My Wonderful Life

Is the UK really a thought leader in the funeral industry?

posted on 9/14/11 by Guest Blogger: Charles Cowling

There is a perception in the US that, over here in the UK, we Brits are thought leaders in matters funereal. I wonder where this idea comes from. Whatever the reason, it is a flattering perception, for sure, and one I am loath to explode... just yet, anyway. For sure, we do things differently over here. Yes, there is much truth in Bernard Shaw’s observation that ours are “two countries separated by a common language.” Do we do things better in the UK? The jury’s out.

Take the Great American Funeral (GAF), with its embalming and casketing and cosmetizing and visitation. To us that’s all somewhat of an alien rite in the House of Rimmon. When a petty gangster over here, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by the police recently, he went to his grave in a US-style casket. Most Brits reckoned that tasteless. You get my drift.

It was our own Jessica Mitford who wrote that devastating critique of the GAF, The American Way of Death. Her agenda for change may have been orthodox American socialism, but her humour is utterly British. In our more emotionally repressed society we prize understatement – and hoot at what, I regret to confess, we’d term vulgarity and euphemism. But the GAF evolved in very specific cultural circumstances. It enabled an immigrant to proclaim, ‘I came, I worked, I made it.’ It makes sense. Made sense, anyway.

In recent times, our Natural Death Centre has done pioneering work in creating the concept of natural burial, a practice which is spreading worldwide. That it combines ecological responsibility and beauty, and has been the impetus for a whole new range of funerary merchandise, has proved universally compelling.

Yes, we have been thought leaders in this respect. We look for new ways of doing things. We were early adopters of cremation. And yet... it was the US that ‘invented’ direct cremation, and here we’re only just catching on.

Have you observed the emerging theme here? No? Well, consider another aspect of our Brit funerals.

Over here we now cremate 72 per cent of our dead. Most funerals are held at a crematorium, which is a crematory annexed to a ceremony space. We are on a production line, you see. So we customarily allocate a mere 20 minutes to each funeral. Does that astonish you? Our rituals remain, as the result of a range of cultural and religious influences, perfunctory. In short, wholly unsatisfactory. A funeral is transformative of grief or it is nothing. Most of ours aren’t.

We are struggling, as you are, to find meaningful and cathartic ways of farwelling our dead in a secular age where even established religions are having to accede to the needs and demands of individualism. We have a long way to go.

So, like you, we look about us to see who’s doing it better. For the most part we note that it’s so-called undeveloped countries which do it best. In Ghana a funeral takes three days and enables the expression of all the emotions through voice and music and dance. I bet they’re cathartic.

We look in some envy at the US where so many of your funeral homes look like fine venues for funerals, where folk can take their time, and say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done.

To cut to the chase. Where the UK has been inventive and innovative in its funeral practices, the driving force has been, I have to tell you, mundane necessity. That’s why our inventiveness has been largely confined to disposition (which we call disposal). We are, you see, a very little country with a very big population. Conventional burial space is running out fast. Sort of concentrates the mind.


Charles Cowling is the author of The Good Funeral Guide, a book for anyone who needs to arrange a funeral for someone now, has sick or elderly relatives or friends and knows that a funeral is imminent, wants to find a good funeral director and have some say in the funeral itself, wants to make future arrangements for their own funeral, or would like to learn about deaths and funerals. Authoritative, impartial and empowering, it is indispensable for those who don't want a conventional religious ceremony and invaluable for those who do.

1 Previous comment:

Whilst I entirely agree with Charles, I also think that until the lid is lifted off the funeral industry in the UK, true innovation and competitive products will not be readily available.

There is also, of course, a culture of "I'm not dying until at least 80" and as a consequence funeral arrangements are still being left to families to sort out, with often financial and emotional hardship.

The government so called paupers funeral scheme is a joke and is diminishing fast, as government departments look to save cash.

Whilst this may be the economic truth, it needs to go hand in hand with a government campaign encouraging people to make arrangements as early as their 50s, not their 70s and 80s.

We carry on watching this space!

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