeral director can use as a blueprint for their own volunteering enterprise. They have been double-checked and edited by a human resources consultant. They meet all current legislative requirements. 

The scheme is presently being piloted by a funeral director. This will enable us to iron out some bugs. It is not a one-size-fits-all scheme. It is adaptable to local circumstances and the vision of the funeral director or consumer advocacy group running it.

We shall shortly be making it available for anyone who wants it. We’ll throw in consultancy and support, and we’ve established a networking facility for sharing best practice. 

If you’re interested, drop us an email: charles@goodfuneralguide.co.uk. 

Death in the community

From the At Least I Have A Brain blog: 

Today at Mass  we had an elderly Parishioner to bury, who had no mourners.

Not one.

Empty pews at the front.

It was a stark statement that the little man had been married, had no family, his wife had died, and once he went into a nursing home he became forgotten about by any contacts.

but you know what, the Priest still read a Eulogy at the Homily, 6 hefty Parishioners carried him out, all of my choir sang him out of the Church, and his attendees were the Parishioners.

It was a very poignant statement, and yet a very strong statement of Community.

But i have spoken so much about it since this morning , and was very glad that he got as fullsome (if more lonely) a farewell as any one else would have.

It reminds us of the strength of faith communities. No lonely funerals for them as there are for so many secularists. 

If you watched The Fixer, you may remember Alex Polizzi’s community volunteering idea. 

Actually, it was our idea, and it’s the researchers who were incredibly enthusiastic when we proposed it to them . We think it’s a good idea, too. We’re developing it ourselves, now, because we don’t think it can be all that hard to make it work. Yes, of course there’s an element of risk involved. But the risk of a volunteer making off with a bereaved person’s life savings can be reduced to close to zero with proper assessment and oversight. It’s all in the systems and processes. 

And in the event of the funeral of someone like the lonely man above, there’d a ready-made community of folk to come along and give him a decent sendoff. It is often said that communities have disintegrated beyond repair, but it is notable that where there is need or opportunity, communities display an impressive capacity for forming effective congregations whose activity promotes cohesion and engagement.

Remember how quickly that board filled up on that rainy day? 

We Believe

A new website has just hit the scene: CommunityFunerals.org.uk. It seeks to develop the concept of a not-for profit community funeral service, and presents for consideration four models of what it calls a Community Funeral Society (CFS). It hopes to grow the idea organically by inviting feedback from its readers, then incorporating their ideas. It’s a collaborative project.

It’s a radical idea. Goodness knows what sort of traction it is going to achieve.

But it arrives on the scene at the same time as two interesting new enterprises.

The first is Norfolk Funerals, the first-ever not-for-profit funeral home in the UK, established by a charitable trust and now open for business. Find its website here. Note: we have received a large number of emails about Norfolk Funerals. Please see the separate blog post dated 11.05.2012, where NF will respond to your queries. 

The second is Powell and Family Direct, which has established itself as a Community Interest Company (CIC). A CIC is a company structure created, according to the website of the CIC Regulator, “for the use of people who want to conduct a business or other activity for community benefit, and not purely for private advantage.”

Find Powell and Family Direct here.

Bryan and Catherine Powell, founders of Powell and Family Funeral Directors and Powell and Family Direct, are hosting an open meeting for all funeral directors interested in remodelling their business as a social enterprise. It’s called Social Enterprise For Funeral Directors, and it’s being held on Saturday 19 May, 11am til 3pm in their Droitwich office at 15 North Street, WR9 8JB. Book your place by ringing 01905 827767, or email bryan.powell@powellandfamily.co.uk.

Is there a wind of change blowing through Funeralworld?

Below is the creed of ComunityFunerals.org.uk. It is titled, appropriately:

We Believe

1.       We believe that customs, practices and attitudes have grown up which isolate and marginalise the dead and the bereaved and must be challenged

2.       We believe that one of the consequences of this marginalisation is that the management of death has become commercial rather than community centred, and that, at a time when people are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable, this causes unease for both the client and, often, for the provider of services

3.       We believe that funeral ceremonies, for those who want one, can and must offer greater emotional and, where appropriate, spiritual value

4.       We believe that everyone should have access to unbiased information and opinion which enable them to make informed, independent choices according to their values and financial circumstances

5.       We believe that funerals must offer better value for money

6.       We believe that many bereaved people need access to a range of practical and emotional support services which the commercial model struggles to accommodate at present.

7.       We believe that these needs can be met only if the work of specialist support agencies is augmented by collaborative, compassionate community engagement in the form of volunteering

8.       We believe that most of the tasks funeral directors undertake are not specialist tasks at all and can be undertaken by ordinary people

9.       We believe that, as longevity progressively alters the experience of ageing and medical interventions protract the experience of dying, we must find new and better ways of addressing them

10.   We believe that denialist attitudes to ageing and dying are rooted in fear, that this fear is rooted in ignorance, and that fear can be mitigated by knowledge and understanding

11.   We believe that attitudes to ageing, dying and death must be restored to emotional health in such a way as to reflect their normality and naturalness

12.   We believe that communities are brought together when impelled by duty, altruism and self-interest. It is in our interest to help others because, in time, we shall need them to help us. It is also very satisfying

13.   We believe that many people playing small parts, according to their abilities, makes us more effective

14.   We believe that communities must host conversations and encourage educational initiatives about end-of-life matters among people of all ages, and that these activities are best initiated and hosted by informed, ordinary community members

15.   We believe that there are organisational and financial models that are inclusive, secure and affordable and which are flexible enough to adapt to local circumstances. We have called these Community Funeral Societies.

Find CommunityFunerals.org.uk here.

Way to go?

All things pass. In twenty years from now we shan’t be doing funerals as we do them today. Another good reason for not buying a funeral plan.

Incremental change, say a great many reformers, will bring this about. Eventually.

It’s worth keeping a weather eye for radical change, too.

A few of us have been working on the concept of a not-for-profit community funeral co-op. We call our model a Community Funeral Society – a CFS. We’ve been talking to the Plunkett Foundation here about it, and they like what they hear. We’ll be publishing our manifesto shortly – as soon as we’ve got it more or less right.

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