Category: Culture


Disrupting Funerals

AMDG

A glut of funerals here at St.Ignatius, North London, has made me curious about the whole funeral business.  Every minute there are over 100 deaths on the planet,  in an ageing population such as the UK, the Death Rate is climbing, in 2016 there were over 560,000.  Losing a loved one involves a lot of grief and people are very vulnerable at these moments,  when families are sadly open to exploitation.  As a business, it seems ripe for disruption and reform.  I have been surprised about the costs and the variation in prices on what is a similar service.  On the face of it, funerals are a predictable, low risk, high margin business with a steady supply of uninformed loyal customers.  The more unscrupulous directors seem, the more likely to sell things what the customers do not know they can refuse,  or feel too embarrassed to question.  It’s not a business where it feels right to haggle,  though that might be changing.  If I meet the family at an early stage in planning the funeral,  I now suggest that they go on a website called “Beyond Life “.   This is a funeral director price comparison site.  You would be surprised at the variations within a short space.  If you go to Amazon to see what the price of a coffin is,  then you will realise the outrageous markup that the funeral directors have placed on it. In Britain, Dignity plc.  is the biggest provider of funeral plans and operates over 44 crematoria around the country, but like all dominant market players it might not be the most efficient.  It has merged many funeral providers around the country and at a cursory glance, the directors affiliated to Dignity seem to charge the most.  It is important to realise that there is no legal obligation to use a funeral director.  In fact, more and more people are getting into unnecessary debt paying for a funeral – The Natural Death charity are campaigning against this exploitation and have a website link worth visiting.

We know there are profound changes in society,  as families are more mobile and dispersed they are also less likely to tend a family grave.  So the traditional ‘Victorian’ funeral in this country may be dying out.  A funeral director recently told me that they are beginning to feel more like event planners. Thank God, in the Catholic Church there is less leeway and the liturgy in some ways protects the grieving family from funeral planners who may want to fire the ashes out of a canon (and then charge you 5k for the privilege).  For a Catholic there are three reasons for a funeral, firstly the family gets strength from their faith in the resurrection, the community and the sacraments.  Secondly an honest celebration of the deceased life and finally the disposal of the body either through burial or cremation.  Other funerals will often include the second and third element.  According to a recent article in the Economist, there seems to be a growing trend of separating the disposal of the Body with a commemoration of someone’s life.  I have noticed that receptions afterwards (like in weddings) are becoming more elaborate and more lavish. In a less religious society, we are seeing an increase in direct cremations, with no-one present, or what Dignity euphemistically call ‘Simplicity Cremations’, wheras the life may be celebrated in a lavish hotel around the corner.

As the internet has cut out the middleman, with companies such as Uber, Amazon, Skyscanner getting rid of taxi companies, bookshops and travel agents – it is also starting to affect the funeral process.  This has lead to a new generation of ‘disruptive consumers’.   However bringing an assertive attitude to the church’s door is difficult for older priests to manage, when ultimately the church is on their side and are trying to respond pastorally. For a £5000 package the church would often only receive around £150 from the undertakers.   This asserting themselves can create a bit of tension in the planning process when we are burying a stalwart of the parish who wishes a simple Catholic requiem mass. However, as the funeral arrangements are not stated in their will then you suddenly are at the whim of a son or daughter who feels they have the right to dictate the service. If they are alienated from the church they are often ignorant about what is appropriate and also what will confuse the loyal parishioners.

AMDG

There is currently a lot of debate about how toxic parts of the internet are becoming. Whether it’s disinformation campaigns, ‘Troll Farms’ or data being ‘mined’ and exploited.  As important as all these things are there is something more fundamentally dystopian that I am concerned about – we seem to be raising a generation who are not being taught how to forgive and move on.  Until the internet learns how to forget it cannot forgive. We have a generation who are being encouraged to put all their private lives online, who are becoming emotionally dependent on ‘how many followers you have’ or ‘how many likes you have got’.  This is not an emotionally resilient generation.  So when they make mistakes, which they inevitably will, rather than being supported by loving parents (which I was) they are being publically shamed by their peers.  Generalisations of course…. there are always exceptions but I think if you spot a digitally wise teenager you are spotting a future leader.  Many of their peers are in danger of growing up to be neurotic, emotional control freaks who are both excessively permissive and also harshly puritanical.

How important it is and how difficult it is to let things go.  Resentment can act like a snake that coils around your heart and slowly squeezes so that a heart of flesh becomes a heart of stone.  Resentment is the opposite of gratitude – it tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. Gratitude receives the unfolding of life as a constant gift and has the renewing and refreshing quality of a gurgling mountain stream. Resentment wraps us up in darkness and our memories stagnate and become distorted.

This is why, when it is appropriate and we are ready, we need the grace of forgetting in order to forgive and let go. However, the internet is in danger of becoming an engine of resentment. In the UK there has been a succession of stories where people who have broken through to a high profile role have suddenly been brought low because of something they said on the Internet when they were younger and they should have known better. Immature opinions and angry outbursts come back to haunt people.  So someone in their late 20’s who works hard and is talented, gets a high profile job and then has to endure a media tornado of shaming because of something they said online when they were 16 and suddenly lose their job.  Online shaming has seen the unwelcome re-emergence of the destructive phenomena of public shaming.

There was an important ruling in the EU for the ‘right to be forgotten’ in 2012.   This allowed individuals to request that their names were removed from search engines, allowing EU citizens to  “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.”  In this age of the ‘techlash’ and a new interest in ‘digital-parenting’, I often talk to students about how important it is to clean up your digital footprint. Their Facebook timeline is of much more interest to prospective employers than their CV’s.

All in all, it is becoming a tougher climate in which to promote the much-needed process of reconciliation.

AMDG

Pope Benedict memorably described the Internet as a new Digital Continent in 2009.  I had a very enjoyable evening the other night discussing with university students how to be ‘Digital Missionaries‘ in this new continent. We looked at various topic together such as digital discernment, digital navigation and how to avoid digital rocks (so as not to be shipwrecked).  In the end, we all agreed, as we are on a steep learning curve, we need to teach each other how to use these new technologies wisely.  Maybe even set up a ‘Digital Accountability Group’ to share ideas etc.

As a group we came up with ’10 Digital Commandments’ – here are the first five

 

  1. Thou Shall not Text / Message or Comment when you are drunk   (No huge explanation needed here, suffice to say that the internet has not learnt to forget or forgive )
  2. On the Sabbath day, thou shall take a rest from the digital life   (It was agreed that addiction was a real problem, Facebook and Snapchat seem particularly immersive environments where too much time is spent and wasted,  non-digital perspectives are increasingly valued)
  3. Honour thy friend and ask permission before you tag  (With the all-pervasive camera, people’s understanding of what is private and what is public varies wildly, just as we should never assume consent, similarly we should never assume permission. There was a good debate about how realistic this could be.)
  4. Thou shall cut down on multitasking  (This came from a very interesting discussion on Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows’  – and we all agreed at the end of it that multitasking is junk food for the brain – and the web needs more quality not quantity )
  5. Thou must slow down and pause (Practicing digital impulse control is very important, particularly when getting sucked into a flame-war, it is very disedifying to a be a self-righteous Catholic cyberbully (particularly if you are a priest) there’s enough hate out there let’s not be a counter-sign )    

I’ll put up the others tomorrow – any ideas? Please share them.