In Greek mythology Pandora’s box, once opened; unleashed death, evil and sickness upon the world. After that tidal wave of misery had spilled forth, just one thing remained inside the box: hope.
The coronavirus pandemic brings with it a whole host of problems for the funeral industry. But, as with the remnants of Pandora’s cursed container; if we look hard enough, perhaps there’s a positive we can coax from among the broken fragments:
A golden opportunity to improve how we do things.
Those who work in the funeral business are overwhelmingly dedicated people. It’s the only industry I know of where exceeding expectations is the norm.
It’s a reliable industry. It’s a ‘good’ industry. But it’s also a very old one, in danger of falling behind the times.
Many of us are sitting in our homes; impotent to offer direct help, yet still keen to contribute. Could we take this opportunity to think on how to improve our management of the deceased?
Historically, wakes were vigils to guard the body until burial, attended by family of the deceased. In modern times, they’re an opportunity to talk about the person who died with others who knew them.
Could they be more than this?
In recent years, weddings have seen a shift in focus from the marriage ritual to the celebration. In a similar fashion, could most of the funeral speeches be reserved for the wake?
For some time now, local councils have steadily reduced the length of funeral service windows, to allow crematoria staff adequate cleaning time between services.
If the trend for increased cleanliness continues, which is likely post-pandemic; it seems inevitable that wakes will need to take over much of the purpose of the ceremony.
A longer gap of, say, several hours would allow a more natural break between the ‘goodbye’ and celebration of life, and wakes held in the evenings enable more guests to attend.
When a family loses one of their own, it’s not only the adults who suffer that loss. Yet, aside from those cases where they’ve lost an immediate relative, pre-teens are rarely invited to attend funerals.
The reasons for our reluctance to involve children include concerns:
By the age of seven, most children have a general understanding of death, of its being the end of life and its permanence. They feel the pain of loss; they grieve; yet they’re rarely given the opportunity to attend funerals.
Could the industry encourage grieving families involving those children who wish to be? Whether by attending the funeral itself, contributing a speech or perhaps leaving a gift for the coffin.
When buying a car, is every decision left to the seller? Do they choose where we get the insurance, the fuel, the fluffy dice?
By default, funeral directors control every aspect of the funeral. In addition to their own duties, many help choose the minister/celebrant we opt for, who’ll provide the flowers, arrange the hire of limousines, print the orders of service, and decide under which council the cremation or interments take place.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Funeral directors will no doubt make an informed choice with our best interests in mind. The point is this: we should always feel free to shop around.
Limousines - Do you need that many cars? Do you even want such luxurious transport? Would private taxis be acceptable?
Ministers and celebrants - Look at their website or email them. How are their punctuation, grammar and diction? If they struggle to advertise their writing skills, how much faith can you have in their speechwriting?
Call them. Do you like the sound of their voice? Do you feel any rapport? Would you be comfortable discussing your family with them?
Historically, flowers were used in funerals to cover the smell of a decaying body. Thanks to modern preservation methods, this is no longer required. Their main use now is for decoration.
The Financial Costs.
Cut flowers are a single-use, luxury item. The average spray used to adorn a coffin, cost around £100. Tribute arrangements where the flowers spell out words such as ‘Mum’, or ‘Nan’ cost about £150.
Days after the funeral, all of them will be rotting in a skip.
The Environmental Costs.
A significant amount of our fresh cut flowers are imported from Nairobi. Once grown, the flowers are transported here on direct flights, then loaded onto refrigerated lorries bound for florists across the country.
The Health Costs.
Those foam blocks holding floral arrangements in place contain formaldehyde; a known carcinogen. It’s also a main constituent of embalming fluid. By law, embalmers are required to be registered; to work in well-ventilated, regularly-inspected environments and wear boots, gloves and potentially respiratory equipment while using these chemicals.
Florists are given no such protection. Many aren’t even aware these foam blocks are dangerous.
Owing to coronavirus’ impact of the chains involved in importing fresh cut flowers; plastic or silk flowers have been used in their stead.
These artificial flowers do have environmental impacts of their own. However, they’re cheaper and offer the potential to be used many times over.
Balloons released after a funeral are a beautiful sight. For some, their silent escape into the distance might symbolise the person who’s died finally being free. For others, a happy reminder of care-free childhoods, and a welcome contrast to the sad event they’ve attended.
What many of us are unaware of is the impact they have.
The lighter-than-air gas that makes them float is nonrenewable. The helium we have on our planet is all we have, and once released it escapes our atmosphere. We have an estimated 25 to 30 years’ worth of helium left. Aside from filling balloons, this gas is also used for cooling superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and reducing interference on qubits in quantum computers.
The balloons themselves kill. If swallowed, they can kill dolphins, whales, turtles and seabirds. Many local councils have already banned balloon releases.
Just those few examples above directly affect:
Our fast-paced world has a rare opportunity to contemplate, to ponder, to think:
How can we improve funerals?
This opportunity is happening right now, and it won’t last forever. Let’s use it.
Join me on a journey to learn more about the end of life, death, and funerals; all from a positive perspective. Every two weeks, a new post will explore this important life-stage; asking what we can learn from those going before us, and how we can apply that knowledge to better our lives.