When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Monday, November 05, 2007

21st century funerals

It seems that those most "traditional" tradesmen (and a few women), the funeral directors, and the people who work in cemeteries and crematoria, are gradually catching up with modern business practices.

When I began conducting funerals sixteen years ago, emails were unheard of. To confirm a booking, the funeral directors sent you a pre-printed form addressed to "Reverend Sir", and since I was neither, this had to be crossed out and my name substituted. The forms are all different now, but an increasing number of funeral directors confirm the details by email.

It was usual to be paid in cash, with the money (sometimes in a little brown envelope) discreetly pushed into my hand or pocket after the ceremony. One funeral director, a short man who always wore a top hat and tails at funerals, used to put the little envelope into his upturned hat and point it in my direction as he went "Pssst!" and swivelled his eyes from me to the hat, while the mourners were saying their goodbyes at the graveside. Nowadays, a few funeral directors are catching on to the convenience of paying by BACS (bankers' automated clearing services), so the money goes straight from their account to mine. One even wrote to say they won't pay by cash any more and would I prefer cheque or BACS? I wonder how many clergy used to declare all their cash payments?

Then there's the music. The organists have less organ-playing to do these days. An increasing number of people ask for recorded music. Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and Robbie Williams' "Angel" are two of the most popular choices. My heart sinks whenever I hear Celine Dion mentioned, or Bette Midler's "Wind beneath my wings" - neither can hit a note without warbling up to it in an unsteady manner that makes me want to yell "Please! Stop!" Recorded music was all on tapes at one time, and they could be unreliable. One machine in a local crematorium regularly chewed them up. CDs aren't much better, particularly the ones that people have copied on a PC; some crematoria have banned them. Sometimes people will turn up at the funeral with an empty case; they'd been checking the music, and left it in the machine. One local crematorium now uses the Wesley Music System. Music is ordered online and downloaded onto the crematorium's computer, so all I have to do is make sure it's available and it's been ordered. If anything goes wrong with the equipment, it's not my problem.

In the old days, coffins were made by local builders, hence the connection between building firms and funeral services; there are still a few like that around here. Nowadays, they're mass produced. All the funeral directors have to do is assemble them. I believe there's a funeral supermarket in London where you can go and buy your own flat pack coffin. The first time one of my clients asked for a cardboard coffin, and I relayed the request to the funeral director, I heard guffaws of laughter at the other end of the phone. When they realised I wasn't joking, it went quiet. An increasing number of people are choosing cardboard, wicker or bamboo coffins now, especially for green burials. Bamboo is quieter than wicker - it doesn't creak as much.

Maybe one day they'll catch on to the system of freeze-drying bodies, which can then be used as compost. At least one council's already considering it.

There's still one area where the funeral trade isn't up to date; many funeral directors tend to assume that most people will want a Christian funeral, or a pick 'n mix ceremony with a bit of religion thrown in, and they don't fully explain the religion-free, Humanist option. Considering that there are so few of us to provide such ceremonies, maybe that's just as well.

Even fewer people realise that they don't have to have a priest, clergyperson, rabbi, or any sort of professional celebrant to conduct a funeral ceremony. They could do it themselves.

1 comment:

Liz said...

"My Way" that expression of individuality that is the last recourse of the truly sheep-like.