Wise words

ru-callender

Ru’s opening words to the assembled guests struck a chord with many who were there, so we thought we’d put them on the blog for the whole world to read. Over to you Rupert.

“Welcome everyone to the Good Funeral Awards 2016!

It started off, as so many good things do, in a sweaty basement in Bournemouth, and has grown into this glamorous Metropolitan lunchtime bunfight.

My name is Ru Callender and I should be standing here with my wife, Claire – sadly, she’s got flu. Together, we run The Green Funeral Company in Devon, and we used to be the Enfants Terrible of the undertaking world. Self taught, stubborn, scruffy, we still use our family Volvo instead of a hearse – but as we’ve been doing it for 17 years, we’re probably just terrible…

Today is a genuinely unusual mélange of the alternative and the conventional funeral world, and it has probably taken longer than the Good Friday agreement took to get everyone in the same room.

You are here because someone thinks you’re great. Let that sink in.

Even if you asked them to.

This gathering is largely due to Charles Cowling and crew of the Good Funeral Guide, and also to the original renegade masters, the Natural Death Centre, both of whose organisations dared to believe that ordinary people could deal with the gritty detail of death, the truth about what happens to our bodies, that a deep, internal understanding of death is part of our birthright, part and parcel of being human.

And what they did – brace yourself, maybe have a glug of wine to steady yourself here, was to treat the public as adults, to include them in a conversation about the one thing that will happen to each and every one of us.

They presumed, as we all should, that people can handle more than the protective narrative that is fed to them.

They were right.

It was thought wildly radical then, now it just seems honest and transparent.

I said funeral world because I refuse to use the word industry. Making computers is an industry. Fashion is an industry. Even getting fit is an industry. I don’t decry industry. It’s necessary.

But death is a true mystery, and working with it should be a vocation, a real calling, and if you’re not meant to be here, if ego, or an understandable search for meaning in your life has misled you here, then death has a way of calling your bluff. You are either initiated, in or out.

This work, the real work of dealing with death and loss is not glamorous, however closely it nearly rhymes with sex, however interesting it makes us appear to those who unfortunately have to work in jobs they hate to pay the bills, and that matter little.

This work, done properly, is incredibly stressful.

It’s exhausting, frightening, physically, emotionally and existentially challenging, but it is also deeply, deeply rewarding.

Burn out is a real risk, or worse, an unconscious hardening of your outer emotional skin – these are the risks you face depending on whether you fully engage with it or not.

Breakdown or bravado. Truly a metaphor for our times.

So, if you work with death – florist, celebrant, undertaker or chaplain, particularly if you are new to it, you really have to let it in.

Go deeper.

Feel it. Fear it. Don’t pretend to love it , because the only thing worse than death is not death – and then, if you can, let it go.

 

This world is also open to all.

Undertaking is completely unregulated, and should remain so in my opinion, not just because no amount of qualifications can teach you what to say to the mother of a dead child, that is an instinctive language that rises unbidden from the heart, but also because we are all amateurs when staring into the abyss, all professionals when faced with a dead body.

And they are OUR dead, yours and mine. We are all funeral directors eventually.

It is a shared mystery and your guess as to what it means, and your actions as to what to do are as valid as mine, or the Church, or the Humanists.

Nobody knows for sure.

The mechanics of what needs to be done are easy, I promise. Keep bodies cold. Put them in a suitable receptacle. Carry them, bury or burn them.

The rest, the words, the rituals, the how we do this, you KNOW, deep down what is right for you. You know.

 

But here I am, bringing you all down at a funeral award convention – I should get a prize for that!

But just indulge me one last time before we start bringing on the champs, and this celebration of the real change that has happened gets underway –

Euphemisms.

They cover the kitchen floor of bereavement like a spilled cat litter tray.

They protect no-one, they fool no-one, they confuse children. They are well meaning, but they are wrong.

I’m only going to take on one here, and I apologise if anyone has to amend their speech or their website as a result.

Loved ones.

Not everyone is loved, some because they have led sad, lonely lives, others because they did bad things.

They die too. They need funerals and their families are broken, and the depth of their pain makes the phrase ‘Loved one’ seem like a jeer.

Just saying.

So call them the dead, the dead one, the dead person, anything other than ‘loved one’. Call them by their name!

I know it’s awkward, but it will spare you the look of contempt you get when you say it to the wrong person.

Lecture over.”

If small is beautiful, look lovely

There isn’t a single successful business in Britain that doesn’t seek to grow through mergers and acquisitions. Consolidation, they call it. It’s a factor of competitive capitalism. Or greed, if you prefer. Whichever. The bigger you are, the more efficiently you can trade. Efficiency enables you to bring your prices down, blow off competitors — and hey Tesco.  As Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City FC, would say, “Ees normal”.

So far so bad for Britain’s independent undertakers. Your days are surely numbered. Consolidation is under way. There’s no future for plankton in an ocean ruled by whales.

If you don’t believe it, consider the fate of our brewers. In 1900 there were 1,324 distinct beweries in England. By 1975 there were 141. Ees normal.

The technological development that made this possible was the invention of keg beers, which are sterilised and lifeless. They have a much longer life than living cask beers. They do not need to be kept so carefully, they can be transported for longer distances and they’re cheaper when they get there. Under the influence of advertising, consumers in the ’70s were easily persuaded to enjoy just a limited number of national brands. The little breweries could not afford to advertise. Older (elderly) readers of this blog will recall with misty eyes the halcyon days of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, the Co-op and Dignity of their time.

The development which is making it possible today for the big players in the deathcare market to burn off the independents is, of course, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan whereby you stitch up tomorrow’s market share today. The adoption of embalming from America has arguably been a useful technology, too.

So what happened to Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, younger readers may ask. And where can I get some?

Well, just when the big brewers thought the field was theirs, something interesting happened. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) happened, the tables were turned and, sorry younger readers, the victorious keg beers were poured down the drains of history.

Camra’s campaign stimulated an appetite for well-made beers and choice. It appealed also to romantic values — and the great British pub is nothing if not steeped in nostalgia. In the words of James Watt, managing director of craft brewers BrewDog, “People want something better, something ethical, and something made by passionate people … I think there is growing disillusionment with products which are generic and mass-produced.”

He’s right, of course.  The total number of breweries in England is back up from 141 to around 700 and rising. Which is why Camra is credited as the most successful single-issue consumer campaign of all time. In economists’ jargon, economies of scale have been trumped by economies of scope (choice). The big brewers can’t compete with the micro-breweries, most of which brew a variety of ales, because the production of small batches of cask beers does not fit profitably into scale production operations.

Camra, you may think, restored beer to its Golden Age. You’d be wrong. One of the reasons why keg beers were able to gain such traction was because most small brewers back in the day made ale that was cloudy, sour and full of sediment. Pretty horrible stuff, much of it. Today’s micro-brewers are of a far higher calibre than their forebears. The Golden Age of ale is, in fact, now. Camra didn’t turn the clock back, it wound it forward.

Is it possible that Britain’s independent undertakers might buck economic orthodoxy in the same way as the micro-brewers and chase off the purveyors of keg funerals?

They have a lot going for them. Like the micro-brewers, and unlike makers of, say, artisan cheese, they can compete on price with the consolidated undertakers. Better still, so incompetent and greedy are the consolidated undertakers that indie undertakers are universally cheaper. It’s absurd! The big players could fight back by starting a price war — but the likelihood of their doing so seems small. The micro-brewers are able to compete because of Gordon Brown’s 2002 Progressive Beer Duty (alternatively known as Small Brewers Relief), a 50 per cent reduction in beer duty for those breweries producing less than 5,000 hectolitres of beer. Indie undertakers need no such leg-up.

A great many of today’s indies are as good as it gets and much better than the generality of smalltime undertakers of the past. They have a lot in common with our micro-brewers: they’re intelligent, savvy and skilful — a new breed. They are characterful, individualistic and very much their own people, a welcome contrast with the corporates who tend towards bland homogeneity in spite of some excellent staff at branch level.

Because indies are passionate business owners, they are prepared to work incredibly hard. They offer a service which is of and for their community. They offer a quality of personal service which is everything a funeral shopper could want. Personal service does not fit profitably into scale production operations. 

It is unlikely that a Camref (the Campaign for Real Funerals) could achieve for undertaking what Camra has achieved so rapidly for beer, the thirst for the latter being the stronger. What’s more, most funeral shoppers have no idea that there are such brilliant indies out there.

So it would be good, perhaps, to see our best indies walk with more of a strut, make more noise about what they do and take the fight to the keggists. A well-kept beer is good for drinkers; a well-kept secret is no use to funeral shoppers. 

ED’S NOTE: Real ales are brewed for all occasions and come with all manner of characterful names. They include: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Bitter Bully, Posh Pooch, Festive Totty, Gonzo Porter, Ragged Bitch, Crop Circle, Summer Lightning, Bishop’s Farewell, Truffler Dry, Bad Elf, Torpedo Extra IPA, Naked Ladies, Storm King, Hop Wallop and Bonkers Conkers.

So far as we know, no maker of real/craft beer brews one specially for funeral wakes. There’s a big market here. If you can’t brew one, can you at least suggest a good name?

Camref – the Campaign for Real Funerals

The departing board chairman of Golden Charter funeral plans offers this cold sweat-inducing warning to independent funeral directors in a valedictory address in the Golden Charter newsletter, Goldenews, which we are grateful to have had forwarded to us. He says:

Co-op and Dignity have both acquired significant additional scale, and unquestionably they are operating with a better financial model than independents – on their own – can hope to achieve. There will be no softening of their ambition and there will be greater local commercial pressure. We can also expect consolidation to come from other quarters, particularly private equity.

Not only are these two corporations and private equity seeking to dominate the funerals market, they are making substantial in-roads into the crematoria market. The strategy is to provide future control of and access to crematoria which will potentially form a risk to independents and the prices that they will have to pay.

Corporations like to deal with corporations, and Co-op and Dignity present like-minded opportunity to the insurance companies. In 2007, an over 50’s plan was merely a means of building a financial provision for a funeral – the question of service provision did not come into it.

However, the insurance companies now manage 60 per cent of funds subsequently to be used to pay for a funeral, and it is a reality that they exert considerable influence over who carries out a funeral.

The funeral industry is one of the last bastions for independents. Almost every other market sector has fallen to national or international consolidation. Over the next five years, the choice for an independent funeral director is simple: sell to the competition or come together and exploit your collective strength.

This remains a chilling analysis even after you factor in the chairman’s sales pitch: ‘Over the next five years, the choice for an independent funeral director is simple: sell to the competition or come together and exploit your collective strength. Golden Charter is the only credible collective umbrella.’

Consolidation, done well, benefits consumers and shareholders. The present corporate players will fail to grow their market share if they don’t address pricing, service and positive brand identity, and they don’t look as if they’re going to hack it. But there are unquestionably opportunities for the right player with a brand that dares to speak its name. As we like to say, if John Lewis did funerals…

The days of the independents just have to be numbered, don’t they? Come on, look at your high street and go figure. 

Or do they? 

Consider the work of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Among its many successes it lists these: 

  • Created a rich and varied choice of real ale – In the 1970’s CAMRA successfully fought the efforts of the big brewers to replace traditional ales with tasteless keg beers. Since seeing off the likes of Watneys Red, Tavern Keg and Double Diamond the campaigning efforts of CAMRA has seen the creation of hundreds of new breweries producing a wonderful array of real ales. 
  • Smashed the Big brewers stranglehold on UK pubs – In the 1970s and 1980s the Big Six brewers, Allied, Bass, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle, Watneys and Whitbread monopolised regions of the country. CAMRA lobbied against this lack of choice in Britain’s pubs and gradually eroded these regional monopolies. 
  • Number of Breweries increased Fourfold – Since CAMRA was founded the number of breweries operating in the UK has grown fourfold to over 840 breweries. Without CAMRA’s presence it is doubtful whether real ale would be as widespread as it is today. 

 

CAMRA is not an industry body, it is an alliance of consumers: CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale is an independent, voluntary organisation campaigning for real ale, community pubs and consumer rights.
 
Much the same as the Good Funeral Guide. And the Natural Death Centre. 
 
The funeral industry is unaccustomed to consumer scrutiny, doesn’t much like it and tends either to keep schtum or react with angry insecurity when challenged and questioned. This is in stark contrast to all those bereaved people who phone and email to thank us for being there for them. 

 

We believe that independent funeral directors, if they are to survive as a collection of characterful and excellent businesses offering richness of choice,  would do well to reflect that their survival, by no means assured, is likely, if it happens, to owe a debt, perhaps a very great debt, to consumer-focussed communities like the GFG and the Natural Death Centre. To them we say: join in the debate. We learn from each other. We want the same thing. Let’s find common ground. 

 

CAMRA website here.
 
Sorry, no link to the Golden Charter newsletter available.