The Business of Death

A Special Sunet

I’ve been a little quiet this week. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking. Thinking about the things I’ve lost, thinking about the things I’ve gained. Thinking about how nice it would be to show my mum what I’ve achieved in the years since I lost her. Tuesday marked the eighth anniversary of her death. That means I’ve spent a quarter of my life without her. Unimaginable, and yet true.

Today someone asked me to review some of their radio work, including a project that they did at university. It reminded me that I also made a mini-documentary for my Broadcast Journalism Post Grad at City, which I started the year after I lost mum. Something to get me out of bed each morning, and perhaps help me along on my career path.

When it came to choosing a topic for my piece I was still obviously thinking about all that had happened. One of the first things I thought after I lost mum was “what do I do with a dead body?”. Seriously, it’s might sound mad, but it just came into my head. I had no idea, and I had no idea how you were supposed to know. Luckily, I was at a very kind hospital, Queen’s Square in London and the staff helped me, told me what I had to do next, and I got on with it, because I had to, because I had no idea what else I was supposed to do. How to act, how to feel, how to go on.

One of the things that struck me, was just how much it cost to arrange a funeral. It’s something that we don’t like to talk about, death I mean, so it’s no wonder that this alien world of funeral directors and disbursements was a bit of a shock.  I guess it sort of bothered me that I had so little idea about what I was meant to do, and what to expect, so I turned that into this short documentary entitled “The Business of Death”. The idea was to shed a bit of light on the costs involved, and find out why things were so expensive. To talk about something we don’t often dare to mention. Death.

As I sat at the funeral director’s and they listed options and prices I was in a whirl. I wanted to do the best I could for mum. I wanted to show people who attended the funeral just how much I cared. But I also had her voice in the back of my head “Oh just pop me in the woods where I can fertilise the trees, that’ll be fine”. “How much? We could fly to Ghana and back for that”.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t want me to waste lots of money on a coffin that was just going to get cremated anyway. I asked about the eco-friendly basket options, even the cardboard box-style eco-coffins and almost wanted to shout out loud (in fact I may have done!) “how much”. I’d had this idea that I could personally decorate a cardboard coffin to make it look nice, a final gesture of love for her, but when they wanted to charge me over £1000 for a box that looked no better than that which my stereo came in, I just couldn’t do it. That voice, mum’s voice, was too strong and too clear. She wouldn’t have wanted that. I felt a pang of guilt, shame almost, asking if there were a cheaper option. What if I was being judged by the funeral organiser, what if the guests would think I didn’t care? But one thing that mum taught me was that money isn’t love. Time and thought, those are love. I stuck to my guns, opting for something that she would have felt happier with. I couldn’t splash out on something ridiculous and expensive, she’d roll in her grave – the words had left my mouth before I realised the irony…

I got over the feeling of shame. This was my mum’s funeral, no-one else’s. I know she wouldn’t have wanted the metallic pink coffin with the satin lining, the enormous wooden casket with a bad copy of The Last Supper carved into the inside lid, and I was pretty sure the painted Westham fan coffin wouldn’t float her boat either. No, we were doing this our way, she was (and is) still a part of me, and I was going to do what she would have wanted.

So there I was, sitting in the Co-operative funeral care shop (yes, there’s a kind of funeral supermarket in my area, coffins on show, pick what you like etc) and it dawned on me.

“You’re the co-op aren’t you?”

“Yes”

“The co-op co-op? Like the supermarket?” I asked

“Yes” said the assistant, wondering where I was going to go next.

And there it was. My mum’s voice, echoing in my head. My mum, who loved to grab a bargain and collect airmiles and bonus points.

“It’s just that my gran has a co-op dividend card, would she get points on the funeral?” I asked, somewhat timidly, but thinking what pleasure mum would get from knowing she was keeping grannie and grampa in food for a month through the bonus points.

“Well, I suppose she might” said the assistant. “I’ll have to go and check”. She trotted off, I threw my friend a little smile. I was back in control, that’s exactly the sort of stupid cheeky question that mum would have asked. The assistant came back a moment later.

“I’m sorry” she said, “you don’t get points on a funeral, but as a cooperative member, you do get 10% off”.

I realise that may seem like a very odd thing to have done, but sometimes, when the worst things happen, you have to revel in any humour you can find. I’ve never been so pleased that so many people have such awful taste as the day I went to arrange mum’s funeral. Honestly, how could you keep a straight face looking at the hideous, gaudy, enormous boxes that some people opt for. Don’t get me wrong, I understand exactly why they might do it, but I also know that my mum would be laughing with me.

Anyway, back to the point. I made this little documentary to investigate what people thought the cost of a funeral would be, and to look into the reality of it. Why are funerals so expensive. It was quite soon after I’d lost mum, so I suppose part of it was a challenge to myself, and part of it was a wish to bring the subject out in to the open so that other people didn’t get caught out and shocked like I did.

There is a health warning on this audio. Around eight minutes in I visit a crematorium and I record some sounds there. As a radio person it’s fascinating, powerful audio (I think). Personally it could upset people, but remember, I recorded this in the very crematorium that cremated my mother, and despite my initial fear, I actually found it quite reassuring.

I made this over six years ago, there are a few small things that I would change, but overall, I think that it has stood the test of time quite well. I’d love to know what you think.

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~ by Kate Arkless Gray on November 23, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Business of Death”

  1. Really interesting to hear this – and read about your experiences. Funerals are so intrinsic to Irish society – it sounds like you have a very different experience in England. Having said that, it’s very difficult to organise a funeral that doesn’t involve a church of some sort in Ireland, and as many people as want can come (there are no invitations or anything like that, you just put an announcement out) so the catering bills can be interesting. It usually happens a couple of days after death (there is usually an evening service followed by requiem and burial or cremation the following morning) so the family will be surrounded by people before, during, and after, which creates quite a supportive environment. Sometimes people sit up all night around the coffin like in an old-style wake. You also normally have a commemorative mass one month later which is also a fairly large social occasion. So it can be expensive to organise a funeral, but it sort of has its own momentum. I think the problem is that the real bereavement only sinks in a lot later – so while you handle all the administrative tasks, it takes a long while to realise the person is absolutely staying dead.

  2. Hi Kate it is very interesting to look at the business of death…. when I used to take funerals I always tried to do the best for the family and to speak for them, that often meant doing stuff that I would not personally have at a funeral and making it fit.

    It concerns me that people spend so much of funerals…..I think having the right minister is the most important bit and that costs hardly anything at all….mind you I am biased about the importance of the minister!

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