Raising the money in hard times

Anne Dunbar, co-owner of a funeral home in the Dayton suburb of Springfield, Ohio, reports that 15 to 20 families a year now ask that newspaper obituaries include a plea for contributions toward funeral expenses.

It’s not uncommon, in the US, for families to raise money for a funeral, and here’s a new way of doing just that.

It’s comparatively uncommon in reticent Britain — where, to be fair, funerals aren’t nearly as expensive.

We wonder if the everlasting recession will change that. More than that, we wonder why it’s hardly ever done at all. People ask ‘Is there anything I can do?’ customarily with a helpless shrug of the shoulders. Give them the opportunity to bung a few quid into a JustGiving-alike fund and I’m sure they’d be relieved, the more so if they knew that any surplus would go to a chosen charity. 

People like to feel they’ve done their bit, that’s the point. 

Not so cunning after all?

Posted by Charles

Money’s fallen on hard times. It’s not breeding like rabbits any more.

What’s bad news for savings has got to be bad news for funeral plans too. 

Pay now, die later was never going to be a good way to go for the funeral trade because when a person buys their own funeral it is generally more modest than that which he or she might buy for someone else. But if you can’t improve your market share today by encouraging more people to die and afterwards give you repeat business, what’s a poor undertaker to do? Tomorrow’s market share it is. Sell ahead, grow the cash, hope it pays you back.

In present low-growth conditions, the longer a plan takes to mature, the more it’s likely to lag behind.

The April edition of the Funeral Service Journal carries a heartsinking analysis by Ronnie Wayte, managing director of Golden Charter. Given low interest rates, these, he says, are the most disturbing factors:

*   Funeral price inflation tends to outstrip RPI. (At the present rate, funeral directors’ costs tend to double every ten years.) Says Wayte: “Put bluntly, parts of our model don’t work in these conditions.” 

*   People are living longer, increasing likely shortfalls.

*   People are buying when they’re younger, extending the maturity period. 

*   Sure, the death rate will rise soon. But the fruits of this will be shared among increased numbers of funeral directors. 

*   “As financial services giants become more involved they will squeeze returns.”

No wonder Wayte concludes by saying “we need to step back, have a good look round and decide in what direction we need to move.”

I’m sure he’d welcome some advice from readers of this blog. 

What does it cost to run a crematorium?

Here’s an extract from a feasibility review conducted by Rugby Borough Council Jan 2010, which plans to build a new crematorium. The review gives us useful info about how these things are costed:


“It is proposed that the number of staff recommended would be: 1 Manager, 1 Administration Officer, 1 Operative

“With on-costs this would be in the region of £99,450 per year, so based on 1,000 cremations a year this would equate to £99.45 per cremation.

“An additional personnel cost at crematoria has been the organist, however there is an alternative system, called the Wesley Music System which is PC and internet based and could be operated by staff and would cost approximately £5,000 per year. Allowing £1,000 for equipment purchases etc the cost would work out at £6.00 per cremation.”

Equipment operating costs

4 cremations a day for 50 five-day weeks of the year (ie, 250 days out of a total 365) in a single cremator @ 90 mins a funeral = 6hrs’ cremator use per day.

Gas — £7.50 per cremation

Electricity — £4.00 per cremation

Reagent and disposal — £4.75 per cremation

TOTAL — £16.25

So: staffing and operating costs as per Jan 2010 stood at £99.45+£6.00+£16.25 = £121.70

The rest of the money goes on maintenance of plant, grounds and building together with capital costs.

Go figure.

Rugby’s plans go to the Planning Committee any day now.

Read the full document here.

Top tips for funeral shoppers

Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in the USA, is a major hero to all who toil at the GFG-Batesville Tower. Here he is talking on the telly about funeral pricing and home funerals.

It’s interesting to note the similarities with the British funeral industry, in particular consumers’ disapproval of the marking up of coffins. We unquestioningly accept mark-ups in all other commercial transactions, so why do we find the marking up of coffins so objectionable? Does it say something about our unease with a for-profit business model of funeral directing? If so, what can we do about it?

Josh talks about the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, the sort of document we badly need in the UK. It’s very well written. What a pity the Office of Fair Trading has never written a version for British funeral consumers — or funeral shoppers, as Josh terms them. 

Josh talks, too, about the emotional and spiritual value of a home funeral as ‘personal, family event’, an alternative to turning your loved one over to strangers. In the US, the home funeral movement is growing. In Britain it has most regrettably stalled. 

Find the Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule here. Hat tip to the Funeral Consumers Alliance to alerting us to this interview. 

Let’s make the case for funerals

Guest post by Rupert Callender, owner of The Green Funeral Company

Often this blog can trot nicely along with the usual suspects commenting dryly from the sidelines, a good natured conversation amongst friends. It’s easy to forget it has a wide, international readership, easy that is, until a seemingly innocuous post unleashes a Bay of Pigs crisis, as it was with the recent posting about a rise in Church fees. Suddenly, we were neck deep in a debate about the merits of secular celebrants, and the rise of budget ‘disposals’. 

Unlike Charles, I didn’t think that the to and fro was particularly unpleasant, but it certainly was enlightening. There is still a large cultural chasm between most funeral directors and the people who increasingly take the ceremonies, and the way down is littered with jagged outcrops of things like class and money and religion. 

 We, and by that I mean all of us who make our livings from what happens next when someone dies, live in interesting times, as the Chinese and Scots curse has it. Our industry is in the tightening grip of big business, our economy is in meltdown, and most unpredictable of all, an unexpected blip in the death rate has meant that funerals are scarce. People will go to the wall, and often not those that Darwin would hope would. 

The debate about budget funerals has been the most interesting. Anyone who offers a funeral service will have been asked to quote for one. The generous transparency of people like Nick Gandon has explained to me exactly how they can offer such an astonishingly cheap funeral. The combination of mortuary facilities in the crematorium, and a flexible realistic approach from those who run them mean that Mr Gandon can offer people a seriously cheap, no service body disposal. More power to him for being able to react to the market. 

We can’t, even though our overheads are much cheaper than most. We are really not a product driven company. We don’t have a hearse as standard, or a vast range of coffins. The product you get is my wife and I.  Our professional fee is honest and clear and rarely varies, and never more than a couple of hundred pounds either way, though I would hasten to add we are still considerably cheaper than most of our competitors for all of our funerals. But our market share is small, so when someone comes and asks for a no service funeral we quote as best we can, but it rarely can compete with the budget service. 

And this is what the customer wants, isn’t it? Times are hard and the days of religious certainty are long gone. If people want things to be taken care of quickly and efficiently without their presence then they have that right, don’t they? 

When we have helped people to have this kind of non funeral, there have often been rumblings in the wider family and community. The impulse to mark and record this event cannot be fully sublimated by economic concerns. We have experienced what we can only describe as “pop up” funerals, taking place alongside the simple practicalities, friends and family gathering in our premises for what seems like a chance to see the person and say goodbye unmistakably crystalising into a spontaneous ceremony. Unless the person who has died was particularly disliked, people want to gather with their body one last time. A ceremony without the presence of the body is a vastly different beast from one with, and to throw away this chance for a few hundred quid seems to me the opposite of a bargain. 

I don’t blame funeral directors for trying to accommodate these wishes. Despite the deeply entrenched hostility towards funeral directors that surfaces even on the pages of this enlightened blog, it is a bloody difficult world in which to make a living, and whatever they need to do to carry on is understandable, and don’t they say that the customer is always right?  We live in fear of being seen as exploitative and paternalistic, a stereotype which unfairly haunts us in this age of unscrupulous life insurance companies, bonused bankers and intrusive government, it is hardly surprising that some funeral directors are betting that the next big thing will be no thing, literally nothing, and have decided to make a virtue of necessity, and become, in essence low key removal men. 

But in my heart of hearts, I know this is wrong, that we are colluding with a public who, in the face of  spiritual uncertainty and the opportunity to avoid something so painful are choosing the easiest option, and that in doing so we are doing them and us a huge disfavour. 

I became an undertaker and a celebrant because the grief I had avoided turned toxic. The funerals I didn’t go to had much more power over me than the funerals I did and had influenced my life in ways it took years to fully understand. I honestly believe, and I am sure most funeral directors agree with me, that there is no way around grief. It can be displaced for years, decades even, but sooner or later, and of course it is usually sooner another significant death in your life forces you to go back to the beginning and face your original wound.  So what happens to these people we are excusing from the difficult task of saying goodbye to those they love? I believe that more often than not, they will come to regret their brisk efficiency, or worse, never realise the impact and influence it has had on their grief. 

We are into an area that most funeral directors will think this isn’t their territory. Words like ritual and ceremony make them uncomfortable, and traditionally have been the preserve of the priest but the truth is that the pulpit has been empty for a while now, and secular celebrants, good or bad have moved in to occupy it. The withdrawing of conventional religion does not mean that ritual becomes less important, quite the opposite, and funeral directors, marked and lined by our awareness of mourning and bereavement are exactly the people to be helping to create something new. 

Perhaps another strand of what is happening is people’s increasing dislike of crematoriums, and avoiding them and the funeral is a two bird one stone offer that is just too tempting. 

We did a funeral last week in the function room of a bustling drinker’s pub in Plymouth, much to the relief of the deceased’s family, who wanted to honour his wishes to be cremated, but were dreading visiting the place. The actual cremation happened the next morning. The funeral wasn’t expensive, but it was deeply satisfying for all who attended, filled with spontaneous gestures like everybody forming two columns in the narrow downstairs room to pass the coffin along between them. This meant more to everyone there than a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Working out that this was a good thing to do wasn’t difficult, but neatly highlights the benefits of being both undertaker and celebrant. 

Perhaps this is why we embrace the idea of natural cremation or funeral pyres with such enthusiasm. Here is a chance to strip things back, both in terms of technology and ritual. When faced with something so profoundly simple and elemental as a huge fire in a field, then the lines that seperate celebrant and undertaker, mourner and professional may well blur, and we may find that the doing has become the meaning. Won’t cost much either. 

So I urge you undertakers to stand up and enter the debate, to argue your merits and put your case forward. If you believe that you make a difference to the bewilderment of a family, if you have ever made a suggestion which has transformed a funeral and helped people move successfully beyond this most traumatic of human events then now is the time to speak, before we find ourselves in a place devoid of meaning and participation, squeezed between the pre-paid homogenised ‘personalised’ funeral of the big boys and the budget operators, where the only measure of a funeral is how little it cost. That would be a tragedy.

Crematoria need to offer a drop-off service. Will they?

We can speculate why it is that, in so-called advanced societies, the conventional funeral as an event is something dead people are increasingly bypassing. The point is that it’s happening, and demand for direct cremation (deathbed to incinerator) is growing. It is growing especially among educated liberal thinkers, precisely the constituency which was the first to adopt cremation. 

Direct cremation also makes very good sense to those who reckon cremation to be a very good way of preparing a body for a funeral. It may be extraordinary that we assign the identity of the person who’s died to a pile of pounded bone fragments, but we do. And having been so rendered, those bone fragments assume three very favourable properties that a dead body lacks: they are portable, durable and divisible. A family can hold their own funeral for ashes pretty much anywhere they like, whenever they like. No need for specialist help, no fancy cars, no hoopla. Once you’ve got your head around the notion, it can look very attractive. 

For both these direct cremation groups, the no-funeralists and those espouse the ‘rite of secondary treatment,’ together with a third group, those who wish to hold their funeral in an alternative venue, cremation as we do it in the UK offers very poor value for money. Because, whether you like it or not, you pay both for the burning and also for rental of a ceremony space you’ve no need of. Even people using the slightly less expensive early-morning slots normally get 15 mins of ceremony space whether they want them or not.

Poor value for money may be irksome to the rich but it is disastrous for a fourth group: those who urgently need to work to a budget. Recent steep rises in the cremation fee, necessitated by the installation of new emissions abatement equipment, have made an already bad situation worse. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. In the US you can ring a nice, proper man like Michael T Brown at Simplicity Memorial and he’ll arrange a direct cremation for you for $995 all in — around £660. Have a look at his website, he’s everything a funeral director ought to be – here. In the UK £660 probably wouldn’t cover the cremation, never mind the funeral director’s collection-packaging-delivery service.

Our British crems are, both, expensive ceremony spaces and inefficient incinerators of the dead. The case for uncoupling incineration equipment from crematoria is growing. An efficient, environmentally sensible incinerating plant is a standalone structure that services several crematoria and puts in a long shift. 

It’s not going to happen overnight, is it? A ‘castrated’ crematorium becomes just another funeral venue. Our crems will fight to the death to retain their raison d’etre. We say that with respect to those who run our crematoria, many of whom are far more dedicated to the best interests of the bereaved than they are credited for. 

There is a concession that crematoria might make now. A drop-off service and a cremation-only price. In terms of process there’s no need for bodies to be directly cremated, and those who have been funeral-ed elsewhere, to be carried into the chapel and placed on the catafalque. Take ’em round the back. To a seemly reception area — it doesn’t have to be very big, just decently appointed. Isn’t that a much better way of catering for those who have no need of, or cannot afford, the ceremony space?

In the east end of London, Quaker Social Action are working hard, with the help of some excellent volunteers and sympathetic funeral directors (let’s hear it for T Cribb and Sons), to enable people on low incomes to have affordable funerals. An affordable cremation fee would make a huge difference. 

A drop-off service and a cremation-only fee. Simple, logical, obvious, fair. But for our crematoria the thin edge of the wedge, too — yes, there’s the rub.

There are so, so many vested interests standing in the way. 

Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth project here.

C of E raises funeral fee to £160

The Church of England’s General Synod has just announced a rise in the fee payable to a priest for officiating at a funeral to £160. 

The fee takes into account both admin and also the heating and lighting of the church. 

There’s no information available yet on whether this fee will apply also to crematorium funerals.

But any increase in the C of E fee is, of course, good news for secular celebrants. 

Story in the Guardian here


Abusua do funu – The family loves the corpse


Mr Mensah a retired head teacher in Kwahu-Tafo, died in 1995 in Accra, where he was receiving medical treatment. His body was deposited in a mortuary for about a month. During that period, his children organized a full facelift of the house to prepare it for a worthy funeral: the roof and other parts of the house were repaired, the large courtyard was cemented, the house was painted, electricity was brought to the house and the road leading to the house was improved. Many of the things the old man had wanted to do during his life were done for him after his life, while his body was waiting in limbo. His children, one of whom lived in the USA, took care of the (re)construction work.

This is how they do it in Ghana, a country whose funeral rituals are little known beyond those groovy coffins we all love. Let’s not overlook the fact that Ghana incorporates many peoples and religions, each of which does its own thing. The Ghanaian funeral that we all know a little about is the Akan funeral.

The structure of Akan society is matrilinear. Akans place low value on marriage, so weddings are no big deal. Throughout their lives Akans cleave, not unto their spouse, but unto  the abusua, the matrilineal family. Akans divorce freely and easily. A woman will often walk away from her marriage once she’s had children. A man is expected to favour his sister’s children over his own. This has an effect on the way old people are looked after. You look less to your children, more to your abusua, to look after you when you get shaky. [Source]

If Akans don’t do weddings, boy do they do funerals. A funeral is a time for the abusua to celebrate itself publicly and assert its status. It is a social event. Much loved family members are given wonderful send-offs. So too are undeserving family members who may have been despised. Come one, come all. And a notable peculiarity of some of these lavish funerals is that they afford the deceased a lot more care when they’re dead than when they were alive and most in need of it. Some small social stigma attaches to those who don’t look after ailing family members, but no abusua could ever live down the disgrace of failing to give them a proper funeral. This stimulates lifelong funeral-going. In order to ensure the attendance and donations of others at your funeral you must have first attended and donated to as many of theirs as you could — every Saturday for many Ghanaians. If you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours. 

Eighty per cent of Ghanaians live on around $2 a day. A funeral costs an average $2,500–£3,000. 

People dress up and travel to visit a funeral in another town or village. In turn, they expect the bereaved family to entertain them with show, music, dance, drinks, and sometimes food. In the evening it can be hard to find transport back to town, when trotros (minibuses for public transport) are stuffed with funeral guests going home. And every Saturday night people dressed in black and red funeral cloth flock together in Hotel de Kingsway to end the day’s funeral by dancing to the tunes of highlife music. Funerals are at the heart of Asante culture and social life. Asante funerals are also the terrain of great creativity, where various forms of expression and art come together. Cultural groups perform traditional drumming or songs; people show their dancing skills; highlife musicians compose popular songs on the deep sorrow caused by death; pieces of poetic oratory praise the life of the deceased; portrait paintings and sculptures are put on the grave; photographs are enlarged, framed and exhibited or printed on T-shirts; video shots are taken and edited into a beautiful document; people dress up in the latest funeral fashion; and sometimes scenes from the life of the deceased are acted out in theatre. Death, more than any other life event, seems to inspire people to artistic creations.

One could expect a traditional ritual, centred around the extended family and around beliefs about death and ancestorship, to reduce in importance under the influence of individualisation, urbanisation, the market economy, and Christianity. The opposite scenario is taking place in Ghana. Funerals are, more than any other ceremony, increasingly gaining in scale and importance. [Source]

One technological innovation above all others is responsible for this. The refrigerated mortuary. The longer a corpse remains in the morgue, the more prestige is attached to the funeral. This is not only because a longer period allows the family to make more preparations for a successful funeral; the mere duration of the corpse’s stay in the mortuary commands respect. People know the high prices of mortuaries and can estimate the amount of money the family spent.

The mortuary also gives the abusua  more time to get the money together for something really spectacular. Only a few selected people are able to see the dead body during its stay in the mortuary. It is ‘nowhere’ for some time. The person has died, but not yet socially. Almost secretly his body has been transferred to a technological limbo, where it waits its ‘rise’ to death, the social recognition of having died … The quality of the corpse constitutes an important element in the success of the funeral … after its reappearance from the morgue, the corpse is dressed, decorated, perfumed and laid out to be admired by large crowds of mourners. It will be filmed, if the family’s finances permit, and the camera will zoom in, revealing the smallest details of the dead face. It is no wonder that relatives do their utmost to assure that their corpses are well maintained, and tip the attendants at the mortuary for that purpose. In the brilliant Vimeo film below you can see that freezing the corpse makes it possible to stand it up at the wake. Please watch it.  

The upshot is that a hospital mortuary can become a major generator of income. In Nkawkaw the private Agyarkwa hospital accommodates 20 patients. Its mortuary hosts 60 corpses waiting for their funeral.

Some Ghanaians would like to reverse the trend towards ever more elaborate funerals, regarding them as a social problem and a bar to economic progress: 

One of the most serious attitudinal problems to have crept into the Ghanaian society is the insatiable desire to invest in the dead rather than the living. We go to bizarre extents to try to outdo each other in the grandeur of the funerals we organise. We take to task our compatriots who for better sanity or lack of resources try to organise relatively modest funerals, describing their efforts as “burying their loved ones like fowls”! … How can a people that hope to develop their impoverished nation become so obsessed with investment in the dead rather than the living? [Source]

In Britain we don’t have this problem. Our problem is too little, not too much.

More reading here, here, here, here and here.

How much are you?

A very big up to Saint and Forster Funeral Services, who have just gone public and transparent with their prices.

From us, a big ask to all funeral directors to follow suit.

Saint and Forster prices here.

Saint and Forster here