Attitudes to death and funerals
Contemporary attitudes and customs surrounding death and dying are the product of a complex mix of influences and practices, religious, cultural, historical and medical. The outcome is that, as a society, we have an emotionally unsound relationship with old age, death and bereavement.
Things are getting better – slowly. But we need to press on and we need to be innovative.
The community funerals initiative is a response to this need.
Is radical change really necessary?
We believe that incremental change can only take us so far. We believe that it is only through activities and practices which promote emotional health that death can come to be regarded as a normal life event.
The desirability and feasibility of reclaiming the care of the dead from specialist strangers – the re-normalising of death – has been debated for years and was perhaps most effectively posited by the inspirational Natural Death Centre in the early 1990s with its promotion of the emotional and financial benefits of the DIY funeral. A DIY funeral appeals only to the bravest and most self-reliant; it never really took off. Most people don’t wish to revert to caring for their dead at home.
In the same spirit of self-empowerment, we propose a progressive way of bringing death back into the community, where we believe it belongs. Our philosophy is set out in We Believe.
We do not seek to declare war on the funeral industry as it is presently constituted, but we are aware that our model is a departure from the way things are.
We know that there are some excellent funeral directors out there, many of whom we admire greatly. We believe that they will be sympathetic with our vision, and we see a future for them in the community funerals movement.
Having said which, we must spell out why we think the funeral industry cannot adapt to meet the needs of the bereaved.
The funeral industry
The professionalization of ‘deathcare’ evolved to address the needs of a society which no longer wished to care for its dead at home. When undertakers gained custody of the bodies of the dead they became powerful. They re-branded as funeral directors and their funeral homes became one-stop-shops for all funerary needs.
The model which evolved has systemic shortcomings.
- Because a funeral must be arranged at what for most people is a time of emotional and cognitive vulnerability, there is a prevailing uneasiness with a for-profit commercial model which, in the circumstances, can appear exploitative. There is an abiding feeling that funeral consumers are simply not fair game. Many funeral directors are uncomfortable with it, too.
- Too many funeral consumers are currently paying too much for their funerals. Those consolidated businesses which enjoy economies of scale do not pass on the benefits to consumers: The Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity plc are, on average, the most expensive funeral homes in the country [source]. At the same time, independent, especially boutique businesses of the sort that consumers like best, are, most of them, underworked. The profits of their funerals must fund them, overheads and all, through periods of idleness.
- Funeral directors are not geared to provide a range of much-needed support services to the bereaved, nor could they make a financial return by providing them. As we show, these services can only be offered by volunteers.
- Most of the tasks funeral directors undertake are not specialist tasks at all and can, in fact, easily be undertaken by laypeople.
- The growing trend towards secular funerals highlights an illogical and unwarranted ascendancy in the funeral arranging process of the custodian of the body over the ceremony-maker, whose role is commonly treated as ancillary. The tail, it might be said, is wagging the dog. Almost all funeral directors wrongly prioritise logistics over what for most of their clients is the focus of the arrangements, namely, the funeral ceremony.
- Protective of their status and commercially dependent on clients outsourcing all aspects of funeral arrangements to them, funeral directors are defensive of the status quo. At a time when funerary customs are evolving, funeral directors’ pride in tradition is a reactionary tendency. This is not to overlook the work of a tiny minority of thinking funeral directors who are moving with the spirit of the times, but there are simply not enough of them.
- An ‘anti-social’ characteristic of funeral directors is that they deal only in death, and this tends to marginalise them in their communities. What they experience is typical of the social stigma which attaches to ‘corpse-handlers’ in all cultures. The rise of the specialist funeral home with all its negative, shudder-making connotations, and that of the funeral director, whose professional life centres exclusively on the care of the dead, have served only to marginalise death, the dead and the bereaved. This stigma can only be dispelled when the care of the dead is carried out by people for whom this is only an occasional occupation.