Direct cremation

We have a lot of thoughts about direct cremation. 

Mostly, we have questions. Particularly about the pricing.

How are these ultra low costs for what is a labour-intensive service achieved? 

Who is carrying out the physical collection and care of the people who have died? Where are they taken to? Where are they kept until the date of the cremation? In what facilities? Who has oversight of any subcontracted companies to ensure standards are maintained? What type of coffin will they be placed in? Will they be washed and dressed in their own clothes or just placed in the coffin as they were when they died? Are the bodies of these people cared for with the respect and dignity that you would want for a person you loved?

As an organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the difference that a good funeral can make to people’s experience of grief and bereavement, it is perhaps unsurprising that we’re not ardent advocates of the direct disposal of the body of someone who has died.

We understand that for some people, a direct cremation might be absolutely the right thing, but we caution very careful consideration of the impact of choosing not to have a ceremony with the silent presence of a coffin at its centre. We have seen enough wonderful funeral ceremonies to know what a transformative effect these can have on people still raw with loss and grief. 

We encourage everyone to reflect on the importance of facing the reality of the death of someone they love by spending time with their body, by helping to care for it, to carry it, to be in the presence of their coffin at a funeral ceremony and to take time to allow the full impact of their absolute absence to gradually sink in. 

We think that funerals matter.

For this reason, we are particularly unimpressed by clever advertising campaigns that reinforce the idea that nobody wants to have a funeral, that funerals equal ‘a lot of fuss’, that deciding to arrange a pre-paid direct cremation is the best way of looking after your family when you die. Marketing people know a lot about subliminal persuasion, and this narrative that funerals are an unnecessary, expensive nuisance is being insidiously planted in the minds of people who are already anxious about coping with the soaring cost of living and the energy crisis.

You can read our guide to direct cremation on the main GFG website here, where our general approach to the subject is laid out. We haven’t felt moved to comment further about it – until recently. But a number of things have brought direct cremation bubbling back to the top of topics for the GFG blog. 

Our research for last week’s post about the price of cremation coincided with us noticing the relentless adverts for national direct cremation providers being played on Sky News in the background as we worked. 

And then someone brought our attention to the plethora of ‘direct cremation’ companies springing up all over the internet offering bargain basement prices. Prices for the total direct cremation service that are less than a single cremation fee at many crematoria. Inexplicably low, ridiculous prices. 

Like Celebration of Life, advertising their fee as ‘from £850’ – for the collection of a person from ‘anywhere in Great Britain’, the supply of a coffin, use of the mortuary facilities, the removal of a pacemaker if required and a direct cremation at the company’s ‘partner crematorium’. For an extra £40, you can have the ashes returned to you by hand. Again, anywhere in the UK.

Just stop and think about it for a moment. The costs involved with staffing and travelling to facilitate this service ‘anywhere in Great Britain’ don’t make sense unless you have a nationwide network of some sort.

But this particular company, Celebration of Life Cremations Ltd, is registered at a Southampton address. Not exactly a central location for facilitating their ‘trusted funeral services across Great Britain’. Or for getting a person to bring your ‘beautiful biodegradable scatter pod’ containing the ashes back to you ‘on a day that suits you’ for just an extra £40. What happens if you live in Cumbria? Or Aberdeen? Or Cornwall? How does £40 cover that service?

We had a look at the latest accounts for Celebration of Life Ltd. at Companies House and note that at the end of June this year, their net assets were £2,230, they declare over £75,000 of creditors and list just two employees.

This piqued our interest, and we started to take a closer look at the various providers offering nationwide direct cremation services as a solution to all the difficult financial and emotional impacts that a funeral ceremony appears to bring (according to their marketing pitches).

We found that the direct cremation providers offering services covering the entire country appear to fall into various categories; internet-based companies, cremator operator companies and funeral directing companies. Oh, and then Pure Cremation, which is a fully dedicated direct cremation company with its own crematorium. 

We also realised that there seem to be some rather opaque, behind-the-scenes arrangements enabling the logistics of nationwide collection, cremation and return of ashes by the direct cremation companies that aren’t subsidiaries of funeral businesses. 

Looking at the internet-based companies first, we have Farewill, a London based company that advertises their direct cremation as ‘from £950’ (but you need to contact them to get an exact quote). They are a subsidiary of a larger group whose principal activity is the provision of financial services. The group’s most recent filing at Companies House shows a loss after taxation for the year ending 31 July 2021 of £6,749,228. The previous financial year, group losses of over £4 million were posted. (Notwithstanding this, the directors ‘do not consider that there is any serious doubt over the ability of the Group to continue to operate for a period of at least twelve months from the date of this report’).

Incorporated as Bare Funerals UK Ltd at Companies House in January 2022, Bare Cremation seems to be a UK subsidiary of an Australian business with the same name – they certainly display the same 1,014 reviews on their clone version of the Australian website, and the sole shareholder of Bare Funerals UK Ltd is the Australian private company. Clients are assured that they operate across mainland UK, that people who have died are taken to a mortuary facility in Cannock, and that cremation will take place at one of several crematoria owned and operated by the Westerleigh Group. Bare Cremation appear to have taken advantage of the trade partnership offered by Westerleigh’s Distinct Cremations service, which offers exactly this service. The Bare Cremation £1,145 price is advertised as ‘one simple upfront price that includes everything. No footnotes, no extra fees, no surprises. Ever.’

Neo Cremations offer their ‘eco-friendly cremations’ at £1,295 plus doctor’s fee if applicable. Their website has lots of information about their environmental credentials and their carbon offsetting, but nothing about how they carry out the practical side of their work, nor where the cremations take place. Co-founded by a former partner in a global equity firm and a self-described ‘Accomplished ‘full funnel’ marketing executive’ , the company is based in London and is a trading name of Serenity Technologies Ltd, a company incorporated in 2019 which has one director. Their most recent accounts show that the average monthly number of employees, including directors, was 2.

Another company offering a direct cremation service for the extraordinarily low price of £850 is Tyde, based in Crawley, in Sussex. They operate a direct cremation service across England and Wales. Tyde Group Ltd’s most recent accounts at Companies House show the number of employees of this company as ‘Nil’, and a deficit of £49,992 total assets less current liabilities. Reading through their Ts & Cs we note that they state potential clients acknowledge ‘that elements of the funeral package and associated products will be fulfilled by our carefully selected partners’.

Remember that last line. Outsourcing the logistics is likely to be relevant to all internet-based direct cremation providers – and possibly also at times to cremator operator direct cremation providers.

Let’s have a look at those cremator operator direct cremation providers. 

Distinct Cremations advertise their fee as £895. They describe themselves as ‘the UK’s best value direct cremation services, expertly delivered by the UK’s leading cremation services provider, at affordable prices’. They are the direct cremation service offered by The Westerleigh Group Ltd, a cemetery and crematoria development company with 37 crematoria across England, Scotland and Wales They have a purpose built mortuary in Staffordshire and a fleet of vehicles, along with a funeral team who carry out collections and the care of people who have died

The other cremation company that has diversified into direct cremation provision (thus generating the supply of coffins to be cremated) is Affordable Funerals, formerly known as Low Cost Funerals and a subsidiary of Memoria Ltd.

Advertising their Affordable Funerals direct cremation prices from £990, Memoria now have a Funeral Division (well, they will have if enough funeral directors sign up to do the work for them, we refer you back to our previous blog post) – in a wordy, minimally punctuated statement from Howard Hodgson, CEO, we are told; “My family have been funeral Directors since 1850. Today, we represent a national network of our own staff and funeral directing Memoria Brand Partners who combine to offer you a diverse choice of funeral packages that will suit the funeral service that your family feels is appropriate while being at a price you can feel comfortable with.”

Turning to the funeral directing businesses who belatedly entered the direct cremation market in a significant way; they have been playing catch up for a while. The funeral sector was slow to respond to the threat of the rise of direct cremation providers in general, and the well-funded Pure Cremation in particular. 

All funeral directors have always been able and willing to provide unattended cremations if a client wanted, even if this service wasn’t particularly promoted to the public. Perhaps there was a level of complacency, or a lack of realisation about the power of clever marketing among the large funeral providers. Perhaps the delay was through caution about providing direct cremations that clients might choose rather than the more profitable full funerals that formed the bulk of their business. 

No matter the reason for not reacting immediately, the largest funeral providers soon realised that they needed to respond to the new ‘nationwide’ direct cremation services. In 2016, Dignity introduced a separate online ‘trading style’ called Simplicity Cremations offering direct cremations, and Co-operative Funeralcare followed with their direct cremation package in 2017. 

In 2018, Funeral Partners acquired four funeral homes and two sub brands offering direct cremations, retaining one of those sub brands before trialling a direct cremation offering called Simply in three of its branches later that year. The following year, the company launched a revised ‘Simply Funerals’ website.

Other large funeral directing companies have set up separate online direct cremation trading names – Liberty Cremations offers you the ability to arrange a £1,145 direct cremation remotely, ‘rather than going in to a funeral home’, separating the online direct cremation service from the parent company CPJ Field & Co, a large, independently owned business with 37 funeral homes.

While the established funeral companies had been getting organised, the stand-alone company that now dominates the direct cremation market had been consolidating its advantage. Pure Cremation are possibly the best-known UK direct cremation provider, not least because of their extensive TV advertising campaigns and carefully cultivated public relations. 

Formed in 2015 by a husband-and-wife team who had previously run a funeral company in the Midlands, Pure Cremation started operating their service using an arrangement with Memoria crematoria, before building their own crematorium in Andover. The crematorium has large mortuary facilities to accommodate the volume of bodies delivered to them for cremation by their teams of staff and by funeral directors taking advantage of their low fees (as we noted in our blog post last week, Pure Cremation offer funeral directors across England and Wales a very low-cost cremation fee under a trade partnership, as well as directly marketing their full direct cremation service to the public.

Pure Cremation charge their trade partners £250 per cremation fee if the coffin is delivered to them and the ashes are collected, while for members of the public booking a direct cremation directly (or via a non-trade partner funeral director) at Charlton Park crematorium, the cremation fee is £450. A complete direct cremation booked via Pure Cremation themselves will cost ‘from £1,295’ (An additional fee is required for collections from non-hospital settings).

Their business strategy seems to be working; Pure Cremation was the subject of a speculative article by Sky News earlier this year postulating valuation of their company at over £400 million, while recent filings at Companies House indicate that the couple who created the company have now relocated to Monaco (a move requiring a deposit into a bank in Monaco of between €500,000 and €1 million from each applicant, unless the applicant is employed by a Monaco company, or is forming a company that will employ at least 10 citizens of Monaco).

So, the direct cremation provider landscape is, as we have seen, a significantly varied one. Faceless tech companies with fancy websites and no practical funeral experience jostle for position on the internet against diversifying crematoria companies and established funeral businesses, all taking advantage of the growing awareness of the possibility of an unattended funeral imprinted on the public consciousness, which is mainly courtesy of Pure Cremation’s ample advertising budget. 

Some of the companies involved are young and unproven, some are making a financial loss, some are making an absolute fortune. Some are experienced funeral professionals, others have no experience of the practical work involved and their business model reies on contracting this part of their service out to others, with behind-the-scenes agreements with funeral directors who facilitate the logistics, ‘trusted partners’ sending staff to collect people who have died and deliver them to the chosen crematorium, under whichever company’s name that the client has chosen. 

The very low costs advertised by some of these companies can surely only be facilitated by stripping back all  the costs involved, until just the essential services are provided – after all, there is very little margin in a total fee of £850, when all the elements are considered. Those sub-contractor funeral businesses carrying out the practical aspects of the service must be doing so on a shoestring.

We have heard some really alarming stories about poor standards of care; mass storage of bodies awaiting cremation in unsuitable facilities,  small funeral businesses with inadequate facilities carrying out sub-contracted services for a large direct cremation provider and failing to meet even the most basic of expectations of care of the people who have died.

When there is a race to the bottom on price, standards will inevitably slip somewhere along the line. Very unfortunate if it happens to be your relative who isn’t cared for the way that you would want – but then, how would you know? Once a person has been collected and taken away for a direct cremation, they have disappeared completely. 

Direct cremations are, effectively, a straightforward disposal service, a logistical problem to solve that requires labour and transport and the provision of storage and a coffin. Online advisors and telephone operators guide clients through the paperwork, while anonymous teams of staff do the collecting, encoffining and delivering. Sometimes, people who have died will be washed and dressed before being placed in their low-cost coffin, other times not. Cremated remains are scattered or returned to the client as required. 

The whole thing can be arranged without leaving your home, the ‘fuss’ of a funeral is neatly sidestepped and the dead person is lawfully disposed of for you. You are then ‘free to arrange a celebration of their life at a time to suit you.’ We wonder how many times this doesn’t happen.

As we said in the introduction, direct cremation is right for some people. In the Competition & Markets Authority Funerals Market Investigation Final Report 2021, the CMA notes that ‘direct cremation meets some specific needs: for some, a desire for a non-traditional funeral, with a service/celebration planned separately; for others, a low-cost alternative where no service is needed or wanted at all (for example, where there is no close family or it is a better reflection of the deceased’s values or wishes). Price does not therefore seem to be the only driver for choosing a direct cremation.’

The CMA continues Despite large price differences between direct cremation and other funeral types, direct cremation accounts for a very small proportion of funerals and is expected to continue to be so in the next few years. Following the introduction of direct cremations at a price significantly below their other funeral packages, the proportion of customers who chose it was small: [5-10]% of Co-op’s customers in the months it was available, and [0-5]% of Dignity’s customers. We set out in Appendix I (paragraph 58) evidence that indicates direct cremations are expected to remain a small part of the market.’

But while it remains a small part of the market, it is a growing one. And that brings with it important questions that need to be asked, as we outlined at the start of this post.

And what about the effect on the environment of these national providers? As a comment on our blog post about the cost of cremation last week pointed out, the focus on centralised, non-attended funerals is extraordinarily bad for our carbon footprint. Every day, vans drive up and down the country to collect people who have died and deliver them to a crematorium to be cremated without ceremony. We don’t think this is a good thing at all when an unattended funeral could be organised locally, by a funeral director who is personally accountable.

Direct cremation that is chosen knowingly, after discussions with family members is one thing, direct cremation that is decided on without understanding the importance of bereaved people experiencing a funeral is another. We would urge anyone tempted to ‘save their families the expense’ or to avoid ‘all that stress’ of organising a funeral to think carefully before buying a pre-paid direct cremation for themselves. Your family may well be distraught at having to follow your wishes when all they want is to create a beautiful, low-cost farewell that will help them face the future without you.

For members of the public thinking about their own future funeral, talk with those close to you. Talk to your local funeral director. Do your research. Don’t fall for the manipulation of ‘looking after everyone’ or ‘putting your family first’ by taking the task of organising a funeral away from them. It is not what most people need in those awful days following the death of someone beloved. 

Funerals matter. We have them for a reason.

Oh, and finally, and just for the record, don’t believe the guff about David Bowie having a direct cremation of the kind touted in the marketing material and adverts we all see.

He didn’t. 

A word from our patrons

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.’

Disruptors. Not always a good thing.


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.

Best Direct Cremation Provider 2017

              Holly Clarke of Holly’s Funerals

Direct cremation is a fast-growing area of the funeral sector, and there are many direct cremation companies opening around the UK, with most funeral directors providing direct cremation as an option.

The runner up in this category is a quality provider of a direct cremation service, with ongoing telephone support for families.

The winner demonstrates though this excerpt from their entry that direct cremation, while being a cheaper alternative for families, does not necessarily mean less care is taken:

‘We believe that even though this may be a ‘cheaper option’ we still support the families as much as if they were paying for a full service. We include them as much as we can. We advise that they can come and decorate the coffin, they can send us personal letters, pictures to place in the coffin, we read these to the deceased. Once in their coffin, as with all our guests, we bless them, placing dried rose petals around them. We ask the family whether their loved one had any favourite pieces of music, if so we create a playlist that we play on their last journey to the crematorium. We always let families know what time we will be leaving so that they can be with us in spirit. A direct cremation is no less sacred than a ‘traditional’ cremation. We always follow up to see how families are, whether they need any extra support.’

Winner – Holly’s Funerals

Runner Up – Respect Direct Funeral Services


Award photograph by Jayne Lloyd

The 2017 Good Funeral Awards were generously sponsored by Greenfield Creations


The fashion of death…

Guest post by Howard Hodgson


‘In the midst of life we are but in death, of whom may we seek for succour but thee oh Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased’ are words that most of us would have associated with an Anglican funeral service a decade ago. But this is no longer the case today. Why?

It is because the post war baby boomers are starting to die. Therefore, the children of the social revolution of the early 1960s, who ripped down the lasting vestures of Victorian society and values and replaced such discipline and order with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, are now attacking conventional death ritual as it looms towards them.

This is hardly surprising. Why would a generation who grabbed power and kept it do anything else? Paul McCartney, aged 74, still fills stadia all over the world with people of all ages to listen to his music, most of which was written over 40 years ago.

We are talking of a pampered generation from birth that believes in ‘oh how to die’ as much as it did in ‘oh how to be a teenager’ all those years ago. Therefore, it is not surprising that it questions the need to have a traditional funeral – and all the costs associated with it.

This is because these folk are less religious and more allergic to formality than their parents. Therefore, they don’t like the cost associated with a distressed purchase and, in the case of some, would prefer not to be forced to attend a morbid occasion but a more colourful celebration of life or even have a party instead. After all, we are talking about the original sex, drugs and rock and roll generation.

So, while there is no escaping the pain of bereavement, it is everyone’s can i order cialis online in canada right to choose how to deal with it – and this is their way and it follows 100% their way of living.

As a result, today some families are shocked and concerned that a traditional funeral will cost around £4,500 while they are quite content to spend more on a family holiday and four times that sum on a wedding. This is pure baby boomer thinking.

At Memoria, we have developed three options of direct cremation to meet this new demand. Interest has been very considerable, as it has been in the same options available in the form of three pre-arranged direct cremation plans. Such options allow a family to have a one hour service of their choice while reducing the costs by between 55 – 80% dependent upon the option selected.

Last year we conducted just a mere handful of direct cremations. This year the total equals about 7% of our turnover. While I don’t expect direct cremation to grow to become 100% of the market, I do expect it to grow to over 40% in the next decade.

Furthermore, I can report that such growth is being driven by social groups A, B and C, while D and E still prefer to arrange traditional funerals. Therefore, it is safe to say that so-called ‘funeral poverty’ has little or nothing to do with this new trend.

Nevertheless, the introduction of direct cremation services has widened the choice available to all and this is a very good thing too for people of limited financial means, while not having any affect on those who still wish to choose a traditional funeral complete with hearses and limousines etc.

So there is absolutely no reason why ‘Abide with me’ should not be sung in one service and ‘Hey Jude’ played in the next.

Howard Hodgson

Is your funeral really necessary?

All of a sudden the media has started to take an interest in direct cremation. It’s the death of Anita Brookner wot done it. Here at the GFG we got calls after Bowie was whisked into the flames but little was written. I guess Bowie wasn’t reckoned sufficiently representative of mainstream people to be regarded as a sign of the times.

Will the upcoming Government consultation – here – take account of the needs of direct cremationists, we wonder, and consider abolishing the charge for the ceremony hall (chapel), and institute a dropoff service (also useful for home funeralists)?

What’s interesting about direct cremation is that it has come about without the benefit of advocacy by funeral reformers, who have been mostly (ironically) chattering about the desirability of more corpse-centric sendoffs. No one in the death biz saw direct cremation coming. How brilliant is that? The GFG has been, as in everything, way off the pace. In 2008 we wrote: In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change?” In 2009 we wrote “We never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. In 2010 we had second thoughts:  “It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores.”

Land on our shores? From where? Why, America, of course. But is direct cremation a transplanted practice – or did it arise here spontaneously? I’ve come to favour the latter theory. Increasingly, death announcements tell us, people are separating the disposal of the corpse from the memorial event, as in “Private cremation followed by a celebration of life to be held at…” The corpseless funeral and direct cremation are brother and sister.  

What bothers the media is what may also bother you. Isn’t it emotionally injurious to deny people the opportunity to pay their respects and say a ritual farewell to the person who’s died? No point in debating that question, it has already been answered. For certain people, certain deaths are best marked by a direct cremation or a corpseless funeral. End of.

Which doesn’t mean to say that the consideration of the needs and feelings of others has evaporated. David Holmes reminded us of this a couple of weeks ago when he was involved in a death not as an undertaker but as a family friend. He wrote:

The driver for them all is DOING THE RIGHT THING. This is to be a cremation, with traditional coffin and hearse, we will wear less formal clothes …They want to do it this way because they all think this IS the way it should be done. There has been time for me to gently suggest alternatives, and frankly, their emotional state made me hesitant to suggest much at all as an alternative. When I have, they have usually closed me down.

This chimes with a recent correspondence we had with a person of extremely limited means. She was inclined to do it all from home affordably and decorate a cardboard coffin bought on the internet. Then, all of a sudden, she wanted a formal funeral with a horse-drawn hearse. She was wrenched one way and the other by what she felt to be a need to show the world she cared.

This was in contrast to the man, a few days later, who wanted to be put in touch with a direct cremationist. At 94 he was a bright as you like and wanted to talk about the issues. He is affluent, educated and freethinking, so he is socially fearless. More than that, he feels that even in death he has a duty to set an example to less confident people. He wants to give them ‘permission’ to make the same choice as him and do what they are inclined to do, not as they feel expected to do.

Here’s the point. Increasingly, people go to a funeral these days with no idea what to expect now that liturgy, even in religious ceremonies, has been replaced by a mash-up. When you don’t know what to expect, you’re open to… anything.

Bring on the empty corpses

Book review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty, graduate in medieval history and author of a sunny thesis entitled The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory, rejects a promising career in academia in favour of one as a corpse handler and incinerator of the dead.

Anticipating bewilderment she asks, rhetorically, “So, really, what was a nice girl like me working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” And she goes on to tell us what drew her to it. She describes a traumatic childhood trigger event. I won’t reveal what it was, of course; you need to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for yourself. Her theory is that she dispelled the consequent denial that insulated her from the traumatic event by confronting her fears and getting on down with corpses. As a result of this self-prescribed and gruelling CBT she is now at peace with the “stillness and perfection of death”.

More than that, Doughty is now the world’s leading cheerleader for death: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives,” she says, “but in fact it is the very source of our creativity.” This is just one of many debatable assertions she makes in this book. Death may inspire urgency and thereby rouse latent creativity, but it is doubtful whether it can put in what God left out.

Doughty is the leader of a clever, charismatic and acclaimed corpse cult, the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” You’ve seen the Ask A Mortician video series — you have, haven’t you? She’s sassy, funny, outrageous and very likeable. She’s a brilliant performer. She spills and splashes behind-the-scenes secrets with a mischievous glee that appals and infuriates industry insiders, who firmly believe that there are Things It’s Best We Don’t Know. To this day, despite a great and growing following, she remains shunned by the National Funeral Directors Association. Her preparedness to bring down, in Biblical abundance, the murderous fear and loathing of old school funeral people takes guts. She’s outrageous because she’s also passionately seriousness.

Like so many progressives, Doughty is essentially retrogressive — in a positive way. Her prescription for the way things are is to get back to doing them the way we did. Nowadays, when someone dies, we call the undertaker and have them disappeared. This, reckons Doughty, is a symptom of a “vast mortality cover-up … society’s structural denial of death … There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.”

The way to restore society to emotional and psychological health, Doughty believes, is to engage with the event and get hands-on with the corpse. She believes that “more families would choose to take responsibility for their own dead if they knew that it was a possibility.”

This is what working in a crematory teaches her: “Westwind Cremation & Burial changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.”

I’m not so sure. I have in mind David Clark’s 1982 paper, Death in Staithes. The older inhabitants of Staithes, a fishing village on the east coast of Yorkshire, could easily recall the way things used to be: “When a person passed away the first thing they did was go for the board – the lying-out board,” which was kept by the village joiner. The lying-out itself was supervised by women qualified by skill and experience. These same villagers had lived through the commodification of death and the arrival of the Co-operative. To them the hands-on past is no paradise lost and they display no desire to return to it.

I question Doughty’s assertion that we suffer from “structural denial of death.” If we were to think about death some more, would it really do us any good? Yes, she says: “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.” Elsewhere, she writes: “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by the bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?'”

Philip Larkin felt sort of the same until he hit 50. In Julian Barnes’ words, “our national connoisseur of mortal terror … died in a hospital in Hull. A friend, visiting him the day before, said, ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’” Pretty much the same can be said about the death of another connoisseur, Sherwin Nuland, the man who wrote with spooky prescience “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die.” He was that frightened, too.

“Let us … reclaim our mortality,” exhorts Doughty headily. But does the dearth of corpses in our lives really distance us from death? Death was big in the lives of everyone in the past because people died at any age. They don’t do that so much now, they mostly die old, and that’s less tragic, less sensational. But death is arguably bigger in our lives than ever before because the dying spend so bloody long about it. There can be very few children who are not acquainted with a tottering, muttering relative, and very few adults who do not spend years despairingly caring for dementing, degenerating parents. They are in no doubt about what their parents are doing: they are dying a modern death, a slow and beastly death. That’s why there’s such an intense national conversation in so many countries about assisted suicide — come on, how mortality aware is that? Far from being a time of death denial, the present age has focussed our attention on mortality at least as urgently as any other because the distressing dilapidation of legions of almost-corpses starkly and terrifyingly prefigures our own end times, leaving us in no doubt that the home straight is going to be unutterably horrible. If we don’t feel we have much to learn from corpses, we learn as much as we feel we need from the living dead (ever seen a stroke ward?) and from self-deliverers like Brittany Maynard. They teach us the allure of Nembutal. We talk about this. A lot.

What people believe also plays its part in modern attitudes. Religious and spiritual-but-not-religious people are, pretty much all of them, dualists. There’s a soul and there’s a body. It’s a belief reinforced by the appearance of any corpse they have ever seen. Gape-jawed and evacuated of all vitality, a corpse speaks of the absence of self. Whoever it once embodied has gone. The corpse is not the person, so what value is there to be gained from cosseting it? This isn’t a new thing. Radical Protestantism has always taught it. Calvinist settlers in America became very careless of the ‘dignity’ of their soul-less dead and drifted into just hauling them into the forest or pushing them into rivers. In some places it got so bad that neighbours were appointed to oversee next door’s disposal arrangements and held responsible for making sure things were done properly. For these settlers, direct cremation would have been a godsend.

If I take issue with Doughty’s thesis, it is because someone’s got to. For Doughty, the contemplation of the corpse is “the beginning of wisdom.” If you are inclined to believe that, she says, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant.’”

What does morbid mean, exactly? It is Doughty herself who has pointed out that it has no antonym. Yes, what is the word for a healthy interest in death and dying? How does it express itself? Doughty and her fellow members of the Order of the Good Death express their wisdom exotically, sharing delight in much that others would regard as macabre — transi tombs, taxidermy, mortabilia and of all sorts. All a bit goth for my taste; I think there’s more than a dash of innate morbidity here. It would be idiotic to question the charisma of the cause, because it has attracted a huge worldwide following. How does it play to Mr and Mrs Everyday-Person? It remains to be seen. All I can say is that, speaking as a detached and jaded dullwit, after 6 years of hanging out with funeral people and their charges I remain unconvinced of the value of the corpse in death rituals, and while I acknowledge matter-of-factly the inevitability of death, I hate it as much as I ever did.

If by now you need some remission from my grinding and joyless pessimism, you need to buy this book. It it touches all the right bases — funny, shocking, sad, wise. Above all, it is full of hope and purpose. It is also highly readable. It was only when I re-read it that I became aware just how beautifully constructed it is. This is the work of a highly intelligent person who has got the inspiration-perspiration balance right (1:99). What she has to say is the product of experience, a lot of it penitential. She has captured the zeitgeist. This is a manifesto for today.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

Say hello to the new normal

Bastards. That’s what we used to call them. Next, illegitimate. We don’t call children born out of wedlock anything any more because we don’t feel we need to make a distinction.

Britain would be awash with bastards today if we still used the word because 4 out of 10 children are raised by unmarried parents. Happily the stigma of bastardy has entirely vanished. Some people get married, some don’t – whatever works for them. Some opt for a public, ceremonial plighting of troths, others for private, personal undertakings to each other. Neither the marrieds nor the cohabiters are judgemental of each other, and no one talks about living in sin any more – or shotgun weddings, remember them?

A feature of social change is that, no matter what birth pangs attend its arrival, it immediately becomes a non-event. The lead up to the gay marriage law was marked by much hullabaloo. As soon as the law passed, gay marriage become yawnsville – unremarkable. We absorb and carry on.

Direct cremation and direct burial were once reckoned astonishing and, more to the point, injurious to the emotional health of those who opted for it. It would deny them closure, leave them with all manner of unresolved grief issues. But they just keep on coming, and there is no evidence that bereavement support groups are swollen by their number.

Here at the GFG we get more and more people emailing to say thank you to us for giving them ‘permission’ not to have a ceremonial funeral after reading this: Do you really have to have a funeral?

And we meet and talk to more and more undertakers who get it  — who respect direct disposal as a positive choice.

There’s been no discernible rearguard defence of the public ceremonial funeral from the conservative, traditionalist wing of the industry in Britain, and this is puzzling. You have to go to America to hear the case made:

“A good funeral involves facing the fact of death and not dispatching someone like [an undertaker] to get rid of the bad news—by removing the body from sight—but embracing the fact we have a corpse in our midst. It attends to the task of consigning this person somewhere, not in some perfunctory way but doing it with attention, ceremony, and some quest for meaning.” [Source]

Mark Higgins, the man who said that, is exactly the sort of funeral conservative you might expect him to be. What drew him to undertaking?

“I loved the pomp and circumstance, the drama, the dignity, if you will, the “black” of the event affected me. The vestments of the clergy, the black cars … We put ourselves in a posture of reverence and respect.”

It’s Thomas Lynch, together with Thomas Long, both of whom have written the best books out there on funerals, who are leading the die-hard traditionalists. Here’s Lynch:

“…. the presence of the dead so ups the existential ante that people generally feel the increased gravitas, the broadening of the emotional register, the increased sense of purpose and duty, the sense that we are somehow at swim in deeper water where the range of possible conversations and outcomes is broadened. The presence of the dead embodies, in utter stillness, the raison d’etre for the gathering, for the nervous laughter and the tears, for the wailing and belly laughs, for the entire spectrum of of responses and conversations — some holy, some hilarious, all of them focussed on the dead and the ones to whom the dead matter most.”

And he quotes Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under: “once you put a dead guy in the room you can talk about anything.”

Lynch and Long’s belief in the vital importance of having a dead guy in the room is unquestionably sincere. They have the best interests of the bereaved at heart. But it looks as if they are beginning to lose the argument.

This is a state of affairs for which the traditionalists cannot blame the ‘progressives’. Both camps, ironically, believe strongly in the importance of spending time in the presence of the dead. It goes without saying that this belief is in no way the product of commercial considerations.

No, direct disposal is something that has happened to undertakers and celebrants. Already it is already becoming unremarkable. It’s not for everybody, of course. But it’s the new normal. From now on, some people are going to want the dead guy in the room, others aren’t. Whatever works for them.

The impact of this on the professional status of funeral directors is likely to be profound. We’ll deal with all that in a follow-up post.

Thinking the unsinkable

In October 2008, in a piece about direct cremation, I wrote this: In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change? In July 2009 I wrote: I never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations*, it’s called.

I seem not to have been wholly persuaded, however, for in March 2010 I wrote: It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores. In May 2010, in response to a very valuable analysis by Nick Gandon, Jonathan, a sagacious and valued commenter on this blog, wrote: Funeral directors aren’t set up to cater for direct cremation because the demand is almost nil. 

Seems like ancient history now.

The growth of direct cremation marks a cultural shift that, so far as I know, has gone unremarked by the British media. So far as the media is concerned, direct cremation doesn’t mark a cultural shift at all, it’s simply a branch of the cheaper funerals market, and we all want cheaper funerals, don’t we? The Dismal Trade seems mostly to share this analysis. Direct cremation is for poor people who can’t afford a full fig funeral, for a few well-off middle class people who want a ‘fuss-free’ funeral, and for the I’m-not-worth-it brigade who don’t reckon they’re worth funeralling anyway. It’s a niche market. 

So far as we can tell from their responses, funeral directors experience the impact of direct cremation as a commercial, not a cultural phenomenon, and certainly not as an existential threat. Most people still want a trad funeral, but direct cremation has affected the trad funerals market by making stripped-down respectable.  It has empowered funeral shoppers to say no to stuff they don’t actually really want. The days of one limo or two have been succeeded by one limo or none — oh, and no flowers, either, thanks. We are witnessing a watering down of the Big Black Funeral. How much more dilution can it take? 

Culturally, until the last five years or so, we supposed there to be a crucial, indispensable emotional and spiritual value in holding a funeral in the presence of a dead body.  Now, we’re not so sure. A combination of all manner of factors may be responsible, longevity in particular — when death is merely the postscript to a long and beastly illness, there doesn’t seem to be much more grief work to do. On the other hand, the deaths of young people remain not just as momentous as ever, but more so. 

There is, arguably, a perfectly good rationale for direct cremation. Reducing a body to ‘ash’ and rendering it, thereby, portable, durable and divisible, is a very effective way of preparing it for a funeral. There is remarkably little understanding of this among funeral directors; most of them simply do not get it, probably because they scent no commercial opportunity. 

So here are the big questions:

Is it preferable, in the interest of emotional and spiritual health, to hold a funeral in the presence of a dead body? Or do ashes actually serve perfectly well?

Biggest question of all: 

  • Is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all? After all, we get to carry on without the benefit of a formal ceremony or other ritual observance after near-bereavement experiences like the breakdown of a relationship, or redundancy, or a child leaving home. We resolve those privately. 

It seems extraordinary that the funeral industry has mounted no concerted defence of the funeral. Nor, so far as I know, have any academics responded to what’s going on and debated the question: Is your funeral really necessary? 

Because if pragmatic Brits cotton on to the idea that a funeral serves no purpose, does them absolutely no good at at all, is all just a lot of hollow show and hot air, they’ll be only too pleased to say goodbye to a tradition they never had much time for anyway. 

And that’ll be curtains for an industry thought to be unsinkable. 

*Simplicity Cremations is now Simplicita Cremations. I’ll leave it to Nick to explain why.

Good question, Poppy

In 2010/11, 40,000 women attended NCT antenatal classes. This is on top of regular meetings with midwives and GPs. Mumsnet gets 50 million page views per month. We clearly want information badly.

So why do we prepare ourselves for birth and death so differently?

Read the whole of Poppy Mardall’s article in the Huffington Post here

Well done, Poppy, for getting the message out!