Direct cremation: facing the future

The Towner family

Our interview with Robert Duncan of Arthur C Towner, on how the traditional funeral business is meeting the challenge head on.

What made you consider offering direct cremation as part of your service?

“Edward Towner, our Managing Director in 2016, identified that direct cremation would have an impact on the sector, and so we discussed that as a team.

This was when some of the big companies started to enter the market, and what prompted our action was a call from a lady who lived a couple of hundred yards away. Her husband had died, and she was considering using a national direct cremation company but wanted us to bring him into our care until he could be removed by them. When we suggested we could offer a similar service, she saw that as a huge benefit because the person she loved wasn’t going to be transported hundreds of miles away for cremation. Our solution was that a local business was going to support her through that.

So, in the early stages, we offered direct cremation as an alternative and even detailed this on our website. We costed it accordingly and looked at how we could match people’s expectations with the service we provided.”

How do you start the conversation?

“Very early on we developed a very simple questioning technique. We began with ‘Are you intending to have a ceremony?’ and ‘Would you wish to attend the ceremony?’.

So that immediately made people think about what they really wanted. If they wanted to attend with someone and have a ceremony, we were very frank and said this was in fact a traditional funeral. Our receptionists, who generally answer the phone, ask simple questions and take initial contact details and then schedule an appointment with a funeral director to discuss things in more detail. The funeral director then takes on the funeral and is completely responsible for everything that happens from that point on.”

So, it’s like a flowchart system – yes takes you one way, no another?

“Yes. Asking a question with more than two options often confuses people. So, we’re effectively funneling down – first establishing what is it that they want, then explaining what we would provide based on their answers and making sure that our service matches their thinking.

However, we don’t have a written script because it’s important that our staff are individual and personable and say things in their own way. Some families are sure of what they want while others aren’t. When they aren’t, we ask, ‘Are you considering an attended funeral service or something that’s unattended?’. By asking that simple question we have an initial concept of what the funeral director, the next point of contact, can discuss in more detail.”

How have your direct services evolved since 2016?

“We found that some families wanted a direct cremation but also wanted to be at the crematorium and suddenly we had this middle ground, so we developed what we call an Enhanced Direct Cremation, which for us is a witnessed committal. The families are still having a direct cremation – there’s no funeral ceremony – but the coffin is taken to the crematorium in a hearse, it is carried into the crematorium by four pallbearers and the family can be there to witness this. All of this is clearly explained on our website and by our staff.

So, we have two options: a Basic Direct Cremation which is unattended or an Enhanced Direct Cremation which the family can attend. Like everything, you have to have some form of structure.

Occasionally, families will say they want a simple coffin, a closed van, and they don’t want to be there, but they want to come and view the deceased. Again, we are honest and transparent and give them the cost for a basic direct cremation but tell them there is a charge for the use of our chapel and for the preparing of the person if they want to view.”

What percentage of people ask for Direct Cremation now?

“It’s still very low. But I’d certainly say I think in our area it’s about 10%. In my opinion COVID has driven it. When you had a maximum of 10 people allowed to attend a funeral where the family said they would normally have expected about 100, they often said, ‘What’s the point in having a service?’.”

How do you offer best value to the families?

“We negotiated reduced rates with the local crematorium for basic direct cremations and enhanced direct cremations, so we now have a 9am and 9.15am time for basic direct cremations, which is economic because it’s a reduced fee. However, the crematorium stipulates that nobody can attend at those times. Again, we are very frank and honest about that when speaking to families. We also offer a 9.30am witnessed committal which is our enhanced direct cremation. And then, from 10.15am onwards, it’s the standard crematorium fee for a standard attended funeral.”

In terms of mental health, some say the conversation should begin at the preplanning stage. What are your views on that?

“We think it’s really important. One of our senior funeral directors focuses purely on our Golden Charter pre-paid funeral plans. As part of his discussion with any client, he will ask, “Have you informed your family?” Although it’s not ultimately our business what the answer is, we feel it’s really important that anyone considering taking a plan out has been transparent with the people they love, and who would be left behind dealing with their decision.

Some of those conversations have resulted in clients requesting a traditional funeral rather than a direct. A funeral service is for the community, your colleagues, friends, and relatives – whoever you have touched and who want to come and commemorate together. By reducing or denying that shared experience, this can undoubtedly affect individuals and wider society.”

Has there been any community feedback regarding the large direct cremation companies?

“We’ve had two situations in the past six months where a family phoned us saying they had arranged for a specific direct cremation company to come and collect their loved one, but that they had sent them away when they turned up because they weren’t dressed in a professional manner, or the vehicle was grubby. We have also had a next of kin turn to us for assistance after the death when they realise that their loved one is going to be taken up to 200 miles away.”

With so many direct cremations as a result of COVID, how many memorials have taken place?

“Not many. Nobody feels safe enough to have their memorials yet because COVID has dragged on. Now we’re more than a year and a half on, but this continues to be a thing that to some extent is still missing within our communities. Communal grieving is one of the things that humans do that other species don’t.”

Do you see the trend for direct cremation continuing?

“Definitely. The positives from a client point of view are reduced cost and simplicity of process. The negatives are that with the national companies, the deceased is transported some distance away from home. We realise the importance of keeping things as local as possible and by providing the service in our local community, we can care for all of them, and they stay with us until the day of the cremation.”

What’s the key takeaway for funeral directors?

“The importance of providing a direct cremation service within your community. In my opinion, direct cremations are here to stay so it’s better that you set up a structure to deal with that. If we put our business hats on, we need to view this as being a family member who may want a direct cremation this time but may not want the same for another relative in the future.

It is really important from a business point of view that we retain that client, and that we do everything we can to support them, because even if they never have another funeral to arrange, they will still hopefully tell people we took care of their loved one well and did everything they wanted.

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