A Modern Approach to the Role of Funeral Director
For a funeral that is simple, meaningful, and honest.
To rethink our approach to death, and to challenge the myths that surround it, it is vital to question the purpose of the funeral director. The human face of the funeral industry, and the gatekeeper to our funerary experience, funeral directors take on many roles and require varied skills to meet the practical, ceremonial and emotional demands of a funeral. There is however no legal requirement to employ one in this country; the work you put in yourself to arrange and prepare a funeral can be a critical part of the bereavement process. So what are the functions of the funeral director?
Somebody with a clear head and an eye for detail can help you organise the event and make it all happen without a hitch on the day. Managing paperwork and materials, finding venues, coordinating and liaising and so on, amount to a significant job. Having some organisational support can free you up to have the necessary experiences around the funeral day.
A professional will be reliable and familiar with the process, but they needn’t manage you or filter your options. You can share the work amongst as many who want to be involved. Make it personal – tailor and tweak the proceedings yourselves; be creative in choosing a place and a style. Let the funeral director help you achieve what you want.
All the answers don’t have to come from a ‘professional’. They can come from your family and friends, from you. Trust your intuition.
The needs of the body, for its care, have caused people to develop specific skills, from coffin making to embalming. Modern embalming has its roots on the battlefields of the American Civil War, where bodies needed to be transported over great distances in good condition. Funeral directors appropriated this practice, giving their profession a medical nature.
These days, you may be charged for ‘Hygienic Treatment’ as part of the funeral process, but there is no legal requirement or medical necessity for the deceased to be clinically embalmed or sutured. In most cases, with prompt action and simple resources, bodies can remain in their natural state without intrusive and complicated methods of preservation. The body of your loved one can stay at home – they can be washed and dressed there. It’s entirely safe, hygienic, and avoids unnecessary expense. A funeral director might help and advise you, and liaise with medical professionals on your behalf, but should only take over at your direction.
You want your funeral director to know what to do with your grief. It is good to have someone who understands the importance and benefits of ritual, who can guide the mourners through their experience, who does not judge or assume emotion, who can sensitively and diplomatically work out the differing needs and expectations of the group of people affected by a death.
A funeral director might fulfil this role, or they will be able to match you with the correct person to guide you through the ceremonial element of the funeral, reflecting the beliefs and expectations of the gathering, and of the deceased. And again, these roles can be taken up by anyone willing and able within the group.
There are many different types of religious leaders and lots of secular celebrants and interfaith ministers who can help you put an appropriate funeral service together, or perhaps you could put the ceremony together yourselves – collect some favourite readings and music, write and deliver a life story in your own words, with your own
Funeral directing is ultimately a business, often operating with other businesses to supply you the relevant materials and services. This can result in them offering streamlined packages that might make practical business sense, but might also depersonalise the preparation and experience of the funeral. Worse, commission-led practices can lead to upselling and financial stress for the mourners.
It is not disrespectful to plan a simple send-off that doesn’t break the bank, so avoid being coerced into spending unnecessarily. A flexible funeral director will allow you to take on tasks yourself if you want; this can lead to a cheaper and more personal funeral.
When even your body has become a vessel – somehow exiting the material world seems to have become a consumer act. When preparing a funeral, you can be presented with an array of add-ons, extra services, ornaments, venues, but these quickly become expensive and in no way act as a measure of your love. By taking control yourself you can have the best experience possible and incur much less expense. Make the experience more participatory – you can even put together a crowdfunding campaign so people can offer support with direct contributions to the cost.
Of course it is wonderful to have people dedicated to meet the transport, care and storage needs of the dead at any time of the day or night. Funeral directors can be an absolute blessing and support – they are familiar with the process and can guide around any potential problems in a friendly and caring way, but they are not in charge of what happens to a dead person or what happens in the funeral – you are. Choose the right people to facilitate your experience.
Conversations around these issues help the industry to respond to and facilitate your wants. Gradually we can affect the culture in a positive way and look after and memorialise our dead in ways that make sense to how we feel and live.