Meaning is everything

words: Mark Binnersley
Meaningful funerals

As an experienced funeral director, you’re sure to have a good handle on how best to support the families in your care.

With skills based on years of working with bereaved people, much of what you do cannot be taught and often boils down to emotional intelligence and instinct.

But what would you say if someone asked you to name five core elements required to get a funeral right?

It’s a question that has been answered in great detail in an impressive piece of research led by Dr Sarah Jones, of SAIF member Full Circle Funerals, and Dr Julie Rugg, of the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group.

With support from SAIF’s Chief Executive Terry Tennens, the Good Funeral Guide and the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, Dr Jones and Dr Rugg, along with a research team, spoke to 50 people who had experience of arranging a funeral for someone.

The findings have culminated in ‘Funeral experts by experience: people talking about what mattered to them’, one of the largest qualitative surveys ever undertaken looking at the funeral experience.

Dr Jones, a former surgeon with the NHS, launched Full Circle Funerals in 2016 and during her time in the profession has sought to establish an evidence-based approach to her work.

She wanted to know whether it was “possible to arrive at an understanding of whether a good or poor funeral experience has consequences for the long-term wellbeing of the bereaved?”

Starting by looking at previous studies, Dr Jones found that many were based on anecdotal evidence and tackled the subject from funeral professionals’ perspectives rather than those of bereaved people.

“We realised that very few studies actually asked bereaved people what they felt was important when arranging or attending a funeral,” she said, adding: “At a time when many people are scrutinising the funeral industry, these ‘experts by experience’ can, and should, provide a valuable insight about how funeral care services should be delivered.”

Interestingly, Dr Jones found that people had very different needs regarding personalisation, tone and support requirements, suggesting that the movement to “personalisation” and “celebrations of life” are not always helpful. Those surveyed articulated very differing views about whether these things were appropriate or not.

Participants in the research also spoke about the funeral starting from wishes being expressed before someone has died, until after the headstone has been laid or ashes scattered.

This frames the funeral as something much broader than simply the service, demonstrating that people found meaning at different times, and some not actually during the service itself.

According to Dr Jones and Dr Rugg, Funeral Experts by Experience is a starting point and considers a preliminary question of “what is it about funerals that people find meaningful? Are there factors it is possible to isolate?”

Five factors have emerged:

  1. That the funeral followed the wishes of the person who died. Being able to follow last wishes was hugely comforting to family members arranging the funeral.
  2. Decision-making had to be inclusive. The majority of families in this study strove to ensure that all close family members were involved in the decisions being made about the funeral.
  3. Responsive funeral directors were well-regarded. A good funeral director was immediately intuitive as to the manner of approach they should take.
  4. Being with the body: the importance of getting it right. Respondents had very different views about how much time they wanted to spend with the body of the person who died.
  5. Having a funeral service that met expectations. People in the study were often sufficiently experienced to know what kind of funeral service was appropriate, given the circumstances of the death.

Importantly, the researchers found that getting a funeral wrong usually meant that at least one of the five factors was missing.

Of the study, Dr Rugg said: “Last wishes don’t mean leaving a complete planned event: even just one single preference as to song, tone, reading, or ritual action is enough, or clearly saying what isn’t wanted. Friends and family were deeply comforted by meeting a last wish and could be distressed when this was not possible.”

The report also shows that family dynamics have a key part to play in how satisfied people are with the funeral arrangements. Where individuals felt excluded from arrangements, they were highly dissatisfied, and the bitterness could be felt for years.

Furthermore, participants expressed very different needs regarding spending time with the body of the person who has died and had very diverse ideas about how they wanted to be supported by funeral directors.

And crucially, the findings challenge the conventional wisdom about how funerals are usually framed, as a funeral service on one day and at one point in time.

“Funerals are rarely just ‘about’ the funeral service,” Dr Rugg said. “Ritual funerary activity starts from the point of death and extends right through to final actions around committal which may take place – if there has been a cremation – months or even years after the service.”

In addition to the five factors, Funeral Experts by Experience makes a set of recommendations for professionals:

  • People may well be seeking meaning from a funeral at any point along an extended timeframe which means that, all the way along that line, professionals should acknowledge and support each other’s contribution to meaning-making.
  • Family dynamics will play a substantial role in defining the success of the funeral, and funeral directors’ mediating between family members to facilitate inclusion is an important function.
  • Funeral director training should acknowledge that families using their services may themselves be expert in creating meaning at funerals: arranging funerals should be framed more as a dialogue and less in terms of ‘expert’ direction of ‘inexpert’ customers. A good funeral service is a ‘co-production’.
  • Families should be made fully aware of the processes involved in embalming. Indeed, there should be active and informed consent. Understanding the process after the fact can be deeply distressing and regarded as an unmitigated harm that is often regretted.
  • Funeral directors may well have a role to play in advising individuals and families about post-funeral options, particularly in terms of the legality of disposing of cremated remains in public places.

The survey report was launched in September at the Annual Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management Conference and can be read in full here.

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