The Dead Good Funerals Book

Pages 68-71

But what about the relatives

If there is one golden rule for people organising their own namings, weddings or funerals it must be "Remember to find time to talk to your relatives about your intentions beforehand". You will be busy organising so much that it is easy to overlook this, but it can be all in vain and end up a disappointment, if the nearest relatives do not feel included, at least in their understanding of what the ceremony is about, what is so important and why it includes the elements it does. People are creatures of habit and feel safe at a "traditional" funeral or wedding, for example. If they feel lost or unsure - even about where to stand - they might feel less than positive about sharing your special moment.

But… once you sit down together and talk about what matters, why it's important to you to do it this way, or in this special place, that makes so much difference. Even if they are not being invited to say or do something, they will feel more 'ownership' and involvement, they might even become 'the authority' for more distant relatives to whom you will not speak directly.

This sometimes involves making a special journey in order to have this meeting, but it is so worthwhile. We have heard elderly relatives (who, remember, will have attended many weddings or funerals) say afterwards that it was "so moving … so special ... I'll never forget it…" because it was unique and personal, however simple.

Recommendations for Improvement I Current Practice

  1. When someone dies at home, keeping the body in the house may be positive and comforting for some families, depending on the circumstances of the death and on the house or flat, but harder for a single person left to cope unsupported. The opportunity to spend some time over the leave-taking on familiar territory, to exclude strangers from handling the body and to decide what clothes will be worn in the coffin can all contribute to making the funeral personal. There are very few technical problems with keeping a body in the house for three days or so, as long as a cool room can be provided. Help with laying out can be provided by a district nurse.

    What is needed is a change in the present attitude from funeral directors who automatically whisk the body away, for everyone's comfort and collect the usual fees. This implies forfeiting several usual fees. Many people will want this service, but the choice, the possibility, should be there, and as ever, it is better if the preference has been thought about in advance.

  2. Scheduling was the issue that people felt most strongly about. Mourners should have as much time in the crematorium as they need. There should be no overlap, no queues. In an ideal situation no funeral should see another funeral. Funeral directors may well throw their hands up in horror, but it is important to ask in whose favour are the schedules drawn up. If you particularly want a funeral early in the morning, or in the evening at sunset, or at a weekend, why should it not be possible? The current regimentation comes from an outmoded attitude toward providing a service. We currently get buried or cremated Monday to Friday 9 - 5, or more like 10 - 4. It uncannily parallels the extraordinary number of babies born in hospital within the same shifts.

  3. Flexibility in layout could be offered not so much in chapels but in crematoria, since many modern ones do not have fixed seating. It could be re-arranged from the formal rows all facing each other, to a semicircle or horseshoe, or a circle even where mourners can make eye contact with each other. It could be removed altogether, to accommodate cultural and religious diversity such as kneeling on the carpet to pray, or sitting in a circle on the floor, or wilder options altogether - like dancing! Temporary decorations, bringing in personal objects for the service, should be permitted. With co-operation and goodwill this could work, because it is always going to be a minority choice. People asking for a longer time could reasonably be offered the last appointment of the day, to facilitate preparation before and putting things straight afterwards.

  4. Support for the DIY funeral service and the needs of the arrangers should be offered. This may include turning off the recorded music and removing the religious artefacts visible in the church. "At the end we said no music specifically and they played piped music."

  5. Regulations about memorials could be relaxed, to permit a wider choice of materials, less control of design, more freedom to make a hand-crafted (non-standard) memorial in wood or stone carving, or maybe a durable mosaic. These objects have a place, made as an act of love and made to a high standard. Why should machined slabs of alien granite in marble with computer generated lettering constitute the aesthetic that is held up for everyone to conform to? The use of natural pieces of local stone will offer a habitat for lichen and mosses, which bring their own beauty. It might also help to keep a small quarry going, in preference to the exploitative trade of importing shiploads of marble at rip-off prices from third world countries - the source that most monumental masons use. Hand-carved lettering may not be immaculate, but it retains the human touch.

  6. The industry codes of practice which have been drawn up in consultation with the Office of Fair Trading are intended to raise standards of service and give consumers access to low-cost means of seeking redress. Responsibility for publicising them and enforcing them lies with the trade associations. But codes can only have value if they are demonstrably taken seriously and complied with. Key requirements - offering price lists written estimates and the right to a basic funeral (removal of the body to the Chapel of Rest, a simple coffin, the hearse plus one car) is not being observed. It seems some funeral directors do not see the codes as relevant to the way they do business. In some parts of the country funeral directors believe their clients would feel insulted if they give them a written estimate.

    There is more formal intervention possible, to prevent the codes being dismissed as worthless, such as a price marking order or referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but the Office of Fair Trading prefers that the impetus for improvement will come swiftly, from within the funerals industry and trade associations. The primary responsibility for price transparency and for providing a simple funeral lies with funeral directors, who must lessen the information gap about what is available.

    Regular monitoring of the funerals industry is essential. Monopolies are becoming an increasing concern as American firms move in and take over. Many cremations are privately run now.

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