It is interesting how important ‘dignity’, ‘discretion’ and ‘personalisation’ are in this industry. Looking at the ‘Statewide Mortuary Transfers’ website one can see that dignity and discretion is extremely important. These terms are mentioned several times when talking about staff, facilities and the vehicles. When talking about the vehicles it even states that they all use “one person stretchers on wheels, similar to those used in modern ambulances. This ensures a high level of dignity”. It is interesting how important it is that the equipment be modern and dignifying. And that they use similar equipment to ambulances. Most people in this industry would know Statewide is an impressive company. They are always professional and immaculate, sometimes more so than some funeral directors themselves. So it is strange that they feel the need to state it on their website.
Again, looking at the InvoCare website the idea of dignity and discretion is highlighted. In their corporate profile they talk about “building trusting relationships”, maintaining a high quality and standards and “personalising the service to reflect the life of the individual”. This sort of wording can be seen in any funeral home website or advertising. Dignity is just so important with this job. Yet it is un-assumed. The way they all emphasise dignity gives them impression that the general public assumes there is no dignity in the industry. After being asked certain questions and the way others talk about what we do I have realised that most people think there is little to no dignity in death. And they worry about this with regards to their loved ones.
While it is true, death and dignity do not go hand in hand they do have a relationship with each other. The way people are treated after they die would not be called ‘dignified’ if they were alive. Certain things, such as putting a nappy on them, or dressing them the way we do would be wrong if they were alive. They, however are not alive and these actions are quite reasonable if not for the best once the person is dead. Lets look at the nappy. If a person were alive putting a plastic nappy on them would be insulting in most cases. It would be uncomfortable and degrading. Once they are dead this becomes a nice way of preventing ‘spills’ or smells which would be unseemly. On the funeral or during a viewing the last thing people would want are strong unpleasant smells from their loved one. So dignity never goes but changes after death. Even so many in the industry highlight and emphasise how they maintain dignity and many on the outside wonder if it exists at all.
The other thing they emphasise is personalisation, either through ‘personal service’ or ‘personalising the service’. A good example of this is the W.N.Bull slogan “leaders in personal service”. This slogan can be found below the logo on just about everything to do with the company. You would be hard pressed to find the W.N.Bull logo without it making the company image strongly tied to the slogan. There are two intertwined reasons why funeral homes place so much importance on personal service. Firstly they do not want to be seen as a “cold” or “uncaring” place that treats the deceased as an object rather than a person. Obviously this would create a bad image, which would damage business and drag down the reputation of an otherwise good funeral company. And reputation is vital in this business amongst the companies. One can see all this with the rumours of InvoCare being an American corporation. When InvoCare buys a new funeral home fresh rumours begin to circulate about its American ties. As a result that funeral home almost always loses business initially. I saw this myself with W.N.Bull, once InvoCare bought the business work dropped off as rumours rose about the foreign ownership of InvoCare and now of W.N.Bull.
Gossip is ripe in this industry with true and false rumours being spread about each other. As such negative stories spread around wildly and damage the companies image. The other reason that they promote personal service is more obvious and immediate. People do not want their loved one objectified. They want them to be treated appropriately. Many just go with the cheapest or easiest as they do not see the difference in price being worth it. And it is true, most funeral companies will do a good job. Or at least the vast majority of mourners will not notice the difference. After all, many people do not know the coffin should always be turned clockwise. However many people do care about personal service, and this is a main area that W.N.Bull makes its money. Driving families over the year the topic of why they chose Bulls has come up surprisingly often. The vast majority of reasons can be broken down into two main, loosely related reasons. The first is that previous members of the family (such as grandparents) went through Bulls and it has basically become a family ‘tradition’. The other reason is, as one mourner once said, they “wanted a more personal service than the big companies” could provide. They paid a lot more (sometimes up to double) than the larger funeral companies charge primarily for the personal service. People do not want their loved one to be just another job amongst many, to be in a mass production style system like their groceries or other products. And that is why many people use Bulls. They do not have a ‘mass production’ system like many larger companies (such as Guardian or White Ladys). At Bulls they do one funeral a day per crew as opposed to the six or seven per day per crew with the larger companies. And this does allow for better focus, learning the name of the deceased and their family, something that is basically impossible for the crews doing more than one per day. The down side of this is that Bulls have to charge more per funeral, which is understandable. And as I stated previously most people are willing to pay as much as double to know they are getting that personal service. That their loved one is being cared for and treated as a persona rather than just another job. In the end personal service is very important to many mourners and funeral homes.
Personalising the service itself is not as common but is tied heavily into personal service, and it does come up occasionally. The best, and most interesting place to find this is on the InvoCare website in the section where they talk about the company. It basically states that attitudes towards funerals are changing over time. It is becoming more acceptable to talk about them and “they are now looked upon as a chance to ‘celebrate a life’ through personalising the service to reflect the life of the individual and generally making the service itself special”. Here they emphasise personalised service over personal service. I find it a strange and interesting concept to raise, as if there is an assumption that funerals are from a cookie cutter mould with little variation. What is more interesting is that this is often true in my experience so far. Especially with traditional Catholic funerals (which is the vast majority of W.N.Bulls work) it could be anyone who has died. The priests rarely if ever refer to the deceased and focus on the bible and religious ceremony instead. Sometimes the only way you would know it was a funeral would be because of the coffin and some specific rituals performed only at funerals. Even at non religious funerals the service follows a fundamental pattern and rarely differs. It is just strange that something one would think so personal and so individual usually follows a predefined and predictable pattern.
So one is left wondering why personal service is so important to both the consumers/mourners and with funeral companies. Rarely any funeral services are personalised and even those that are follow certain patterns and times. And we should also wonder why dignity and discretion are so important to promote. The act of promoting them so heavily leaves an assumption that those outside the funeral industry see it as inhumane and cold. After all, funeral companies would not spend so much time and money emphasising these ideas if they were un-needed. Even though these three ideas are considered important (by both the funeral industry and the public) we should really question their importance.