Tag Archive: DisruptiveTechnology


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

Clayton M Christensen, in 1995, coined the phrase disruptive technology.  These are innovations often produced by an outsider which changes the market, or the way we do things. So for instance in academia, whose currency is the transmission of knowledge – Wikipedia is a disruptive technology, open source, peer-edited,  free access to knowledge, which led to the demise of many traditional encyclopedias that were being produced.  You can think of many other examples digital photography and the demise of Kodak, Uber challenging the taxi industry, Amazon and bookshops, Netflix and the film industry etc.  Christensen as a Mormon comes from a tradition that encourages the innovation of outsiders.

The Gospels of Jesus Christ are meant to be disruptive – this is an outsider the religious power system built around the Temple in Jerusalem.  Whoever is benefitting from the status-quo and the so-called reforming Pharisees.  There are many stories in the Gospels, that haven’t lost their ability to disrupt our complacency…. ideologies can rise and fall, Corbynism will come and go…. but the Gospels seem to have an incredible longevity, perpetually fresh. The poor man at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16) feels very contemporary especially if you have had to pick your way through one of the tented shanty towns that are growing up in some of our towns and cities to get to mass to hear it.    But if we are honest in modern urban life we are developing more sophisticated coping mechanisms to insulate us against feeling uncomfortable.

Pope Francis is a disruptive leader – he is not uncomfortable with the poor, and aware of the isolating danger of wealth he is constantly challenging us to have a deep attentiveness to the poor.  When he was Archbishop in Buenos Aires he would spend his ‘time off’ famously drinking matte with the people in the many slums in the capital city, whereas the wealthy denizens of  Buenos Aires northern suburbs felt snubbed when he showed no interest in attending the receptions, dinner parties, book launches that a bishop would be expected to frequent.  His disruptive leadership would explain why the fiercest critics and resistance is found within the church. As Austen Ivereigh pointed out in some of the ‘disruption’ a fine line has been crossed between disagreement and dissent .  It should be no surprise those who he rattles the most are comfortable with the status quo, on the other hand, Francis is always searching for the lost sheep.  In contrast to Pope Francis, Forbes argues persuasively that Donald Trump leadership is not as a dedicated disruptor but more likely a creator of chaos.

AMDG

Today’s Gospel should make us feel uncomfortable – the rich man who steps over the beggar at his gate. Like all of us he is uncomfortable when confronted with destitution, with extreme poverty….  I think Jesus wants us to feel uncomfortable when we hear his words today.

Cladownloadyton M Christensen , in 1995, coined the phrase disruptive technology.  These are innovations often produced by an outsider which changes the market, or the way we do things. So for instance in Academia, whose currency is the transmission of knowledge – Wikipedia is  a disruptive technology, open source, peer edited,  free access to knowledge, which led to end of to many traditional encyclopaedias being produced.  You can think of many examples digital photography and the demise of Kodak, Uber challenging the taxi industry, amazon and bookshops etc etc

The Gospels of Jesus Christ are meant to be disruptive –  Jesus in the tradition of Prophets from the Old Testament is warning us.  The Prophet Amos in th first reading says ‘Woe to the Complacent in Zion’  …. Our complacency our comfort in this world where there is such extreme wealth and extreme poverty is an offence to God.  Amos the prophet does not mince his words.

But Jesus is more sophisticated even as a prophet – he doesn’t want to harangue us, he doesn’t just want us to feel guilty and powerless that we can do nothing, he wants us to change our hearts – he wants a deeper transformation.  He wants us to ponder this parable, to reflect on it … to pray with it – so that our hearts change.

tentsofsomeofthehomelessnearmanchesterpiccadillyrailstationToday’s Gospel of the poor man at the rich man’s gate is meant to disrupt our complacency – We are meant to feel uncomfortable if we really listen to this.   We see poverty on the streets of Manchester all the time, there is even a small tented shanty town growing up near Piccadilly, and we also see bright new shiny buildings going up everywhere.  This paradox is perplexing …. If the economy in Manchester is booming – how come so many people are obviously being left out?  What has happened to the common good?

sermon-slide-deck-til-death-do-us-part-matthew-19112-19-638And if we are honest we developing coping mechanisms to cope with this – but the danger is that all these coping mechanisms take us in on ourselves ….  Saint Augustine said that sin is a life lived “inward” for self rather than “outward” for God and others. The theological phrase in Latin (if you are interested) is “Incurvatus in se” (Turned/curved inward on oneself).  How many things allow us to live like that now – we can control our environment – glued to our smart phones – living digital lives – we put our headphones in and we can even block the world out.  But let us acknowledge these are coping mechanisms.

But God has told us repeatedly through the prophets, through Moses, through Abraham, to have a deep attentiveness to the Poor….. but that makes us uncomfortable.   Jesus wants us time and time again about the isolating power of wealth …  the more we have we are that isolated from each other, and ultimately isolated from God – we create rich ghettoes, gated communities, bigger walls…. And we become miserable

How can we help?  There are so many ways so many initiatives flowering up around us ….  The Holy Name and the Chaplaincy are becoming a centre for many of these initiatives…..  just take the newsletter home and read it.  But even before that maybe we can pray for the grace of freedom – to leave the technological arms race where we have to constantly upgrade our phones, the grace of freedom to realise how we are trapped by consumerism, and how we become blind to our neighbours in need…   That could be our simple prayer for the week …  Lord make me free…  when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night.

Homily given at the Holy Name Sunday 25th September 12.00 mass