WHEN David Bowie died, his body was discreetly removed to a crematorium. There was no funeral, no fuss, and no opportunity for his fans to mourn together. The “direct cremation” had achieved celebrity endorsement.
Once upon a time, many people saved their last pennies to avoid the shame of the “pauper’s funeral”. Today, the simplest and cheapest “body-disposal” option is becoming a “fashionable” choice.
Nick Gandon, of Simplicita funeral directors in Lytham St Annes, in Lancashire, has been offering direct cremations for ten years. “I would guess they now account for seven to ten per cent of funerals. We have even had three ‘gentlemen of the cloth’ cremated in this way.”
Once all the legal paperwork is complete, “we collect the deceased and take them to our premises. The crematorium we use is near by, and we use early or unused slots in their timetable. The coffin is carried in through the chapel to the catafalque, but, unless specifically requested, no prayer is said or music played.”
Currently, the average cost of a traditional funeral with cremation is about £3300, although a full-blown, ostentatious “East End” send-off with black horses etc. can cost £100,000.
The firm Pure Cremations markets its services under the slogan “No Mourners, No Ceremony, No Fuss”. For £1195, they will collect a body in a plain coffin, take it to a crematorium for incineration, and then dispose of the ashes, or deliver them to relatives.
Simplicity Cremation’s “Essential” package covers the basic collection and disposal of a body, although it will not collect from a private home. “We can take the deceased into our care within three hours,” the firm claims [The “Essential” package is £1095 and can be upgraded for £250 to allow for private home collection].
MUCH of the selling of direct cremations emphasises cost, and, unsurprisingly, it is increasingly preferred by local authorities to dispose of unclaimed bodies.
Yet cost is only one factor. The Good Funeral Guide fact sheet says that “most people who opt for direct cremation could easily afford a traditional funeral, but they choose not to.” They may be “people who, in line with their beliefs and values, do not feel they need to have a formal, public, ceremonial funeral at which the body is present”.
For some, the choice might be an expression of their modesty and humility in life — even a statement of faith that the afterlife is in no way determined by funeral rituals. The choice can also be a statement of an opposite view: life is over; so just dispose of the remains as any other piece of organic detritus.
The director of the University of Durham’s Centre for Death and Life Studies, Professor Douglas Davies, suggests that one very practical explanation for preferring a “no fuss” disposal over a formal rite of passage: “family politics”. It is a practical option to avoid family argument over the form of the ceremony, and the religious or non-religious words to be used, and to avoid creating an occasion in which family divisions might surface.
Mr Gandon, of Simplicita, says that many families are now so geographically spread that to arrange for everyone to get together at short notice is difficult. A direct cremation allows for a memorial event to be arranged at a more convenient time.
Direct cremations might also appeal to some undertakers. They have increasingly become, Professor Davies says, “the gatekeepers of the process”. A simple disposal, while not providing opportunities for extra charges, is simple to organise. “There are no awkward vicars or difficult relatives to deal with.”
Yet it is the funeral that provides the Church with an opportunity to help mourners through the grieving process. The “No funeral” option removes a valuable pastoral opening.
Simplicita has the endorsement of The Good Funeral Guide, but, when reviewing the industry generally, the guide cautions: “If you want the body to be treated with respect, be very careful. A precious few of these outfits are excellent but there are some dreadful ones, too. This is an unregulated industry.”
Direct cremations reflect the shifting theology of the funeral. The traditional requiem mass is entirely a celebration of the mysteries of faith, with seldom any place for personal eulogy or tribute. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service looks ahead: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ”, and “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”
The emphasis today is increasingly retrospective: celebrating a life. Often, the family attends a small private cremation separate from the main memorial event. The subsequent disposal of ashes completes the “closure” process.
THE Church cannot stand by and watch the demise of the traditional funeral and thereby forfeit this important pastoral opportunity. There is an urgent need to respond imaginatively to this significant social change at a parish and national level. God treasures all his children, however their remains are disposed of.
The Church’s responsibility is now to pioneer ways of offering support, hope, and comfort to the living, even when there is no funeral. It might involve playing a far more proactive part than simply waiting for the undertaker to phone, and arranging a service that suits the vicar’s diary.
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.