Local and community

Guest post by John Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serving gay and black communities

Guest post by Richard Rawlinson

Recent talk about preferences for traditional or alternative funeral services was pretty much silenced by the word ‘choice’. In other words, whether it’s a requiem mass preceded by a Victorian-lite cortege or a liturgy-free, no-dress-code send-off in a field, give the punters what they want.

This libertarian strain of relativism has again been used to challenge ownership of the word ‘progressive’. Isn’t any undertaker progressive if he/she strives to offer better service and value? Isn’t anyone progressive if he/she wants society to advance in the direction of greater peace and prosperity?

People differ on how and where to move forward but no one owns the label of progressive as people have diverse tastes, beliefs, income levels etc. In this pluralist society, choice trumps homogeneity. Sometimes, the big chains deliver it, sometimes niche undertakers have healthy volume by specialising in a given area.

There’s been much said about green pound undertakers but there are also specialists defined by sexuality and race—the pink pound and black pound sub-categories within the grey pound.

If you Google  ‘gay funeral directors’ (hat tip Mark Sharron’s recent post about search engine optimisation), you find the site of the Gay Business Association (GBA) listing its members in the funeral trade – here.

London’s Chelsea Funeral Directors is profiled as ‘independent, British, gay-owned (actually it’s not – see footnote)  and managed funeral directors and monumental masons, sensitive to personalised funeral requests’.

The entire Dignity chain is also a GBA member and states: ‘We offer sympathetic, caring, unbiased service through our nationwide network of over 550 funeral homes – 24 hours a day… We also provide full services for persons with AIDS and HIV+’.

There’s clearly a difference between a gay-managed company and a corporation making a point that all business is welcome. The pink pound might be attracted to Dignity’s GBA membership just as the red pound of union activists might be attracted to the Labour-funding Co-operative Group’s Funeralcare chain. That doesn’t make either the real deal.

A funeral director catering for reds didn’t score in my Google search but there are plenty of other specialists beyond the greens and the pinks.

  1. Carty Independent Funeral Services in London’s Brixton is managed by people from African and Caribbean backgrounds, and specialises in funerals for Rastafarians.

As with most modern companies, Chelsea and M. Carty undertakers will tailor their services to individual wishes, whether religious or non-religious, opulent or simple. Likewise, their funerals are, of course, available to gay and straight or black and white.

The fact they also promote their niche expertise as a strength is an added bonus, good for individuals within the community and, I hope, good for business.

Footnote: for Charlie Phillips’s photographs of Afro-Caribbean funerals, see here.

ED’S NOTE 1) Cheshire East Council’s Information On Using A Funeral Director notes: “older people tend to reflect upon the past socialist principles of the ‘Co-op’ funeral services, which may no longer apply.”  2) We are informed (21.06, Weds 22.10.2014) that Chelsea Funeral Directors are no longer gay-owned.   

Hearse and one?

Guest post by David Holmes

As the global recession took hold in 2008, families arranging funerals started cutting back on cost. First to face the chop (forgive the pun) was the lovely black limousine. And why not, they are but frippery, very non-essential, so why pay around £200 to hire one when you can easily do without? These days all families have cars don’t they, so getting to the Church or crem on time is very straightforward.

As 2008 gave way to 2009, I made the tough (traditional FD’s love their cars) decision to do away with our own lim as the majority of clients just didn’t want to hire it, opting instead for meet-at funerals at lower cost.

Believe it or not, a new Jaguar or Mercedes limousine now costs up to £135,000 to buy; the trade journal Ads implore ‘£30,000 down and just £1,500 per month in easy payments. Wow! Then there’s the uniformed driver, insurance, fuel, tax, maintenance and garaging to pay for. We spend hours cleaning the damn things too. Running a limousine is an expensive business, and frankly only the large busy cluster of branches FD’s can really make them pay because they can pack their diary with jobs and with luck, get the same limousine out on up to 10 funerals a week. Do the maths, 10 x £200 makes the investment very worthwhile.

At the same time as our lim was cut, my telephone mystery shopping of competitors informed me that when telephone quoting for funerals, they had suddenly started offering a ‘free limousine’ – astonishing generosity eh? When challenged, they told me that if I, (potential client) didn’t want one, they couldn’t reduce the funeral cost, so I may as well use it. So much for client choice. If you thought big funeral directors were welded to their take it or leave it mindless package funerals, you’d be right. They need to get the maximum return on their investment and make the diary work.

Thankfully for many, the recession seems to be petering out. More clients are hiring limousines again. Rejoice! So, I have just bought a beautiful Jaguar lim to follow our Jaguar hearse and I think clients should definitely hire it. Not just because if I fail to keep up with the hefty payments, ours will be repossessed, but because I think our clients really benefit from having a lim. Who knows how you’ll feel on the day of a funeral? Will you really feel up to driving your own car, will you fret about timekeeping, getting lost or separated from the hearse, and will you be able to park easily on arrival? Carrying up to seven people, you also get to sit with the people you love most – there’s a sense of we’re all in this together. You can comfort one another, laugh, reassure and remember the person up front, and when it’s all over, you can be transported in temperature controlled luxury to the venue of your choice, all for £200, divided by 7 people = £28 each, at £14 each way, surely it’s the best bargain on any funeral director’s price list?

Of course with Holmes & Family funeral directors, you can abandon the whole cortege thing completely and use a smart closed van hearse at a fraction of the hearse and one price. Best of all, no-one will gawp at you traversing the High Street in those long back cars that can make you and yours look like extras in an episode of the Sopranos!

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We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

Guest post by Mark Shaw

All this talk of change has led me to look back. As I do, I have to accept I am old enough to have witnessed many changes. Not as many as some, and I hope many more still to see.

The supermarket where I would once accompany my mother for the Saturday shop has since changed ownership and corporate name no less than 6 times. But still Heinz, Kelloggs, Colgate and Hellmans get my vote.

At the age of 15, as church organist in a rural Highland village, I played for all the village funerals. It was this introduction to funerals that led me on this path. They were not glamorous affairs – how could they be with an Austin Princess hearse? They were however smart, dignified community occasions. Any less than 300 attendees would be seen as a poor attendance. I knew most of the funeral script – thats just the way funerals were. Local family businesses where funerals were conducted as required, between other services which the family business was involved in.

My first real venture into funerals was while on school work experience. In the big smoke of a nearby town. A full time, relatively large scale and somewhat more grand set up given the volume of funerals done. This was the best, most educational and interesting week of my school days.

I now realise how fortunate I was to get in to this profession. The week after I left school, I started as a trainee funeral director 80 miles away in a city to which I had rarely been.

This firm, part of a chain, was involved with the best part of 2000 funerals a year. It was run by staff and managers, following head office policy, rather than the 3rd generation of the family whose name was above the door.

I was surprised that my rural ways and enthusiasm for a job I knew little about was not welcomed more warmly. That said, 22 years down the road, I can understand how the novelty of multiple night time calls wears thin and can make you grumpy.

In my own mind however I was always destined to work for myself which I eventually did when excuses not to take the plunge ran out.

So, changes? Well there were no celebrants, humanists or family led ceremonies in these days that I can remember. Eco coffins? (I think you could still buy aerosol CFC’s.) Woodland Burial? No. Direct Cremation? Would possibly have been seen as a sign of disrespect – and the funeral directors might even have attended out of sympathy. Funeral estimates were a new thing. Having said that, If I am not mistaken, the DWP (DHSS) would have paid the full amount of a moderate funeral to eligible applicants. In any case, a family might have seen it as a matter of honour to pay the funeral account and so no need to ask for money up front. The majority of client families of course remain happy to pay a fair price for a good service.

So the dinosaur of funeral directing has seen changes even in my short time. Changes which challenge our industry / profession. Changes which have seen our role and prominence grow as some funerals become more elaborate. Other changes around the marginal edges of the bereavement sphere see some families try to Do It Themselves, whether out of budgetary constraint, or as an expression of love and devotion to loved ones. And yes, I have been loosely involved with DIY funerals done for both reasons.

Family circumstances have changed. Splits, distance, free thinking and the associated tugs on loyalty as people want to do things differently rather than in the prescribed manner. This all poses a challenge to the function of the funeral director. Not to mention obesity, traffic congestion, legislation and all the other things that have changed.

So our micro world of funerals along with the macro world of life has changed.

A few taps of a mobile phone gives us much of the information we need on any matter including death, dying and funerals. Our shopping is delivered to the door if we wish. Our society can no longer function without technology, systems and organisations.

How these changes are made manifest within our profession is inevitably going to be a matter of debate. As cars get bigger, faster, shinier and can no longer be repaired with a hammer, it follows that hearses will do likewise and be a source of pride to their owners.

Corporate tactics, accounting policies, aggressive marketing and all the associated problems of that will be applied to any potentially profitable activity. Lets accept that funerals will not be excluded.

Ultra low cost funeral companies running on a shoe string, or out of love need to prove sustainability. Lets not forget the other areas around deaths that need resources. Whether in servicing coroners’ contracts, international repatriation, high profile / state funerals all of which need grit, determination, and a sufficient return on the necessary capital.

We all work hard in our own sphere. Let’s keep it up, do our best for the clients who find us, and relish the challenge which our profession hands to us on a plate.

How old school got to be old hat

I don’t know what undertakers think about while they’re queueing for the supermarket checkout, but if they have anything in common with 84% of the rest of the population they may be reflecting on how their shopping habits have changed since the recession.

Just how many of them go on to make a connection with the changing habits of funeral shoppers is unclear.

The big four supermarkets are getting on with the job of remodelling themselves in order to adapt to altered trading conditions. We’ve heard them yelp, we’ve watched their share price tumble, but they’ve not cried Unfair! They’re buckling down to hard task of winning back custom.

The budget stores Aldi and Lidl have done well out of the downturn. Today’s grocery shoppers are avid deal-seekers.

People now buy from an average of 4 different supermarkets a week. They want value. Brand loyalty has gone out of the window.

They’re using the internet a lot more, too.

They like to top up with artisan products from small suppliers at farmers’ markets. There’s closer identification with the little guy and a rejection of Big Corp. Tesco is shunned not just because it’s too expensive but also because it’s perceived to be antisocial. Today’s shoppers want values, as well as value.

For the very poor, there are food banks to tide them over.

Trading conditions in Funeralworld are far, far worse. The cost of funerals has risen faster than that of groceries. For the very poor, the Funeral Payment is a dwindling and inadequate contribution to the price of a funeral. There is presently no volunteer-led community initiative on a par with food banks to help them.

A nation of born-again deal-seekers has stimulated the rapid growth of new startups offering budget funerals. These Aldi undertakers have been able to build volume to compensate for smaller margins by undercutting the old-school undertakers by some distance. Their competitiveness has been enhanced by the strong vocational values of many of them, some of whom work for next to nothing.

On top of that there’s been the inexorable rise of direct cremation, the grocery equivalent of the food pill. A great many of those who opt for this cheapest-of-them-all alternative are those who could easily afford a high-end funeral. Whoops, there goes a tranche of big payers.

Funeral shoppers no longer want to buy a whole funeral in one shop. They want to assemble it from several suppliers and they use the internet to find them. If they can afford a coffin from an artisan maker, that’s the one they’ll buy.

There’s been no rejection of Big Corp yet because consumer awareness has not identified Dignity, Funeral Partners and Laurel Funerals for what they are, nor have they sussed Co-operative Funeralcare for what it manifestly isn’t. Such is the growth rate of consumer vigilance, it won’t be long.

It’s not all about price. It’s also about service culture — too big a topic to be more than alluded to here, but an important factor.

Above all, though, there’s a widespread and growing rejection of the ceremonial, processional funeral in favour of simpler and therefore cheaper funerals. Bereaved people increasingly want to create ‘meaningful experiences’ rather than put on a good show.

That a nation famed for the quality of its ceremonial events should be falling out of love with ceremonial funerals is curious, something we talk about here from time to time. Whether this is an evolutionary phenomenon or down to a failure to adapt to modern needs is open to debate. The upshot is that there are lots of ‘traditional’ undertakers out there with high overheads and a dwindling customer base.

The pressure on traditional funeral homes is very great just now, varying in intensity from area to area. The best are buckling down to adapting to altered trading conditions. Some now offer a budget range, just like Waitrose. Others are lashing out with impotent fury at the unfairness of it all. The GFG has been a target of some of these recently. It won’t do. The GFG doesn’t have the clout to start trends. All it can do is hold up a pitiless mirror to what’s going on.

The undertakers  who survive will be the ones with the intelligence and humanity to meet the needs, values and budgets of their clients. The rest will go to the wall, and, sorry, you’ll only have yourselves to blame. Even in the good times we had hundreds more funeral directors than we needed.

Free until the point of death

Stockmort

 

Click the letter and you’ll make it bigger and readable.

It’s from Angie Gunn, Mortuary Services Admin Co-ordinator at Stockport NHS Trust. It’s been sent to all local undertakers.

“From 1 Oct, once all paperwork regarding the release of a body has been received, you will be contacted by a member of the Mortuary staff to inform you that everything is ready and that you may collect. You will be required to collect by 1630 hours the next working day … Any delay in collection will now incur a charge of £25 per day … no exceptions … should this date be a Friday and you do not collect by 16.30 hours … you will be charged for Saturday and Sunday … Families who wish to view their loved one following receipt of all relevant release paperwork will be informed that they can no longer come to the mortuary and that they must contact their funeral director to facilitate this.”

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Give others a chance to help pay for child funerals

What an interesting debate that was, the one about whether undertakers and celebrants should charge for the funerals of children. A great many people followed it silently; the 25 comments represent a tiny fraction of the overall readership.

The debate was not conducted on a level of dispassionate logic, so neither side prevailed, but the heart-over-head faction had the greatest numerical support.

Lucy defined a rationale for charging: “I understand completely why other funeral directors on here wouldn’t charge, but if we applied the same emotional response to every family who walked through the door, we wouldn’t be in business for very long … people die in exceptionally tragic circumstances every day … why don’t they get a free funeral?” 

Gloria Mundi defined the heart-over-head position: “We can’t charge according to some personal tragedy-meter. Rationally, I can see no reason for not charging, but ‘the heart also has its reasons.’”

X Piry agreed: “On a logical level, I know that charging is the right thing to do, but it just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Any cool-headed rationalist will be driven potty by all this. If the parents of children who have died are worthy of financial help then, by the same measure, so too, surely, are those adults who, in Wendy Coulton’s words, “have become full time devoted carers of a relative who has been in their life for over 50 years. They are often living on the breadline because they gave up work to look after their loved one. Their loss is profound, not only for the person who has died but their own identity and sense of purpose. They have no concessions on funeral costs.

Why not? Because they don’t tug at the heartstrings in the same way, obviously. And what this inconsistency illustrates is that, while some causes are more glamorous than others, the less glamorous are no less deserving. This accounts for why, for example, Help for Heroes has raised a sum approaching £200 million for wounded servicemen, but charities who work with the disproportionate number of ex-servicemen who are in prison or sleeping rough struggle to raise anything at all. Research into breast cancer fundraises more effectively than prostate cancer. This is mostly down to relative anatomical attractiveness.

For all their robustness, rational arguments don’t win converts. It’s the way of the world. But let’s at least not kid ourselves: funeral poverty in the wider population is a cause of equal value.

Where we can probably agree is that what all parents of children who have died value more than anything else are the abstract qualities of compassion, kindness and support.

The same as for all bereaved people.

We can agree that these are not qualities most articulately or effectively expressed by knocking a bit off a bill. Yes?

But what some (not all) parents of children who have died also value is ‘concrete’ help with paying the bill.

As do lots of other bereaved people.

In the matter of children’s funerals there are almost certainly lots of people unconnected with the funerals business who would like to help.

The new Child Funeral Charity enables them to do this. Undertakers and celebrants can give them a chance to chip in by publicising it and sharing the load.

Anne Barber, trustee of the CFC, writes:

The charity will be giving financial help to families who cannot afford to pay for their child or baby’s funeral, referred to us by professionals who work with them, (probably including most of the readers of this blog!). The payments will start from October 1st. Not only payments, but access to suppliers who are prepared to help by giving their products and services at cost or free. We are working hard to fundraise and are optimistic that the families who we can help will be the ones who really do need the help.

We know that the Social Fund is meant to help those on benefits to pay for funerals but as yet they have declined to tell us how many funerals for those under 16 they actually pay anything towards. Not many, we suspect, we will persevere until we get some statistics. But let’s not re-open the Social Fund debate.

The families we believe we will help the most are those who might be in work but are young and on low incomes, some even teenagers themselves, with absolutely no savings or hope of paying for a funeral. Often family, especially grandparents step in, but often they can’t.

The costs they might have to pay, as so rightly already pointed out here, vary enormously and they won’t know that if they went to a different funeral director or a different crematorium it could be less. Some funeral directors we have spoken to do far more than give their professional services, they actually pay ALL the fees for the family, so families do not spend one penny.

Overall we have been overwhelmed by the support that is out there and that we have been encountered already. Health professionals have contacted us keen to use the service and we have had calls from those rejected by the Social Fund as they aren’t on the ‘right type’ of benefits.

Our challenge is to make sure that we help in cases of real need. We will do our very best.

Why do kids go free?

“We lost our son at 22 weeks … My husband and I were not religious so we had a small cremation. The funeral company did not charge us for the service. A humanist also held a short service for us and yet again there was no charge. I know money isn’t everything but it was so lovely to know this wasn’t an additional thing to have to worry about.” A mum on Mumsnet.

Commodification is when something done for nothing becomes something sold for money. The dead used to be cared for, free, by members of the community, whose work had no market value. It does now, though. It’s been commodified.

Bereaved people often find it hard to get their heads around this business of making money out of misery. Many undertakers aren’t entirely comfortable with their commercial function, either, which is why the word ‘service’ is so prominent in their vocabulary.

Presumably it’s also why hardly any of them charge for the funerals of children.

What does that say? It’s not as if the workload is any less. On the contrary, it’s likely to be far greater, both physically and emotionally. Sure, many parents are unprepared for the expense of arranging a funeral, but they’re not the only ones. Is it because the death of a child is particularly, poignantly tragic? Okay then, what about the death of a young bride on her honeymoon? What about suicides? Hit-and-run victims?

Is it that charging for adults is bad enough, but that charging for children would just be going too far? If that really is the message, it shows some undertakers to be very unconvinced commodifiers – as, indeed, some are. It’s why a few of them hardly charge enough to put food on their tables. They’d love to be able to wind the clock back and do it for nothing.

Some undertakers may feel like this, but not all. Offering free funerals for children is cynically reckoned by some to be an eyecatching loss-leader. It lends an aura of compassion to what is actually an act of ingratiation, because one child’s funeral earns you, what, three adult funerals? Someone in marketing, we may be sure, will have done the maths.

So: who pays? There’s no such thing as a free funeral, obviously. No, the funerals of babies and children are subsidised by either by the profits of the funerals of adults, or the marketing budget, or the undertaker. If the undertaker is taking a personal hit every time, I don’t know that I can think of a single good reason for that. Can you?

Celebrancy, too, is commodified. Some celebrants lead babies’ and children’s funerals for nothing, others don’t. Some don’t get to decide either way. A celebrant told me:

“I’ve come across a funeral directors’ manager saying she would never employ a celebrant again who charged money for a child’s ceremony. She still uses Interflora and all the rest who charge, doesn’t expect the local petrol station to fill the hearse for nothing and, as far as I know, she still keeps that part of her salary relevant to organizing the funeral. Are there double standards at work here?  It may be admirable if you want to decline payment, for anything at all and for whatever reason, but why would it be an expectation?”

Why indeed? Do doctors and nurses who treat children decline pay? Do the grief counsellors of bereaved parents waive their fee?

An undertaker told me:

“It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? Some parents appreciate the gesture, but I think that some parents don’t want ‘pity’, ‘charity’. They actually want their child to be ‘worth’ something like a ‘real person’ would be – they somehow feel the life is validated by paying for the funeral. One father said, ‘I’ll never walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, but I can give her the best funeral.’

“But then we run the danger of getting into the conspicuous spending loop, don’t we? If we do one for ‘free’ and they spend thousands on flowers… what do they think of us charging nothing? What are we saying by charging nothing – that we don’t want to be sullied by taking money associated with their child’s death? That there’s not so much work involved? That we feel that not charging somehow could help mitigate their loss?”

Getting the best you can afford

funeralchoice

 

When the GFG started blogging all of 6 years ago, an appalled and furious undertaker rang his solicitor and instructed him to take out an injunction requiring us to cease and desist.

The solicitor told him it didn’t quite work like that; had the GFG libelled him?

No we hadn’t. But we were doing something no one had ever done before. We were disturbing the peace, talking publicly about the funerals business on a blog, asking impertinent questions. New. Shocking. Damnable. We weren’t the national treasure back then that we are today.

It’s the internet wot done it, the greatest change agent that consumer advocacy has ever seen. It informs bereaved people and enables them to shop around. Are they all going to rush to the cheapest? Not all by any means, they’re going to buy the best they can for what they can afford. How many people use TripAdvisor to find the cheapest? Price is important of course; funeral shoppers are extremely sensitive to being ripped off. But what they’re looking for above all is value for money, and that means hunting down the best possible personal service available in their price bracket.

Ironically, that’s often one of the cheapest.

Reputation testifies to quality of service, which is why undertakers prize it so highly. But it’s not enough any more for them to rely on word-of-mouth because funeral shoppers can now research more effectively on the internet where customer reviews are reckoned more reliable than haphazard hearsay. They like to make their minds up for themselves, not rely on the heads-up of a neighbour or the testimonials on an undertaker’s website. Everyone has those, so they tell you nothing.

The internet is the new maker and breaker of reputations.

The best undertakers have nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing this. awlymn-logoAW Lymn publishes all essential information online, including prices. It also publishes, monthly, its client feedback. It is alone in doing this.

At present, the nationwide consumer reviews site is Funeral Advisor, funeral-advisor-logowhich is gaining traction not because it has a marketing budget of millions but because funeral shoppers need it to work and are therefore making it work. It is credible because it is sponsored by the National Death Centre. It doesn’t carry much info on prices, though.

Which is why there’s room in the market for a price comparison site and, as it happens, we now have one: FuneralChoice. I know the people behind it. They are everything you’d hope. FuneralChoice is a labour of love which hopes to find a way of becoming sustainable by proving its value.

FuneralChoice’s’s coverage is nowhere near national, but it’s spreading. I decided to look in London and typed in a postcode: SW1P 1SB. This is what I got. Click the pic to bring it up to full size.

funeralchoice2

Effective, isn’t it? I decided to go with Leverton’s. It’s not the cheapest, but look, it’s recommended by the Good Funeral Guide, which is notoriously hard to please. As for Evershed’s, the cheapest, I wonder if its clients love it? I can’t tell because FuneralChoice doesn’t enable client reviews and Evershed’s hasn’t asked us to accredit it. Shame, that.

You notice how Co-op Funeralcare and Dignity cluster at the most expensive end? It’ll be the death of them.

The ideal is a website which enables browsers to determine value by measuring price and other info against customer satisfaction — a capital-intensive instrument calling for big databases and complex software.

On the horizon there is RightChoice, a sophisticated instrument which is in the final stages of development. Definitely one to watch.

Does this spell the end for the GFG and NDC as consumer resources? Far from it. People buy a funeral far less frequently than they eat out, go on holiday and buy a car. Their knowledge of the market is close to zero. So there will always be a need for guidance by informed observers of the industry. Our knowledge and expertise are indispensable.

Our relationship with price comparison websites will be symbiotic. Our reviews of undertakers we recommend greatly enhance the info they carry. They in return publicise us and our recommended funeral directors.

It all helps put customers in the driving seat where they belong.

RightChoice

At last, another celebrant trainer

A flurry of forwarded emails flies into our inbox. “What do you think of this?!?” they all demand.

This?

The NFFD’s freshly launched celebrant training venture. The consensus is that it stinks.

What do we think? Well, let’s have a look.

The NFFD’s given reason for entering the celebrant training market is “growing demand”. Some will question whether, in a supersaturated market, there is any demand whatever. The answer is that market forces may confidently be relied upon to eliminate the less competent. There’s always room at the top.

What quality assurance can the NFFD offer? Selection for training is via “a telephone screening process”. The course, which seems not to be externally accredited, has been “Designed and developed in close conjunction with a number of industry experts” none of whom is named. The course is delivered at an intriguing venue, “our private church chapel” by “Rev Victor Johnson … an Ordained Priest of the Church of England” with “over 20 years’ experience conducting contemporary, civil-celebrant funeral ceremonies.”

The NFFD reckons that “funeral directors … are ideally placed to perform this valuable, satisfying, and lucrative, [celebrancy] role,” which sort of makes you wonder why they never thought of it before. The NFFD adds: “if public speaking isn’t for you, but you have a more confident driver, bearer, or other member of staff, why not give them an opportunity to develop their skills by enrolling them on the course instead?” Whoa, there’s one from out of left field.

The NFFD reckons “There’s rarely more than an hour or two’s work involved” in researching and writing a funeral ceremony. Our view is that if a celebrant were to use a laminated script on which he or she simply rubbed out an old name and wrote in a new one, that time could be halved. There are a lot of celebrants who reckon a bespoke funeral takes at least 10 hours to write but, let’s face it, they’re making a bit of a meal of it, aren’t they? You can’t be any good if you find it that difficult.

The NFFD is keen to help its celebrants to maximise their business. Projected earnings are given as “between £100 and £200 per hour,” a rate they describe as “incredibly lucrative”. Isn’t it, just? And if that isn’t enough, “You will also be invited to attend a one-day course FREE OF CHARGE to teach you how to supplement your income through the sale of pre-paid funeral plans. Given the environment that celebrants routinely work in, selling funeral plans is a brilliant way for you to easily generate an extra £500 – £1500 per week on top of your earnings as a straightforward celebrant.” There aren’t many vocations that make you this sort of dough.

The NFFD has made a name for itself as a creatively disruptive force in a highly conservative industry. It has certainly made feathers fly.

It has exposed itself to market forces and consumer scrutiny, which may be trusted, we think, to do their Darwinian work.

If you wish to comment, please be aware that the NFFD is retributive in the matter of libel.