funeral-carriageYou wouldn’t think funerals could be the subject of any merriment, and in truth it’s a serious business; but veteran Whaley Bridge undertaker Jez Unsworth, resplendent in a beautifully fitting dress suit (my dad was a tailor, I notice such things), had us both giggling and gasping in turns.
He recalled as a youngster being mesmerised by Thora Hird’s ITV series In Loving Memory, set in Jeremiah Unsworth’s Funeral Parlour. At 12, asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, “An undertaker!” seemed obvious. From school at 15 he went to Leech’s in Manchester; they had been taken over by the Co-op, but in their 33 branches round Greater Manchester he began to learn his trade.

It’s more diverse than many callings. A trainee has to learn to fetch bodies, embalming, events management, paperwork and bureaucracy, and dealing with the public at the most sensitive time of their lives.  They have to be knowledgeable about everything from crematoria to ancient churchyards. Most trainees start in the coffin shop, fixing handles, but Jez soon found himself in the office meeting the families: a teenager with a grave and compassionate manner.

Jez soon learned from grim experience to carry a “disaster suit” in case the police called to remove a decomposed body; on his first such encounter, he arrived smartly attired to see a police officer being sick in the gutter. The deceased had lain untouched for several months. On the train home, “I had the carriage to myself…”but the bespoke tailoring had to be destroyed.
The large Caribbean population of Moss Side, where he conducted many funerals in his young days, favoured St Philip’s church. A pub stood conveniently next door. “You never went hungry at their events,” Jez smiled. One funeral seemed to lack any male mourners…. until suddenly they appeared on masse. It was the lunch break of the Windies’ test match, for which the wake had been precisely timed.

Moslem communities pose particular problems (and Jewish ones too) as interment has to be within 24 hours of death. The body is often sent home to Pakistan or India for burial. This entails registering the death, collecting the body, embalming it, a service in the local mosque, the coffin sealed, trucked to Heathrow and on the next plane, all in double-quick time.  Normally it can take a week just to get a death registered, especially if a coroner’s certificate is required (a sudden death, or the deceased had not recently seen a doctor). On the other hand, much of the business of erecting a headstone is left till much later, unlike for most other burials (Unsworth’s has a memorial mason business as well).

In 1987 Jez conducted his grandfather’s funeral, then used a bequest to set up his own business aged 21. Now several other family members are involved too. He was the youngest person in the country to qualify, though in practice it’s an unregulated industry with few rules. Anybody can open a business and it’s highly competitive. Whether they can conduct matters competently is another question.

The industry is worth around £2bn a year in the UK with some 7,000 firms, two thirds of which are independents like Unsworth. It’s a growth business, though the number of funerals has not changed much recently (600,000 a year) as life expectancy has increased. Many firms don’t trumpet that they’ve been swallowed up by Dignity or the Co-op, the two main big players. The Competitions and Markets Authority last year launched an inquiry into the entire industry following complaints that the price of funerals had risen by three times inflation over the previous decade; since the announcement, Dignity has cut its prices. You’re talking £4,271 on average for a standard cremation including fees for the doctor and the priest, more for a burial, thousands more on top of that for a particular plot.

Jez gave some reasons for the increase in fees. With higher EU standards for emissions, new cremators have had to be installed; the Macclesfield one cost half a million pounds, so fees there have whizzed up from £150 to £750. The increasing size of bodies means they’re often too wide for a standard crem; the “bariatric cremator” at Chesterfield will take up to a 48” wide coffin, the only one in the area.  One gentleman was so large he needed a crane for his last journey.

Questions flowed freely. Will you get the right ashes? Yes, is the answer. The cremator is a long tunnel burning at 800 – 900 deg C (another reason why it’s expensive) and the ashes are reverently collected at the far end. You can have them made into jewellery including diamonds, but that’s pricey.

As for burial grounds: Stockport doesn’t have one any more. There are lots of “woodland” burials now; we were astonished to hear that you can be buried in your back garden if you wish, as long as it’s not near a watercourse, but it has to go on the deeds of the property. That’ll help with the resale! In the High Peak “quite a lot of burials are on farm land.” Jez said. One chap is buried in a layby; he owned it, had parked his caravan there for years, so his widow arranged for him to be interred there. Most churchyards are full but you’ll be asked discreetly by the vicar if you’re happy to use an old grave. They were dug very deep often with the intention of taking half a dozen coffins, but the family moved on; once their 80 years’ lease is up, ownership reverts to the church. You don’t get a freehold on interment in consecrated ground.

We asked about coffins, and prepayment. You can have any style of coffin; you can have silver cars, rainbow hued, whatever you choose. In the US it’s common to rent a coffin and then the dear departed is cremated in a cardboard box – that’s legal in Britain, but unusual. There’s an issue with the increasingly popular wicker coffin: it ignites too quickly (and you can see through it, so it needs a wooden bottom and sides). And what happens if the deceased had a pacemaker fitted? It has to be removed, as it will damage the firebricks: do that and it can cost £10,000 to repair, though a full-blown explosion, as in Ian Banks’ The Crow Road is unlikely. Somebody did scare staff at a Manchester crem recently by putting a coconut in the coffin…

So many options: frozen nitrogen will preserve you indefinitely if you wish, or alkaline hydrolysis will turn your ashes into fertiliser – how useful. As for prepayment, it’s estimated that 80% of all funerals will be like that within a few years. Hospices are encouraging it, and Jez has had to learn new skills, discussing with the customer how they would like to depart. It does seem to give comfort, he says. He is not sure how to sign off at the end: “See you soon” doesn’t feel appropriate.

Altogether a fascinating insight into a little known or understood industry, by one of the most kindly and genial speakers we have had. Thank You Jez, see you later.

Next meeting: THURSDAY APRIL 18th (because the Friday is Good Friday) at Chapel Golf Club, coffee at 7.30am as usual, with Jonathan Bowers, MD of Manchester-based cloud computer hosting service and IT specialist UK Fast. Head in the Clouds? Come and learn more….