Simon is a funeral director. He’s a busy man, but was happy to be interviewed. I had the fun of conducting the interview in my humble house truck. I placed a sheepskin over the little canvas chair and put a pot of water on the gas element in preparation.
Once he had his cup of tea we began.
I’m working on compiling a series of interviews, conversations, with a wide variety of New Zealanders who can help give a bit of a fresh take on death, dying and funerals. I feel sad about how death and dying are done, and the effects of our skewed relationship with death – they ripple right through society. And the fear – “Don’t mention it, you’ll bring it closer”.
In some cultures, that’s an absolute reality for them. Jewish Orthodox refuse to talk about it in advance. Even Pacific Island cultures, while they know death’s coming, it’s not a good thing to prepare for it in advance.
That’s helpful for me; I didn’t know that.
And the thing is we know that it’s helpful. With New Zealand European, where we’ve come from culturally, we know that it’s beneficial to prepare in advance. You make better decisions, you make more informed decisions, you are less likely to go down a path that you look back on afterwards and think, “Why did I do that?” You don’t know why you did it, but people with good intentions sometimes suggest you do things, so you go down that path, but if you plan in advance, you are far more likely to get a funeral that you want, whether you’re doing it for yourself, or for somebody whose death you’re preparing for. You’re in more control. And you’ve got the power. You know, I think of when I was growing up, with my doctor, who was my father’s doctor and grandfather’s doctor, and whatever Doctor Roddick said, I never questioned. And funerals were the same, because we had even less understanding of death than we do today, where people used not to question. When I first started doing funeral arrangements people would say, “Whatever’s normal”. What was ‘normal’ was so predominant in every single funeral arrangement, and now, you never hear, “Whatever’s normal.” So, there’s been a big power shift. People clearly feel that they have the power to do and say what they want, but again, it’s tainted by culture, it’s tainted by our traditions. So to say to a Pacific Island family, “What about cremation?” would be like I’m from Mars. It’s just not an option, and the ones who do choose it (and for us we might see a Pacific Island family cremate once a year) it’s an absolute, “Oh my goodness, what are they doing?” But it’s good that those people feel they can make a choice.
I’ve been talking funerals and trying to de-mystify the process and hand the power back for 36 years. And yet when you come against a culture, it’s really. . . Well I don’t have a right to impose my beliefs on you, if you want to do it this way. As long as I do it how you want it, that’s fine. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but again, culture is culture, and religion.
And there’s a piece in your Purpose that says… “consistent with the values of the families we’re serving,”
It doesn’t mean we always agree with it, but if that’s what you want . . . If people are going down a path that I don’t think they understand the consequences of, I will always say, “We can absolutely do that; these are the consequences.” For instance, people have said, “I don’t want embalming, but my son’s in London, and he wants to fly back and see Mum”. In that situation I’ll say, “That’s absolutely fine, but the consequences of that choice are, the person is not going to look as good. If we embalm her, she will look a whole lot better for your son, but at the end of the day it’s your choice. And then when the son comes over a week later and has a look and it’s really not a pleasant experience for him, you sort of think, what a shame, but again, that’s their choice.
And one of the biggest shifts around embalming, from our perspective – not many companies do it, I don’t believe – when a family rings us to say someone has died, we will ask them immediately on that call, “Do you want your Mum or Dad embalmed?” and then you’ll get into a conversation because they will then say, “What does that mean?” Generally I’ll say, “If you want to see the person in the casket again, we would recommend that you do it, but you don’t have to. But if nobody is seeing the person again, it’s up to you whether the person is embalmed or not. They can go into refrigeration for the days between now and the funeral. And then people tend, with embalming, to be working through practical issues. There will be people that have an environmental desire not to introduce chemicals where possible, so they will immediately say, “No, we don’t want that”. But there will be people who have never thought about it; they’ve never come cross that decision to make. And as a company we’ve probably been doing this for about six years, asking the question. Before that we just used to do it, because we didn’t have refrigeration. Yet most companies in New Zealand don’t have refrigeration, so the only way to keep the remains from smelling and decomposing is having them embalmed.
Oh, I’m really surprised, because I completely assumed that every company had refrigeration and would have had for years. I think it’s more like that in Britain [where I began working as a funeral celebrant.]
Britain is another culture. It is still black [dress], and you hire pallbearers, and cars.
I was an independent funeral celebrant in Britain, and I called myself Pink Coat Funerals, partly because I’d seen people gathering for funerals, and it was all black, and I wanted to offer something different.
And the other cultural thing about Britain is you have to wait so long for a booking at the crematorium, and in New Zealand, people have no understanding how lucky we are that you can choose when and where your funeral is. And if you’re in England it’s just not like that. They’ll tell you it’s 9:30 next Friday week.
And 20 minutes for the ceremony, by the time you get in and out…
How do you celebrate a life in 20 minutes?
Yes, I found it so difficult. I used to ask people to book a double slot if they could.
So when you’re talking about funerals, I’m really proud that we do what we do here, and we do it pretty well; always room for improvement, but we’ve got time – no one’s ever pressured. In recent years we do have more pressure on us in cemeteries, with councils saying if you arrive after 3:30 there will be an extra fee, and Saturday fees are really steep, and that’s their way of trying to dissuade people from later funerals and Saturday funerals. I think it’s particularly unfair. I’ve pointed it out many times, but no one listens, because their motive isn’t actually to serve the customer, but to suit themselves. But when you’ve got cemetery staff starting at 7:30 in the morning, and the first funeral in the city’s going to be ten o’clock, so they’re not going to arrive before lunch-time, why wouldn’t you have your staff start at ten and finish at 6:30? Everybody else in business would do that, and not charge them extra, but councils just aren’t interested. They’ve got a monopoly; they don’t care.
Can I bring up a point about embalming? Years ago, when I was heading into funeral celebrancy I was fortunate to be able to observe two embalmings. What interested me is that when I went into the room with two elderly women, they both looked dead. As the embalming continued their colour changed, and they started to look much more like that were sleeping. In terms of my passion for people to accept death as part of life, I actually think that looking dead is a good thing.
It depends where you’re at, emotionally. When you’re arranging a funeral with say six people in a family, every single one of them is in a different space, and so you’re trying to satisfy them all, and sometimes that’s not easy. So there will be some people who are so particular about makeup, for instance. They’ll want Mum to look like she’s going out to the races, and they’ll want to put a hat or fascinator on her, and her hair will have to be so right. There are some people who just don’t care. And we’re being introduced into a family where I’ve never met this person in my life before, and I’m trying to do my best. What we as funeral directors really want to do is present a clean, preserved person, so our goals are really around preservation and disinfection, then presentation. From the family’s perspective they would say it’s presentation. And so you’re dealing with all sorts, depending on the situation. We have a lady who’s been with us for a month; the family went on holiday. They’re due back next week, so preservation’s absolute, because they want to see her, and they want her to be looking like they remember her when she left. So you’re always doing a balancing act, and most often we get it right. And we want to get it right because we want that family to come back next time, so that’s the driver. You don’t want to mess it up.
But I understand what you’re saying. I would suspect that in relation to how you’re living, you would want an eco-burial, and the eco-burials at Makara Cemetery are really quite skyrocketing. It is the second most popular area of the cemetery now, and in that area of the cemetery there is no embalming; it’s not an option. So if people say they want an eco-funeral and want to be buried there, we just always say to them, “You understand that means there will be no embalming, and we will put Mum into refrigeration. You can come and see her on the day of the funeral if you want, but these are the restrictions around the choice”. And every funeral I have there [at the natural burial ground] is really real. I mean it’s natural; there’s nothing false about it. It’s all real. And they’re a little bit more expensive than a traditional funeral, only because the wood [for the coffin] has to be sustainably grown, so it tends to be more expensive, and the plot that you’re burying the person in is one and a half times the size of a normal plot. You bury the person one meter down, in the active soil layer, and put compost on top of the casket, and then fill the grave in, and the plan is that you’ll return to the elements much, much quicker that way than you will when you’re any deeper.
In the UK they call them woodland burials, and they seem to be very popular.
Oh, there are hundreds of natural burial grounds, not all woodland; there are meadows and wildflower fields, or just a quiet grassy area. I was really stunned when one of my kids showed me an article about the Makara one, and it was the first in New Zealand. I assumed New Zealand would be ahead in such things.
Yes, it was the first real one. There was one in Auckland but it was an absolute sham really. And since Makara has been in, more and more cemeteries have started to explore the idea. People have been asking for it for years, but Councils weren’t motivated to actually address it. Mark Blackham, who looked after the starting of this one, it took him years to get through the Council.
He will have paved the way for others.
Yes, and he can pick up his template and take it to other councils who are now saying they like what he’s doing, and would he come and see what’s possible at their cemetery, so that’s a good thing. We worked with Mark the whole time that we could. He’d found that natural burials were something some funeral directors opposed, but we met each other and I said, “Not at all, Mark. We’re about what the customer wants. That’s what we want to do”. We just get on so well.
As a matter of interest, are shrouds permitted by the Council.
Yes, they are permitted, but we’ve never buried anyone in just a shroud. Again, that had a practical base. If you’re attending a funeral in a church or a chapel with a person in a shroud, there’s that whole . . . you’re really confronting death. And it’s no different from when people choose to have a funeral where the casket is open. A lot of people don’t like it. “Oh, go forward and see Mum; she looks great”, but for some it’s the last thing they want to do. And again, it’s when you’re imposing your view on someone else, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. Even when we’re taking caskets to people’s homes I’ll say to them, “Maybe this room’s a good room, because if people don’t want to see your Mum, they can come and see you and not have to see her, because not everybody’s comfortable with it”. But shrouds are pretty confronting.
We have Muslim burials at Makara, and they use the casket just as a vessel to carry the person to the grave, then they take them out. They’re wrapped and sit up – they sit up in the grave facing Mecca. They have boards on top of them and then the soil goes on top of that. So shrouds in that sense have been used for . . . I don’t know when the first Muslim burial was at Makara, but I think it would have been within the last 30 years. But as a culture that’s what they expect. There are no women at the graveside either, so there’s another cultural difference.
I guess there’s a cultural thing that I feel up against in the resistance to death that I encounter, but I have to acknowledge that telling my kids, “Just wrap me in a shroud” is confronting.
But the other thing that’s really important is when you have views about what you’d like for yourself – like I have an opinion about what I’d like as a funeral – but actually, the funeral’s not for me. So you can have whatever views you like, but at the end of the day, if the kids go, “I can’t bear the thought of looking at Mum wrapped in a shroud up the front. We’ll do everything else she wants, but I can’t deal with that”. If you were to force them to do it, you’d have to ask, “What am I doing that for? Why am I controlling from the grave?”
Yes, I get it!
I wrote my funeral out and said to my father, “Look, if I go, this is what I want”. And he wrote his out, and I said, “I’m not having that bloody jazz music. I know you love it, but I hate it”. And he goes, “You’re not having Neil Diamond at your funeral”. So I said, “I can relate to that, so you do whatever you like, but I’m so not listening to your jazz. And I mean it’s true. Why do we want to control from the grave when we know the benefit of the funeral’s actually not for us?
No, it’s not; very good point.
We just want everybody to have the power and control to choose what’s right for them. When I’m pre-arranging a funeral and people get really specific, and if they’ve excluded the family from the arrangements, I will say, “If your children choose to do something different, do they have permission?” and 99.9% of the time they’ll say, “Oh god yes.” And occasionally they’ll say, “Absolutely not,” and the next thing I’ll say is, “You need to go and see your lawyer, and you need to make sure your executor knows what you want and will follow your wishes, because families do have the ability to change things”.
So, for most of these people, does it have them thinking differently?
Yes, and even when I’m doing the pre-arranged stuff at the most basic level I say, “You really need to tell your kids you’ve done this because how are they going to know to ring me? They could ring any funeral director and never know what you’ve arranged”. So they know they need to work that one through.
I have another question. I know that for you the education piece is important, and doing things in a very ethical way. Do you have any big dreams about how you’d like to see funerals? Even little dreams? What sort of shifts do you think would benefit our society?
We’ve had massive change, but I would just like death and funerals to continue to be talked about, because that empowers people. If only you could get rid of people being unsure of trying something a bit different, then people would have a very good funeral. I think for the most part we have very good funerals here, but if we could only just relax and talk about it a bit more. That’s also generational, so if I’m talking about my grandmother, she wouldn’t want to know about what’s going to happen at a funeral, or it would be very simplistic, because she’d be thinking of her parents, or when she was growing up, and you never asked a question of anybody. But as the younger generation comes through, they know they have choices.
Surprisingly, there is a growth in one area of our funeral world and that is, cremations are now about 78%. There is a growing trend towards no funeral and just a cremation and there will be either a memorial service, or we’ll just pick up Nana’s ashes. Every year we grow a percentage in that line, so currently 7% of our funerals are what we would identify as No-Service Cremations. We’re trying to understand what it’s about. It’s not about price; we know that. It might be, as people are getting older … my father, for instance, is 85, got Alzheimer’s, really doesn’t communicate with anybody, so as a family we’re even having that conversation about, “Well what do we do when he dies?” because he’s got no friends left. He actually lost them years ago when his Alzheimer’s started. So, are we having the funeral for us, and our friends can come, but why are we telling his story to these people who didn’t know him? Is there a better way of doing it?
When I see the growing trend of No-Service Cremations, I wonder whether our medication’s keeping us alive longer. And with Alzheimer’s growing, maybe, as a community, all of those things might be impacting on the final decisions that people make. I’m not sure, but it could be. Maybe ten years ago we figured it was price-driven . . .
That’s an assumption that I’ve made, because I’m aware of the trend.
Well, I know that it isn’t price driven. Maybe it was ten years ago, but these days, with No-Service Cremations, out of the 7%, only a few of them are actually ringing and asking, “How cheaply can I do a cremation?” So they’ll come in and arrange a No-Service Cremation, but they won’t even ask what it’s going to cost. So that’s not the driver for them. And predominantly cost is not an issue around funerals. People aren’t asking the question, and that’s possibly driven by the more personalised funerals we have today, and people know that if you want to have Dad’s funeral in the yacht club it will cost; and if you want a natural burial it’s going to cost more; and if you want it live-streamed to the world it’s going to cost something; if you want catering for 300 people it’s going to cost. It’s not to say you can’t do it all yourself if you want to, but generally we are a pretty lazy society – we want to drive our car into the car park, have the service, we want the cremation to somehow happen, we want a cup of tea, and we want to get in our car and drive home. Whereas 30 years ago you would have the funeral in a church, you’d go to the crematorium or the cemetery, you’d then go back home and invite people to share and tell stories, back in the family home. It’s all gone; it is all gone.
The funeral chapels are just where the venue is. People have gone more non-religious. I’m not sure that’s the right term, but they have funerals away from the church. They want the car park; they want the catering lounge; they want the one-stop shop. They want the Macdonald’s funeral, in a sense, and the funeral homes that can provide that are the ones that attract people. When I started in this business, funeral homes didn’t have catering lounges – they didn’t exist. And today you wouldn’t build a funeral home without putting it in or you wouldn’t have a business. So, it’s consumer-driven response. When celebrants started doing funerals and the church feared that funeral directors where driving people in that direction, the reality was we weren’t doing that. We don’t care where you have your funeral as long as you have what you want. It was people making that choice. But those changes were viewed quite suspiciously by some ministers. Very little is driven by the funeral director because the funeral director’s goal is to get those people to come back, and they will never come back if you sell them something they don’t want, or you push them in a direction they don’t want. It’s just human nature. And that’s the empowerment that we have today, and 30 years ago we didn’t have it.
I’ve been aware it’s a trend, and another piece that concerns me is the disruption to what I see as the ceremonial process, in which you would complete the cremation or burial before the cup of tea. To me that’s quite dislocating.
The driving away from the church or chapel without family going with the deceased is probably over 90% now.
Even without family, over 90%?
Yes, there’s a lot of what we call drive-aways. And you know, when you dig a little bit deeper into why people do that, it will be their past experiences of what a crematorium is like. They go, “Oh, we went with Nana to the crematorium. It was a cold place and I could see the flames”. And I say, “You couldn’t see the flames. I know the building, and the cremator is actually about 500 meters south”. And they say, “We saw the flames!” and no matter what you tell people, when you’ve got that in their mind you cannot convince them. Sometimes family stories get told and re-told and re-told, often with drink, and then they become the reality. And you will never change that, even though you know it can’t happen.
Another question: is there an increasing trend for people to take the deceased home for a while?
Definitely. That’s been increasing ever since I started 36 years ago. I could look at our company diary; I guarantee someone has gone home today. I just know they will have, and it’s just not unusual. As the trend started to take effect, you’d get people who’d say, “I would like Mum home”, and then you’d have a sister going, “Oh, no, that’s just not on”. So then there’d be the negotiation between family members, and every time a family would take someone home, the person who’d been against it would end up saying, “Simon, that was the best thing we ever did”.
So therefore there is a slow spread of that.
And I would always say to people when they’re arguing, “If I could offer this piece of advice, I have never, in my whole career, had anyone regret it. It’s still your choice, but I’m telling you, you won’t regret it”. And it’s true. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t.
Because that’s the feedback you’ve had.
It is the reality, and it’s because we get closer and more comfortable with death. There’s this dead body who’s back to being my mother, because the minute the person dies they go from being my mother to being a dead body, and then if you can take them home and actually spend time with them, they become your mother again. And the stories you hear, like, “I was in there and I had the tea towel over my shoulder after I’d done the dishes, and I was talking to her and it was just like Mum coz she used to put the tea towel over her shoulder”. You hear these stories. They wouldn’t happen if she was in a funeral home. And as much as we say to families, “You can take as long a you like”, when you’re in the viewing room you’re conscious that you’re making someone wait. If it’s 7:30 at night you’re thinking, “Oh, they probably want to go home”.
Whereas if she’s just there . . .
You can wander in at 11 o’clock at night, sleep beside her, do whatever you want. The cat can go in there; the dog can go in there. It is normal. But can we get everybody into that phase? I guess in time it might become normal again, because that’s how we did start. We had the person in the front parlour, even though no one ever went into the front parlour.
Last question: how do you think Maori ways of doing things have affected, and are affecting, how we do funerals?
I think Maori and Pacific Island cultures opened New Zealand to the idea that it’s okay to see the dead body. Maori and Pacific Island cultures have always done things that way, but I guess as the population levels increase you get more and more exposure to that, and I think that New Zealand white, European, whatever we are – has made its own mind up. The old undertakers used to say, “Just remember Mum as she was”. They were only observing what people were saying they wanted. But as people get to experience other cultures, they see something and think, actually, that was really good. We’ve got so many blended families that, goodness me, they’ll go to a marae and experience a tangi, and they’ll go, “Gosh, I don’t want a tangi, but I think I want Mum home in the casket, so she’s with us, where she belongs.
The issue of ownership of the body needs addressing. We’ve had a person stolen from us. We got them back, but it was very stressful. And these cases just rip people apart.
How was Britain, being a celebrant?
It was very different. There was the Church, and Humanists, and that was almost it. I was one of very few independent celebrants, nationally. The cheering thing for me, though, is that where I started as a celebrant, in a town called Frome, there is now a small, independent company that arranges and conducts funerals. One of them is a close friend, and he says their venture was made possible because of what I started. So I can live with that! In the three years I was a funeral celebrant there I had about ten funerals, and six of them were in the last five weeks, so it was exceedingly slow, because it was so new. But I am delighted at what has grown from it.
Predominantly we’re celebrant services now, but the church services have changed; they’ve had to. There was major pressure on them that if they didn’t change – people would say they’d have the funeral in the chapel and use a celebrant. Some ministers said it would be their way or the highway, so people just said, “See you later”. But the Catholic Church in New Zealand, while it would like one eulogy per funeral, even they know that you can’t achieve it. So, that’s the preference. They have vigil services the night before where they encourage people to share as much as they like, but if families want three eulogies in the funeral service, or seven eulogies, no one’s going to stop them. And music, you have whatever you like. So in all denominations these days, the funerals are so much more personal than when I started. In the old prayer book the Anglican service could be done in twelve minutes when I first started. That’s non-existent now. The 1972 service, which was the modern one, has gone too, and the new, new one that they have, they hardly ever use the book. That’s a good sign. You should start a funeral with a blank piece of paper.
Thank you so much. Simon. I do appreciate your coming, and sharing.