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.

A very bad day at Age UK

Age UK (formerly Help the Aged) has issued a grovelling press release in the wake of the FSA investigation into HSBC and its subsidiary NHFA, which between 2005-10 missold bonds to cover long-term care costs. Clients, average age 83, were recommended to invest for 5 years — longer than they were expected to live. Under the circumstances, an ISA or a higher fixed interest rate savings account would have been a much better option. The FSA has fined HSBC £10.5 million, and NHFA is expected to foot a compensation bill for £29.3 million.

Says Age UK:

“Help the Aged had a relationship with the Nursing Home Fees Agency from 2003 until 2009 in which it acted as an introducer for the NHFA .  The NHFA also ran a care home fees advice line and offered an equity release product on behalf of Help the Aged.

“Help the Aged did not advise potential customers or have any input in investment decisions. The contract was reviewed as part of the Age UK merger process and it was decided to terminate the contract.

“NHFA were a major adviser in the area of funding care home fees and were trusted by many including Help the Aged. We are urgently reviewing the findings to see if today’s announcement affects Help the Aged customers and how we can help them access compensation from HSBC, NHFA’s parent company.”

The vulnerability of well-meaning charities to the blandishments of sociopath financial product salespeople is a matter of concern. Earlier this year Eulogy Magazine exposed an unhealthy relationship between Sue Ryder and King’s Court Trust – here

While it is still in the throes of repentant self-flagellation we express the earnest hope that Age UK will uncouple itself from Dignity funeral plans.

Age UK Funeral Plans
4 King Edwards Court
King Edwards Square
Sutton Coldfield,
West Midlands B73 6AP

Dignity Funerals Ltd,
4 King Edwards Court,
King Edward Square,
Sutton Coldfield,
West Midlands, B73 6AP

Are you in or out?

It’s not often that you see a funeral entrepreneur on Dragon’s Den, but last night’s show shone a brief spotlight on an enterprise which, in an industry unaccustomed to innovation, is likely to elicit responses ranging from ‘It’ll never work’ to ‘Tcha.’ Theo Paphitis ruled himself straight out, no messing. But it turns out that death spooks him.

It’s one of those online planning sites (you know, the ones that never make it) with a twist. It’s more than a just passive repository of funeral wishes. It’s also a service comparison website which enables consumers to find the funeral director who’ll give them what they want.

The idea is that you plan a funeral online (with plenty of help), and your plan is then sent anonymously to all funeral directors in a geographical radius set by you. The funeral directors respond with a quote and a pitch. They name a price and they also say why they think they are best for the job. They can link to their website and anything else that makes them look good – third-party endorsement, a video clip on YouTube, whatever. You then choose the funeral director who seems both nicest and best value, and from there on it’s face-to-face and personal. If it doesn’t work out, you go back to the website and choose someone else.

How does it pay for itself? This is the bit that funeral directors are going to hate. You buy a coffin from the website at a cheaper price than you are likely to be able to buy it from a funeral director. The website pockets the margin.

Want to know more? Go to the website and try it out for yourself. It’s called CompareTheCoffin.com. Yeah, yeah, what’s in a name?

Is it likely to catch on? Don’t ask me; I don’t have a business brain. But I’d hazard a guess it stands a good chance of establishing a niche. More and more people are shopping around for a funeral. CompareTheCoffin does all the legwork for them and still almost certainly enables them to make a saving. It seems to have something of the win-win about it, for best funeral directors, too – but, as I say, don’t ask me.

I must declare an interest, though. When the originator of CompareTheCoffin, Steven Mitchell, approached me at the conception stage and asked me to write some text for his website, I did some drilling down, not in a Paphitis way, but into the ethics of it. I satisfied myself that, yes, this is an ethical business idea, Steven is a good guy, as is his web developer Akmal (this is a rare partnership between a Jew and a Moslem), and I set about earning a few meagre pence as a day labourer.

Whether or not CompareTheCoffin is a runner is something you are in a far better position to judge.

After last night’s show the CompareTheCoffin website came under what looked like sustained cyber-attack, which may perhaps be rated flattery. If it’s back up after its drubbing you can find it here. Catch the Dragon’s Den show here