Where trust is not enough

The recent news about the police investigations at a funeral directors in Hull should rightly concern all of us.

The care of those who have died is a sacred task, one that is usually entrusted to funeral staff when we employ a funeral director to help with organising a funeral.  

We assume that our relatives will be cared for and respected in death, just as they were in life, so to read that this trust may have been betrayed by someone working in the funeral sector is shocking. 

For the many people who are now anxiously waiting for news from the police, the worry that their relative may not have received that care must be devastating. More than a thousand calls have been received at the dedicated helpline set up by Humberside Police for anyone worried about the situation at Legacy Independent Funeral Directors.

Others may now be wondering about the care that their relative received when they were with a funeral director, an uncertainty that would probably have never arisen if this story were not in the news at the moment. 

We know that the vast majority of funeral directors take their role very seriously and treat the people they are caring for with the utmost respect. However, it is crucial you engage a funeral director that you feel comfortable with and trust, and you have every right to ask questions before committing yourself to employing a particular company.  

All good funeral directors will be more than happy to show prospective clients whereabouts their relative will be cared for, and to answer any questions you might have.

You may need to make an appointment to visit the mortuary, but as the person paying for the services of a funeral director, you have every right to ask to see where your person’s body will be while they are in the care of the company you are considering employing. 

You can also ask to see the company’s cremated remains policy, and to ask to be shown the procedures they have in place to ensure that the correct cremated remains are returned to the client following a cremation. 

All good funeral directors will understand just how worrying the current investigations are and will do their best to reassure you that they have watertight procedures in place, and that they and all their staff follow best practice.

If your request to see the mortuary is refused, or if your insistence on reassurance about procedures is met with resistance, then we would recommend changing funeral directors. 

Remember, you are the client, the person who has died is precious to you, and you have to have complete trust that your person is in safe hands.

If you are considering using a direct cremation company,  then these checks will be more difficult, if not impossible to carry out. This is one of the reasons that we only encourage direct cremation carried out by a funeral director who has premises that you can visit, and people that will sit with you and answer any questions you might have.

Almost every funeral director that is Recommended by the Good Funeral Guide will happily show you their mortuary space. One or two feel strongly that the people they are looking after deserve complete privacy, and therefore access to their cold room is restricted to times when they do not have anyone in their care. They will be completely open with you about this if this is the case.

All our Recommended funeral directors will answer any questions that you might have about their processes, procedures and the way that they look after the people in their care.

The Humberside Police direct line for anyone worried about the situation at Legacy Independent Funeral Directors is 0800 051 4674

Our Direct it Yourself Green Funeral

From time to time, we publish guest blogs, and today we are delighted to share this beautiful account by Kirsty O’Leary-Leeson who writes movingly about her personal experience organising a funeral for her mum.

“I am writing this because we shouldn’t be scared of organising funerals; we all go away in the end. I believe that a DIY or Direct it Yourself burial is far simpler than people think and should be encouraged where possible. It wasn’t emotionally easy, but then the death of a loved one never shall be, but I am extraordinarily proud of what my brother and I did for our mum.

In July 2016 my mum was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer called Multiple Myeloma. It was hoped that with chemotherapy she would have a bit more time. It was not to be and in the early hours of 18th August 2016, my beautiful mum passed away, myself and my brother Simon with her. 

Mum had discussed with me whether to buy a burial plot a couple of years before and I had just laughed and told her to save the money, after all, what if she was lost at sea or blew up in a tragic plane accident, and there was no body to bury!  She had worried about the cost of a funeral, and we had laughingly reassured her that we would just shove her in the back of our people carrier and wouldn’t spend a lot.

As a family we were not scared of discussing death, and approached it with a sense of humour. This helped my brother and I when it came to having to organising an unplanned funeral, as Mum had actually left her body to medical science, not really because science meant a lot to her but so that her small, but hard-earned savings could go to her family and not into burying a body.  However, because of the chemo, mum’s body could not be accepted by our local teaching hospital.

Mum was a bit of a hippy, very spiritual but not religious and we knew she had looked into a green burial site called Nar Valley, in Pentney Kings Lynn, about an hour’s drive away from us. We went and had a look, and it was a peaceful meadow abutting the graveyard of the local church, and we decided that it would be a nice place for mum to lay her bones. 

I had looked into funerals and was shocked at how expensive it all was, particularly how much funeral directors charged and for what? We obviously had to pay for the burial site, but we could save almost £300 by digging the grave ourselves, however we decided that probably by the time we got up to our knees we would be seriously regretting it and decided instead to pay the charge.  We booked it for 31st August, mum’s birthday and two days before her eldest grandaughter left to go travelling in Australia. This didn’t give us much time.

I bought a white cardboard coffin from Ebay, several hundred pounds cheaper than from any website. (It came through the post in another large cardboard box and it said what it was on the outside – must have given the local courier service something to discuss). I am an artist and I began to decorate it in pastel landscapes. I also printed lots of photos of the family and glued them around the edges, plus I asked family and friends to send me cards and poems that were also added. It looked beautiful.

Whilst preparing all this mum’s body remained at the hospital mortuary, this is fine with the hospital and doesn’t cost anything, my brother simply phoned them to organise the day and time of collection and they were happy to wrap/clothe her and put her in the coffin. You just need to take the death certificate with you, and it is considered polite to offer the staff a small thankyou gift. We decided to transport mum from the mortuary to the burial site in a beautiful VW camper van. Mum was a real gypsy at heart and there was no way I was going to put her in a depressing black hearse. I found a local chap on gumtree who hired one out for celebrations and he was very understanding and helpful. My brother collected it the night before, came over to me and picked up the coffin, then the day of the funeral he drove it to the mortuary, picked mum up and drove her to Pentney. The camper van was perfect because the back opened up and the coffin could be easily slid in and out. The curtains could also be pulled closed whilst driving, as apparently you can drive a dead body around quite legally but it shouldn’t be on show. The van had bunting and flowers decorating it, and music could be played on the sound system, so it was very jolly.

At the burial site the camper van drove up close to the grave and family members moved the coffin from the van. It was placed on wooden batons that went over the grave.

Garden chairs were put out at the burial site, and there were no formal flower tributes, I had sent out a request for garden and wild flower posies instead. We were blessed by beautiful weather and the flowers were placed in decorated jars which attracted butterflies.

People began to arrive, and time was spent looking at all the pictures and photos on the coffin. When everyone had arrived we began our little service. I had contacted all the family members, and they could either say something themselves on the day, or send me a poem or some words that they would like to have read out on their behalf. I typed these up into an order of service for my husband Jamie and my sister in law’s father, Trevor, who were both officiating. They read out the welcome that my brother wrote, we had a couple of minutes silence and then I read out my own tribute – I struggled a bit but it meant a lot to do it myself (that’s why I put myself first). Then my brother read out his chosen poem, Jamie and Trevor took it in turns to read out the rest of the poems. My daughter Adara attempted to read hers, but she only got a short way through, so another family member took over, because it was quite informal and relaxed this happened quite naturally. There were no strict timings like you have at churches or crematoriums, we did everything in our own time.

At the end we played a song she had mentioned to my sister in law that she would like, Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ we all laughed and jigged around a bit, and just as it finished four jets flew over in formation, another two had flown over just as we started the service – ok so I can’t promise that this will happen if you DIY a funeral but everything about the day was beautiful and wonderful and although there was sadness and tears I can only think of mum’s burial as a lovely thing.

We decided not to lower the coffin ourselves, we didn’t want to risk it turning into a 70′s BBC farce, we weren’t going to do the throwing in the dirt thing anyway and we thought it would be difficult for the children to see, and so we left the coffin where it was. The lady who owned the burial site had arranged for it to be lowered and filled in within 15 mins or so of our leaving.

We all went off and had a picnic, no getting maudlin at a pub, instead it was fizzy drinks, cups of tea and vegetarian sausage rolls. It was a beautiful day for a beautiful soul.

Over 7 years later, friends and family still talk about it being the most wonderful send-off. Far less of an endurance task than a formal funeral where you are told where to go and what to do and which I have found to be very stressful. It was great not to have any strangers involved, no matter how nice funeral director’s staff are, they are simply doing a job.

I personally have asked to have a ‘direct to cremation’ so no coffins just a celebration at the point of scattering the ashes, however, if any of my four children feel the need to take my body to the crematorium in a decorated cardboard coffin at least they know how to do it.”

Kirsty O-Leary-Leeson

The GFG goes international (part 2)

Whilst my fellow directors were attending and leading workshops at the Good Death Festival in the Czech Republic I was off on an adventure of my own – a spur of the moment life’s too short trip to Vietnam but of course I couldn’t quite resist having a little look at how death is done there. 

It’s estimated that some 75% of the population follow what’s called a Vietnamese folk religion. It’s not an organised structure as such, more a set of local worship traditions and family rituals and influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and no doubt by the many world invaders and colonisers Vietnam has endured in its history. 

Traditional funerals can last for anything from one to three days or more. Browsing through a local market in Hoi An we came across the start of a funeral procession so we stopped to observe and pay our respects. Asking a neighbour how long the procession would last we were told about nine hours so we bid our farewells and carried on shopping. 

Our visit to the Imperial City in Hue, palace of one of the thirteen emperors that once ruled the country, coincided with the annual ritual to commemorate the death of one of the of the emperors, culminating in the ceremonial burning of the emperors clothes and shoes to aid his journey to the next world.

For ordinary folk more cemetery space is needed, especially for those who don’t have easy access to the town and city cemetery, so small burial sites are beginning to be seen, and you may see headstones in gardens or randomly placed in rice and vegetable fields where people are tilling the land around them.

In Hanoi we visited the huge mausoleum where the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh can be viewed. As Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and President until his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh lived as simply as he could, choosing not to reside in the Presidential Palace, but in a specially built stilt-house in the grounds. He left instructions for his body to be cremated and his ashes spread to North, Central, and South Vietnam, but government officials decided it was to be embalmed instead. 

So we may well leave our wishes clearly recorded, music chosen, dress code requested, resting place carefully considered, family members to be – or not be – invited, it doesn’t mean those we leave behind are going to take any notice. Our funerals may well be about us, but they’re for we leave behind.

Lonely Funerals: Compassionate Verses

It’s been a while since we posted on the GFG Blog, but this weekend, we heard about a project in Scotland that is too important not to share with our readers.

Michael Hannah is an independent funeral celebrant based in Dundee. He has generously written this guest post for us.

For many of us, the idea of a good funeral evokes images of a packed crematorium or a crowded graveside. Of course the readers of this blog are likely to have considered more deeply than most, exactly what constitutes a “good funeral”. But our ideas will usually involve people – friends and family gathering together to mourn, honour and celebrate a life. 

Sadly, this ideal is not always realized; some of us will die alone, and for a small minority, no-one turns up for that final send-off. As a celebrant, I quickly came to recognize the sharp poignancy of the sparsely attended ceremony, the “nearly lonely” funeral.

Then, as a student on Glasgow University’s End of Life studies MSc, I read about a Lonely Funeral project in the Netherlands. This began in 2001, when the poet Bart Droog started to attend these sad events to which no-one else came. He honoured them with poems inspired by whatever biographical details existed. Poetry is well suited to creating stories out of fragments – a photograph, a passport, a police report. 

The idea spread and now operates in several Dutch and Belgian cities. An anthology of the poems and back stories has been published. These stories offer insights into how people arrive at such a lonely end to their life – social isolation through ageing, mental health issues, homelessness, marginalization.

Such issues are hardly unique to the Netherlands, so I wondered if similar initiatives existed in Scotland and the UK. It seemed not, though everyone I spoke to about the project told me what a beautiful and moving idea it was.

And then I met a local poet, Andy Jackson, who already knew about the project, having heard one of the Dutch founders speak at a festival in St Andrews. Together we decided to invest a little more energy and organization into the idea, and in November last year, held an event as part of the To Absent Friends storytelling festival. That provoked a lot of media interest – locally and nationally – and created a sense of momentum.

Projects like this take their time to develop though – there are sensitivities to be negotiated, and trust to be built with potential local gatekeepers and champions. But early in May we conducted what we think is the first Lonely Funeral to be held in Scotland. A quiet, sad but dignified moment in a cemetery on the outskirts of Dundee. The gleaming black hearse pulled up at the grave, the funeral directors and cemetery staff lowered the coffin, Andy read the poem he’d written in just two days from the little that was known, I stood a little way back with the case worker from social services. Afterwards, we chatted for a little while and then all drifted off. Back at his desk, Andy posted a report for Lapidus Scotland, the organization that has been supporting this project.

In time, the grass will grow back and the grave will lie unmarked. A few days after the funeral, as we chatted about how it had gone, Andy remarked on the sadness of that lonely patch of grass but said that at least the poem would serve as a headstone. Yes, Andy, and what a headstone!


Inghels, M. & Starik, F., 2018. The Lonely Funeral: Poets at the gravesides of the forgotten. Todmorden: Arc Publications. [English translation]

The Poem

For Derek

I step into the boxroom of your life,
tiptoe round the shrouded furniture,
shapeless islands on the exposed floor.

Who lived in this room, and what kind of light
fell through its window before the fixtures
and fittings of time could bear no more?

I cannot know, and yet am drawn to the walls,
sandwiched with paper and emulsion,
layer on layer, overlain with eggshell years.

I tug at a peeling edge and pull, and a small
corner tears away in my hand. I imagine
you with your brush and bright paint, here

in the midst of what you were, applying
primer, undercoat, topcoat, glossing
and touching up, each coat a moment

preserved: maybe damage you were trying
to make good, or faith in the face of closing
doors, working the quiet job with devotion.

Here are the patterns of a family, of love
built up but somehow broken. Below
is the lining paper of a childhood, too dark

to be a colour. Below that, I cannot look,
and so I will put away my pen and go
from this room, empty now as a stilled heart.

Let these words know a painter’s touch,
and their simple strokes be just enough
to show the world the keenness of your brush.

Andy Jackson, May 2023

What to wear to a funeral

Recent photographs of the former President Trump and his family solemnly lining the steps of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City, watching Ivana Trump’s $125,000 ‘golden hued casket’ as it was carried to the waiting hearse offer us absolute visual confirmation of what the Western world deems to be appropriate ‘attire’ at a funeral. 

It’s not clear whether the wall-to-wall sea of black and navy suits looked quite so appropriate as Ivana’s casket was lowered into the solitary grave by the first tee at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club, apparently endowing Trump with a ‘huge tax break’ by effectively turning the golf club into a cemetery in the process. 

Anyway. We were recently struck by the advice offered by the big players in the UK funeral sector telling people what they should wear to a funeral. On their websites. With what appears to be all due solemnity. As if there’s a public service being offered by guiding people towards an important social imperative of funeral etiquette. 

Firstly, we wondered exactly who would be looking to the likes of Dignity FuneralsCo-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Partners for guidance?

Check with the family of the person who has died, by all means. If the family want a particular dress code or theme to a funeral, then you can be sure that this will be communicated to guests. If in doubt, ask a family member, or the celebrant, or the funeral arranger involved. It is, we would suggest, unlikely that many people would log on to a corporate funeral director’s website for advice.

There can’t be many adults in the country who aren’t able to decide for themselves what to wear to any given event, and goodness knows there are enough examples of funerals on TV, on the news, in films – and just in general life – to indicate what people at funerals usually wear. For the big players to bestow their learned advice on the public seems both paternalistic and patronising, and, we would suggest, not a little self-interested. 

There is a vested interest for the largest funeral companies to ensure that in 2022, funerals continue to look the same as they did in 1922; the big black shiny cars, the outdated Victorian garb of the funeral director complete with hat and waistcoat identifiable as the master of ceremonies, the sombre men in black jackets and grey striped trousers silently shouldering a coffin bedecked with a ‘floral tribute’ – and assembled ranks of mourners in black clothing completing this picture of how a funeral ‘should’ look.

For some families, a traditional look to a funeral is absolutely what they want, and we are not in any way criticising this. There are all sorts of reasons for preference at a funeral, we just don’t think that funeral directors’ guides to etiquette should be arbiters of taste. That’s the role for the family involved.

For other families, all that is needed is an awareness that there is no right or wrong – freed from the expectations of others, many people might choose a very different look to the funeral ceremony they are organising. A good funeral director will support and encourage this, but unfortunately, many families who have engaged a funeral company that is part of a large chain might not experience a similar freedom.

The big players in the funeral industry aren’t interested in creativity or self-expression at a funeral. A funeral conductor with a colourful pocket handkerchief or bearers in different colour ties or the offer of an ‘alternative hearse’ – this is about the extent of what the large corporates can offer clients, while everything else slots in to ‘service as usual’.

Guests might be invited to wear something colourful if the person who died had a favourite colour, but for the vast, vast majority of funerals there appears to still be an expectation that mourners will arrive wearing traditional ‘respectful’ formal black clothes. And while this might be a cultural norm for some, and very much expected in some communities, in an increasingly secular society, changes are happening.

Secondly, the advice from the big players in funeralworld reads as if they have all tried to edit and individualise a single original archaic document. 

Dignity Funerals sternly admonish: 

“Do not wear any of the following to a funeral:

  • Revealing or suggestive clothing
  • Trainers or flip flops
  • Printed t-shirts
  • Jeans
  • Caps
  • Colourful ties
  • Excessive amounts of jewellery”

Co-operative Funeralcare are a little more generous but have similar warnings:

“If the family have requested bright colours or a particular theme, then of course this is fine, but in most cases it’s best to avoid:

  • Jeans
  • Short sleeved shirts
  • Revealing clothing
  • Flip flops or trainers
  • Football shirts/sportswear
  • Caps
  • T shirts
  • Clothing with logos or branding
  • Flashy jewellery”

Funeral Partners are more subtle, including detailed advice for women, men, children and toddlers (!) in a heavily loaded piece with lots of emphasis on ‘smart’ and recommendations to avoid ‘jeans, revealing clothing, flashy jewellery and hats’ (for women), and ‘jeans, short-sleeved shirts, trainers and caps/beanies’ for men.

It seems that the three main funeral providers in the UK are united in their approach to ensuring that gatherings of mourners at funerals are all dressed ‘appropriately’ by issuing their opinions so strongly:

Don’t, whatever you do, wear jeans to a funeral. Or a cap. Or the peculiarly judged ‘flashy jewellery’. Presumably, according to this guidance, if you were foolish or rebellious enough to do so, something terrible would happen. Everyone would know you were deliberately showing ‘disrespect’ to the person who has died, or their family. You would upset someone. You’d be shown up for the social outcast you obviously are. Didn’t you read the guide to funeral etiquette on the funeral director’s helpful website? Don’t you understand what is APPROPRIATE??? 

The funeral companies sprinkle references to what is ‘appropriate’ throughout their ‘what to wear’ guides, ladling on a heavy sense of obligation to get it right. We would respectfully ask, who gets to decide what is appropriate or not? Ever? Definitely not the people dressed up like Goth tribute acts with top hats, fob watches and canes, or their colleagues who sit in their ‘funeral homes’ ‘attired’ like bank clerks under the company uniform code enforced by their managers.

We view these guides with a similar level of weariness as we have for the stock photos of funerals regularly used to illustrate press articles – they’re just out of date and irrelevant. And unnecessary. They serve only to shore up the funeral directors’ over inflated sense of their own importance, setting themselves as the advice-bestowing arbiters of taste. 

They reflect funerals as they were, not how they are. They don’t reflect the changing face of funerals, the diversity of our society, the emergence of awareness that funerals are whatever people want them to be. The begrudging references to ‘it’s best to check the wishes of the bereaved family’ heavily imply that anything other than following the etiquette outlined is an aberration, an exception to the traditional rules, which are so much more comfortable and preferable, so much more ‘appropriate’. 

And infuriatingly, as well as being outdated, these guides are poorly written and pompous in tone – see some examples below: 

“If you are unsure of what to wear, it’s important to be respectful to the deceased.”  (what does this even mean??)

“By wearing casual clothes, you could be unintentionally sending the message that you don’t care about the person who has died” 

“Black clothing isn’t always compulsory for women but it is best to wear a dark coloured skirt, dress or pair of trousers”.

The Funeral Partners website is the only one of the three to acknowledge that some cultures differ in what people are expected to wear to a funeral, noting that wearing black is not considered appropriate (there’s that word again) at a Hindu funeral or a Sikh funeral. 

Whoever wrote this particular piece then goes on to helpfully describe ‘some other popular colours worn worldwide’, telling us that ‘in South Africa, red is sometimes worn as a colour of mourning’, that in Thailand ‘purple represents sorrow and is often worn by widows during the mourning period’ and, perhaps the most irrelevant inclusion, ‘in Papua New Guinea a widow applies a stone-coloured clay to their skin while mourning their husband.’  All very interesting, but of absolutely no help to a reader wondering whether they are ok to wear their navy suit to go to their neighbour’s funeral in Clacton. It’s almost as if someone got overexcited and embellished their boring ‘wear black to a funeral’ article with some gems from Wikipedia. 

We think that it’s ridiculous, in this day and age, to be telling people what ‘etiquette’ dictates that they should be wearing to any event. ‘Etiquette’ is defined as ‘the social set of rules that control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations’ – an invisible ‘code of conduct’ that serves to ensure people feel either part of a group or an excluded other who doesn’t conform. 

Etiquette is associated with the constructs of the British social class system, the status hierarchy of the ‘genteel’ upper classes and the ‘coarse’ lower classes, reflecting and encapsulating the conventional norms of the former. In the mid 18th century, the adoption of etiquette was a self-conscious process for acquiring the conventions of politeness and the normative behaviours (charm, manners, demeanour) which symbolically identified the person as a genteel member of the upper class.

In order to identify with the social élite, the upwardly mobile middle class and the bourgeoisie adopted the behaviours and the artistic preferences of the upper class. To that end, socially ambitious people of the middle classes occupied themselves with learning, knowing, and practising the rules of social etiquette, adopting mannerisms, vocabulary – and dress. This is where the roots of the bizarre ‘Guides to Funeral Etiquette’ originate from.

We would suggest that, almost 300 years on, as British society undergoes enormous change and adaptation, embracing diversity and difference, as the control of the church diminishes and the deference to the social constructs of the upper class fades away, there is no place for out-dated aping of the manners and foibles of the richest in society. 

Funerals of the rich and famous follow a set pattern, based on historic traditions and expected patterns, and these serve to reinforce the unspoken class system we all live amidst. Harking back to Victorian foppery in the spectacle of the public display of mourning serves nobody well. Apart from the companies who have invested millions of pounds in providing the foppery props, of course. 

Wear what you like to a funeral. It’s your presence that matters, not whether you are wearing jeans and flipflops and your flashiest jewellery rather than deepest black crepe and a veil. The person who has died won’t care. And if you meant something to that person, then their family won’t care either. They’ll just be glad to have you there. 

Also, you might have a small sense of satisfaction at not being dressed like a member of the Trump family. 

Funeral experts by experience

Every now and then the GFG gets an invitation that it can’t turn down.

Being invited to be involved in a research project exploring what matters to people when it comes to funerals was just such an invitation. We were delighted to help in a very small way, and it has been a privilege to be part of the research project advisory committee.

Today, the findings of this extraordinarily important research are published.

We will be proud to be sitting alongside Dr. Julie Rugg and Dr. Sarah Jones when their findings are presented to the ICCM conference this afternoon.

Read the full report here

The campaign is underway

This has popped up on social media by the main funeral directing trade association, the NAFD. (That’s the one that the big, powerful corporates all belong to, not the other one that represents independent funeral directors, for anyone unfamiliar with the world of funerals).

Well, well, well. It was only a matter of time.

There must have been a lot of meetings of important men in suits trying to work out what to do about a tricky problem, as outlined by Dignity CEO Mick McCollum back in early 2018. 

A report from CityWire warned, “Shares in the business are down 60% since early November, when boss Mike McCollum warned of increasing competition in the funeral space.

In this morning’s statement, Dignity said that over the last 18 months it had ‘consistently alerted the investment community as to the increasingly competitive environment in which it operates’.

‘Customers are increasingly price-conscious and in an over-supplied industry, are shopping around more,’ it said.

Increasing competition. Like that’s a bad thing in a sector dominated by three huge companies built by buying up small independent businesses and industrialising what should never have been industrialised?

Oh, sorry, the increased competition means less market share for those men in suits and the shareholders that they serve.

And so here’s their solution. More of the smoke and mirrors, as so eloquently described by a GFG Blog reader here.

Dignity PLC, (whose management are so concerned about the state of the funeral industry that they and their spouses managed to offload millions of pounds of shares just before the value plummeted by half – see here) are the new nice guys in town.

They had a go last year and we didn’t pick it up – we don’t read the Daily Mail here at GFG Towers, but there was this swipe at ‘cowboy funeral directors’ s when they put out one of the expensive reports they publish every now and then to reassure their shareholders.

We did note that ‘The key message of Dignity being the saviour of standards in the funeral industry has been planted‘ in our blog post here last summer.

But we’ve been quite busy with other stuff, so we perhaps haven’t kept as close an eye on this Transformation Plan as we should have done.

“Ask us anything”, says Andrew Judd of Dignity, in his shirt sleeves, looking super friendly. If you really want to watch it, the YouTube link is here.

OK Andrew, here are a few questions, starting off with one we still don’t know the answer to:

Why do branches of Dignity funerals within just a few miles of each other charge such different prices for exactly the same services? (Refresh your memory here about how two different communities in London appear to be charged very differing prices by two Dignity branches trading under their original names.)

And for anyone struggling to know what questions might elicit really useful information from any funeral director, here are a few that you might want to ask before parting with your money:

Who owns this business? Is it still owned by the family whose name is over the door?

Who will be looking after us and assisting with the funeral arrangements? Will it be the same person throughout? Will they come to the ceremony with us?

Who will be looking after the person who has died? Can I meet them before engaging you?

Where will the person who has died be looked after? Can I have a look at the mortuary by appointment?

Can we come and help get our relative ready for the funeral? Can we wash and dress them ourselves? Will they stay here on these premises?

Can we come and visit them whenever we want? 

Can we look after them at home and just use your expertise for advice? How much would that cost?

Can we supply our own coffin? Is there an additional charge for this? If so, how much?

Can we arrange our own transport for the coffin? Is there a charge for this? If so, how much? And why?

Can we carry the coffin ourselves? Are the costs reduced if we don’t need your staff to carry the coffin at the funeral? If so, by how much? If not, why not?

Am sure we could think of more, but please add your thoughts in the comments – got to dash this morning.


Funeral Markets Study – research findings

Last week, the Competition and Markets Authority published the findings of the consumer research undertaken as part of their Funeral Markets Study.

It makes interesting reading.

The research was commissioned from Research Works and Ipsos MORI as part of the attempt to understand the behaviour, experiences and decision-making of people who had recently engaged the services of a funeral director.

We read through all the findings and felt that there were some important points that should be highlighted. We quote directly from the research:

‘Levels of knowledge of the funerals marketplace were generally very low in this sample. Consumer knowledge about how to arrange a funeral was broad and relatively vague, but finding out more did not appeal, other than finding a funeral director to take on the task of making the arrangements when required.’

‘When they first started thinking about the funeral arrangements, most respondents thought that funerals were expensive.’

‘Broadly, the expense of funerals was accepted and not scrutinised at the point of need, as long as it fit with respondents’ ‘ballpark’ estimates. However, reflecting back on the funerals they organised, a small group of respondents questioned why funerals were so expensive and to what extent this cost was justified.’

‘Most respondents did not compare two or more funeral directors to help them decide which funeral director to use.’

‘… a large group of respondents felt under time pressure to organise the funeral as quickly as possible, minimising the time or will they had for comparing funeral directors. A large group also reported emotional distress as one of the factors for not shopping around, as they felt that would have added more burden at an already difficult time. The research also found that cultural sensitivities around funerals may make some uncomfortable to shop around based on price, as this may be perceived in negative terms (e.g. as putting a ‘price tag’ on the deceased or not caring enough for them).’

There’s lots more to read if you want a more detailed understanding of the findings of the research, but on the whole, it appears that:

Most people don’t want to think about arranging a funeral until they must.

Most people expect funerals to be expensive (well done life insurance companies and funeral plan providers, the media regurgitation of the astronomical figures attributed to the cost of dying and all those relentless adverts on day time TV seem to be working well…).

Most people don’t challenge the funeral cost that they are presented with.

Most people don’t compare two or more funeral directors before engaging one.

Most people are unaware that there can be considerable variations in the prices charged by different funeral directors.

Most people are unaware of ways in which funeral costs can be managed or reduced.

Many people feel pressurised to organise a funeral quickly.

All respondents wanted a local funeral director.

Most people would not change the funeral director once they had chosen them, even if problems arose in the service they received.

Pretty much what we at the GFG have been saying for years.

There’s little appetite among the public to think about funerals in detail, funerals are expected to be costly and the idea of shopping around between funeral directors is viewed as something rather not nice.

Bereaved people on the whole are uninformed, unwilling or unable to become informed for a multitude of reasons – and, even for those who want to be, unable to easily find the information that would enable them to be better informed.

We expect that when the CMA publishes its final report later this year, these findings will form part of the conclusions, and will add weight to the growing momentum towards some form of regulation of the funeral industry.

The conclusions of the CMA research are re-printed below:

“The research suggests that the funerals market does not seem to work as well as it might when:

Consumers lack experience of arranging funerals. Those with experience of arranging funerals are much more likely to scrutinise how many services they ask the funeral director to provide, and the cost of individual elements, as well as overall cost levels.

The funeral is being paid for from the deceased’s estate and they have specified their wishes. The person arranging the funeral may not perceive themselves as ‘owning’ the purchase, so their main concern is with ensuring the deceased’s wishes are followed and they are not as motivated to scrutinise the cost.

Consumers feel under pressure to move the deceased person’s body from the place where they have died (e.g. their home, care home) and subsequently make a decision about a funeral director very quickly, typically based on very little information about funeral directors available in an area.

Consumers attempt to find cost information online. There is a perceived lack of cost information available on funeral director websites and consumers appear unlikely to use other sources of information (such as price comparison websites).

Consumers are located in a rural environment, where the choice of local funeral director is assumed and prices are not discussed until after the event.”

Both funeral industry trade associations also published their responses to the research last week – the National Association of Funeral Directors welcomed the results of the research in a press release here. (It’s an impressive exercise in skimming over issues raised by the research, focusing approvingly instead on the points that people ‘overwhelmingly want to follow the wishes of the person who died’, and that funeral directors were chosen on ‘locality and previous experience’.)

A more considered and comprehensive response from the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors acknowledged some of the concerns raised by the findings and highlighted two issues in particular: the CMA’s claim that trade associations do not offer consumer protection and concerns over transparency of ownership.

The environmental cost of a funeral

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5’C

As policy makers and news editors across the world digested the implications of the findings and the stark warning that doing nothing is not an option if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world with coral reefs and sea ice, at GFG Towers this got us wondering how we could do our bit (apart from cutting back on the Kobe beef suppers and trips to the corner shop in the Bentley).

And we thought perhaps exploring the impact that our western choices of funeral styles and goods have on the environment might be a good start.

Here are some facts.

In 2017, 607,037 people died in the United Kingdom and of these, 467,748 were cremated.

This represents 77.05% of all deaths (in comparison with 1960, when 204,019 people  or just 34% of all those who died were cremated)*

*Figures obtained from the Cremation Society of Great Britain Pharos International UK Cremation Statistics issue.

Now for the more intricate bit. The effect of the funeral choices for these 607,037 people on our environment.

This is surprisingly hard to find accurate, up to date and unbiased information about. There are lots of quoted figures for the environmental impact of different choices, but it’s extraordinarily hard to substantiate any of them. It also makes sense to try and find out where the figures originally came from, and consequently, who paid for the research. There are very vested interests in this area.

All this following-of-links is time consuming and frustrating, so we’ve just cited the sources of the information below. And we gave up trying to establish the carbon cost of funerals, it would just be guesswork on minimal accurate information, and a variable way of measuring. But suffice it to say that there is a cost. A significant one. Funerals require a lot of energy to create the way we currently do them. And the need to dispose of our dead isn’t something that is going to go away.

Currently, more than three quarters of people who die in the UK are cremated. So we’ve focused on this.

Cremation – or the incineration of the bodies of those who have died (although incineration is frowned on as a term by the sector, it has ugly historical / industrial connotations) – is clearly not a good thing for the environment.

We’ll try to explain why, but a warning – it quickly gets complicated and the sentences get longer and longer.

The average weight of a middle aged British adult is 70kg for a woman, 83.6kg for a man. Source: ONS

The average weight of the cremated remains handed back to a family after the cremation has taken place is roughly 3.5% of the weight of the person who died. Source: Cremation Institute 

Approximately 60% of the human body weight is water – Source: US Geological Survey’s Water Science School 

So, by our amateur calculations, after allowing for the percentages of weight of water content and the ‘cremains’ returned following cremation, there’s a conservative third of a person – or around 20kg – that has disappeared in the combustion process.

Is that right? If so, even allowing for the fancy filtration equipment capturing the nastier elements en route, that’s a whole lot of potential emissions going through the flues and up the crematorium chimney stack. Per person. Multiplied by 467,748 in 2017.

DEFRA offered some Statutory Guidance for Crematoria in 2012 – below is an extract from those guidelines, listing some of the potential pollutants from the cremation process and the techniques to control them:

Techniques to control emissions from contained sources

Particulate matter(PM)

Particulate matter in unabated cremators is controlled by good combustion and by gas flows that do not carry particles out of the cremator. Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of particulate matter.

Hydrogen chloride

Hydrogen chloride mostly arises from the salt content of bodies. Chlorine should be avoided by careful control of coffin materials, contents, shrouds, clothing and items other than the body itself. Condensation is prevented by dilution and preheating stacks. Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of hydrogen chloride.


Mercury is highly volatile and therefore almost exclusively passes into the flue-gas stream. Mercury is only partially removed with particulate matter. The rest remains in the flue gases as volatile compounds. Where activated carbon is used as part of the abatement technique, operators should be aware of potential health and safety risks arising from spontaneous combustion.

Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds are controlled by good combustion.


Good combustion and low particulate matter emissions minimise the emission of PCDD/F (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans often referred to as ‘dioxins and furansor even just „dioxins). Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of dioxins.

Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxides arising from coffins might be lessened by switching from coffins made using board made from wood and nitrogen-containing resins. However plain wood is considered too expensive to be required as Best Available Technique (BAT). Cardboard caskets also contain nitrogen in the wet strength additives. Nitrogen is always present in the body. Thermal NOx is minimal due to the secondary chamber temperature and because combustion is staged over primary and secondary chambers.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a pollutant but is also the prime indicator of incomplete combustion that would emit un-burnt hydrocarbons, PAH and PCDD/F, which are much more difficult to monitor. Abatement of carbon monoxide is not BAT but good combustion minimises emissions.

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide emissions are minimised by cremator design and operation. Simple recording of gas consumption and conversion into CO2 equivalent emissions enables monitoring of emissions. Although not BAT, gas meters allow measurement of gas consumption, and comparison with other sites, including the potential for cost savings. Advances in combustion control, allied with short period carbon monoxide monitoring to monitor good combustion, may allow significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for next generation cremator designs.

Hmm. Not quite sure what that all means. But it’s good to know that emissions are being monitored.

Let’s just pick up the mercury point. According to this 2015 Reuters article, the average cremation releases 2 – 4 grams of mercury.

Now, here in the UK, DEFRA got involved back in 2005, and in conjunction with the Implementation of OSPAR Recommendation 2003/4 on Controlling the Dispersal of Mercury from Crematoria Second Overview assessment, required 50% of all cremations at existing crematoria to be subject to mercury abatement by the end of December 2012, with all new crematoria being required to fit mercury abatement. See here.

Because of the difficulties installing abatement equipment in some crematoria, or problems funding the costs involved, an ingenious burden sharing scheme was introduced by the sector, enabling crematoria that installed mercury abatement equipment to derive income by trading 50% of the cremations they undertake. This meant that other crematoria (those without the abatement equipment) could pay for these ‘tradable mercury abated cremations’ in order to become compliant.

This system continues, and despite the UK being a contracting party to the OSPAR Hazardous Substances Strategy that requires 100% mercury abatement by 2020, we haven’t been able to find out with certainty that further progress is being made to reach this target. In the meantime, the level of 50% of cremations having their mercury abated is, apparently, satisfactory.

According to the 2016 Implementation of OSPAR Recommendation 2003/4 on Controlling the Dispersal of Mercury from Crematoria Second Overview assessment the UK states that ‘The data received from Local Authorities recorded in 2013 for England and Wales showed there were more than 330,000 cremations with around 75% of those recorded abated.’

If we apply that same figure to last year’s cremation numbers, and if we use the figure cited by the UK in their response to OSPAR of 0.9g mercury emitted per person cremated without mercury abatement technology (and that’s a very conservative figure – remember that Reuter’s article suggesting the average cremation releases between 2 and 4g of mercury?) then 25% of the 467,748 cremations in the UK in 2017 would have generated at least 105 kilograms of mercury into the atmosphere, drifting towards the North East Atlantic to embark on the process of bioaccumulation into our food chain.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends a maximum daily consumption of a daily intake of 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, or, in other words, for an average adult, 8 micrograms per day.

(If you’re not keeping up at the back, that 105 kg of mercury created by last year’s cremations in the UK = 105,000,000,000 micrograms. Or, if you prefer, a hundred and five thousand million micrograms)

NB according to the same aforementioned Reuters article, some 200,000 babies are born each year in the EU with mercury levels harmful to their development.

We’ll just leave that point there.

We’ve got a bit sidetracked by the numbers and the intricacies of potential cremation emissions (whether financially offset or not) so apologies for that.

And we haven’t even touched on the cost of the energy involved in firing up and running all the cremators in the UK’s crematoria, let alone the environmental costs involved in the manufacture of all that cremation equipment or the buildings it is housed in. (There are over 290 crematoria in the UK, with more going through the planning process as we write, and pretty much all of them will have several cremators in use.)

We also haven’t got around to the impact of all those nice varnishes, plastics and adhesives being burned throughout the country every day, nor the energy involved in manufacturing and delivering all those coffins. Or all the floral tributes. Remember, there were 467,748 cremations in 2017. That’s a lot of coffin sprays.

Back in 2010, the Burial and Cremation Information Trust created a comprehensive Carbon Questionnaire for crematoria – a document which clearly took a huge amount of time and input to put together.

Unfortunately, we’re not sure which, if any, crematoria have taken the time to complete it. We’ve looked, but we couldn’t find any publications from crematoria citing their work to reduce their environmental impact. There certainly doesn’t appear to be anything in the public domain indicating that there has been an industry wide initiative to establish a base line of the environmental impact that cremating our dead is having.This, we think, is a real shame. We would like to know this.

Anyway, back to the broader subject of environmental decision making when it comes to funerals.

It’s apparent that cremation isn’t ticking many environmental or sustainable boxes. Or any, actually. But unfortunately, choosing a traditional burial also comes with an environmental price tag if you want a traditional burial in a double or triple depth grave and a memorial made from imported stone.

No, if you’re really concerned about the environment, and you want your funeral to have as little detrimental impact on our planet as possible, choosing a natural burial in a site local to you that is well managed according to ecological principles is the only option.

There are hundreds of natural burial sites around the UK – see here for a map, or visit the Natural Death Centre for a list of members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds.

A natural burial comprises of burial in a shallow grave, in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, and with no permanent memorial – see here.

And if you want to think about the bigger picture, below are the elements of any funeral where you can make a sustainable choice rather than one that comes at an environmental cost as well as a financial one:

Embalming.Not good for the environment. Even if eco-friendly embalming fluids are used, the process still requires flushing litres of blood into our sewage system. Good funeral directors can care for dead people without having them embalmed.

The type of coffin. Made from mahogany or other rainforest timber? Steel American casket? Not good for the environment. The typical MDF (chipboard) veneered standard mid-price coffin isn’t much better. Ask for coffins that are locally made, from FSC certified, sustainably sourced wood or willow, wicker or papier mache. Or choose a linen or woollen shroud.

Flowers. Plastic frames for letters spelling out words or names? Oasis? Imported flowers that have already travelled thousands of air miles? Not good for the environment. Pick flowers from your garden, or donate to a charity instead.

Travelling to the ceremony. Big gas guzzling hearse and following limousine? Lots of people travelling in cars from a distance? Not good for the environment. Ask for an eco-hearse and car share instead.

Choosing a memorial. That lovely granite tablet that looks so shiny? The pure white marble headstone? Not good for the environment.

The maintenance of the grounds. Manicured lawns, bedding plants and tidy rose gardens in crematoria grounds, intensively mown and weeded cemeteries – not good for the environment. Choose somewhere with conservation areas and a policy for encouraging biodiversity.

  • The indomitable Ken West MBE published an article a while back entitled ‘How Green is My Funeral’ with a handy calculator of the environmental impact of the various choices involved. You have to turn your head 90’ to read it unless you print it out, but it’s well worth the effort.

And our friends at Leedam Natural Heritage have also produced a table showing the different options for consideration by the environmentally conscious when deciding on which type of funeral they want.

We’d love to know what you think about all this.

As the IPCC is urging us to pay attention to the environmental impact of all aspects of our lives, should we not also be considering the environmental impact of our deaths?