Category: London


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

Milton Erikson,  a  psychiatrist, would ask patients who were experiencing depression to count chimneys.  It proved to be surprisingly successful.  First of all, it got people out of their houses (rather than sitting inside and letting negative thoughts rotate around their heads.  Secondly, when they were outside counting chimneys they lifted their heads up ensuring the maximum amount of daylight was entering their eyes.  This simple act would lift their spirits in a very effective way.  By forcing his patients to get out of their head and be more present to the environment a desolating spell had been broken.  This is exactly what happens every time we deliberately get out of our heads and engage with the present,  in the popular pseudo-Buddhist language it is a form of mindfulness. In the language of Pope Francis and Evangelium Gaudium, ‘Realities are more important than ideas’ 231-233.

Returning to the world of ideas, maybe the next step then would then be developing a mindfulness of gratitude – or ‘gratefulness’.  Start the day in gratefulness of a hot shower. For me, it is something that I am especially aware of when I come back from travelling, particularly in the developing world.  I find myself standing in a powerful hot shower in the morning, thinking about all that has gone into this working. It helps me start the day in a good mood, grateful for all that has gone right to put that in place, trying not to feel ‘entitled’ to have a hot shower when so many of the billions on the planet don’t have a luxury like this to start the day.  I think of friends I have lived with in India, Peru, the Philippines, East Africa all whose morning ablutions are very different.

When I am actually standing in the shower I think of where the water is from the Thames or the River Lee? What journey has it been on, from Teddington Weir or closer? How does it get to Tottenham in the first place?  All the infrastructure that comes into play to get clean water in my shower, all the thing that have to go right for it to be a reliable supply.  Then I think about the thermostat hidden away somewhere that constantly adjusts the temperature so that I’m not boiled like a lobster or frozen like a penguin, especially when someone else is using water in the building.  Having experienced a fair amount of showers that are alternately too hot or too cold, this feels like a blessing.  Then the electric pump that makes sure that high-pressure water comes out which is so refreshing.

It’s a simple exercise but a great way to start the day.