You may have been shocked, distressed or confused by media stories this week about exploitation in the funeral industry. Working in the sector as a celebrant I was equally alarmed, but on reflection I think it gives us a much needed opportunity to start talking about death in a way we never seem to have been able before. Here’s why I think everything that’s been reported this week opens up a crucial conversation…
On Tuesday The Telegraph carried a front page report on the alleged up-selling practices of one national funeral chain whilst on Thursday evening’s Tonight programme a whole host of topics were raised from funeral poverty, to direct cremations and natural burials. All of which will no doubt have raised the anxiety levels of a population still reeling from the effects of a global pandemic. I’ve worked with both of the national chains mentioned in the reports, as well as independent funeral directors and can honestly say that my experience has been overwhelming positive. But I’m not here to defend anyone, there are people far better qualified than I am to do that.
There were however two words which kept coming to mind for me when reading and viewing these reports and they were CHOICE and VALUE. I’m not sure that as consumers, bereaved families know that they have a right to both …and that the majority of suppliers working in the funeral industry work incredibly hard to deliver them.
Funerals have evolved hugely from the days when it had to be a church service followed by a burial in the family plot before an elaborate wake and a week of mourning. Families now have a huge range of options from a traditional church service, a short (or long) ceremony followed by a cremation or burial, a direct cremation with a memorial service months later or natural burial in one of the many beautiful sites emerging across the country. Or no funeral at all – there is no legal requirement for a funeral if you don’t want one. Yet we’re asking families at their most emotional, angry and grief-stricken to make decisions about what their loved one would have wanted when they can hardly decide what to have for tea. If you’ve never talked about it, how could you possibly know what your loved one would have wanted? However awkward it might feel to talk about death with your loved ones, it will undoubtedly be less distressing than leaving them to try and come up with the right answer when they have so many more powerful emotions to deal with should the worst happen. And on the subject of choice, there are a lot of funeral directors out there and whilst you may not want to compare pricing in the same way you would an energy supplier, having a chat with a few different companies will undoubtedly give you a perspective on which you feel best reflects your family and who you feel comfortable with. Which brings us to the thorny issue of price…
Funerals are always going for cost for adults (the government funds the costs of children’s burials or cremations in the UK) and whilst all of those working in the industry are driven by a desire to help ease the pain of the bereaved, it simply isn’t possible to offer a service for free. But there are choices (there’s that word again). If you consider weddings for a moment, there is a huge diversity of budgets based on how elaborately a couple wish to celebrate, champagne for 200 and booking the Rolling Stones for your evening bash is always going to cost more than an intimate meal for 20 in your local pub. Funerals aren’t dissimilar in that the more you ‘add’ into the event, the more it is going to cost – although I am absolutely not advocating up-selling or exploitation in any way. While there will be a cost to more premium choices, this should be at a fair and transparent level.
For example, for a celebrant, delivering a funeral can involve a meeting with the family, creating a completely bespoke 20-30 minute service including a eulogy, liaising with the family on readings, music and tributes, re-drafting and amending the service, practice of the ceremony and then delivering it on the day – this can be up to a full day’s work. If as a family you choose to book a double slot, requiring a ceremony of 40-50 minutes, it will incur more time so would you expect to pay the same fee? But for the families I work with, I ensure they know they can call me anytime from the first phone call, we can change the ceremony any number of times they like, even on the day, they will receive both a written and audio version of the eulogy prior to the service, I’ll source poetry and readings that are just right for them and they’ll receive a full presentation copy of the service afterwards…but most importantly, they know I have their backs throughout one of their toughest days and everything will run smoothly. So the conversation flips to value rather than cost, what they actually pay is less of an issue compared to what they receive in return. As long as you believe you’re getting value for what you’re paying then the actual cost becomes less of an issue.
BUT WHAT SHOULD A FUNERAL COST?
How long’s a piece of string? It all depends on what sort of funeral you want and the choices you make about cars, coffins and celebrants but you do have a choice. There are lower cost funerals on the market, there are very expensive funerals on the market, much as there are for pretty much any other sector of the economy. The question for me is whether it’s time we take responsibility for our own goodbye and put some plans in place. You’d save for a wedding, why not a funeral? If you’re thinking you want your final sign-off to include horse-drawn carriages, an hour long ceremony, a gilt-edged coffin and a three course meal at the finest restaurant – well, maybe you need to be thinking about a pre-pay plan now. If you’d rather opt for a direct cremation followed by a beautiful celebrant send-off on a Caribbean beach at sunset with your family (as David Bowie did) then again, it’s in your gift to provide for that. There are some people meeting death head-on, who knowing their terminal prognosis, are enjoying a celebration of their life with loved ones whilst living, followed by a direct cremation after they’re gone. Admittedly some deaths are tragic and sudden (we’ve learnt that much from 2020) but we very rarely talk about it in this country until it happens – which it does to all of us. But what if we started having conversations earlier and didn’t put our loved ones through the trauma of having to decide what we want, and how to pay for it?
How about talking to your local friendly celebrant about what you’re thinking and what you’d like for your funeral and they can store your plans away safely? You don’t have to have the conversation with your family if they’re not ready…but at least someone knows what you want when the time comes?
I don’t know what the answers are to any of the questions raised this week and I’m a relative newcomer to the industry. But what I do hope everyone can take away from opening the debate is that they always have choices and they should expect value…and finally that the vast majority of us in the industry are just trying to ease their pain in any way we can.
If you’re interested in talking about what your choices might be and how I might be able to help I’d love to hear from you! Click the contact page for more details and let’s talk.