22 Oct 2015
Ideal Death Expo Shows How to Make a Living From Bereavement
In Europe, attitudes to funerals and mortality have changed, with many families and commercial enterprises looking to stage more personalised and novel farewells to loved ones, a trend highlighted by the recent Ideal Death Show.
Oscar Wilde, the Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and wit, is quoted as saying: "Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the 19th century that one cannot explain away."
There is, doubtless, plenty about British life that remains vulgar in the 21st Century. Attitudes towards death and dying have shifted considerably, however. Over recent decades, funerals have notably moved away from the sombre religiosity that was a legacy of the Victorian age. Traditional mourning rituals persist, but greater stress pertains to celebrating the life of the deceased. By way of illustration, a recent survey of British funeral directors found that almost half (48%) had arranged services in the last year where, instead of formal black attire, congregations wore clothing of special significance to the deceased – such as football shirts or fancy dress.
There is also a greater sense of openness about discussing death than ever before. Equally, there has been a realisation that grief is experienced in different ways and that bereavement brings a variety of responses and needs. This has created a clear demand for funeral services that are responsive and adaptable. Step forward the Ideal Death Show, an unusual amalgamation of symposium, industry social gathering and business fair.
Held in early September in Winchester, in the south-east of England, this year's show involved some two dozen businesses, various associations and voluntary organisations, and attracted more than 300 delegates. An awards ceremony on the Saturday night – dubbed the "Oscars" of the British funeral industry – included such accolades as Gravedigger of the Year, Crematorium Attendant of the Year and the Blossom d'Amour award for funeral floristry.
The emphasis of the trade show, meanwhile, was very much on promoting alternatives to the traditional funeral. It also had a focus on any innovations likely to lighten the load of those having to make arrangements for the passing of a loved one.
Broadly, the trends and innovations in evidence from exhibitors can be put into three, admittedly fluid, categories, a number of which may be of interest to industry practitioners and consumers in Hong Kong: personalisation, environmentally conscious solutions and technological novelties.
Many businesses present at the Ideal Death Show were acutely conscious of the demand for funeral services that allow people to plan ahead for their own arrangements. At the same time, there was also a focus on giving bereaved individuals and families real choices as to how they mark the passing of loved ones.
One major trend was seen as being home-based, family-led funerals. The Home Funeral Network UK is an organisation set up to support businesses looking to provide services in this area, while also seeking to help families make informed choices about home funeral arrangements. It offers a one-stop shop for information about home funerals, as well as providing access to home funeral guides and undertakers, celebrants, "soul midwives" (holistic companions who guide and support the dying) and a variety of artisans.
Typical of the exhibitors at the event was Claire Turnham, who set up Only With Love after losing her own father. Aimed at "gently changing death care one family at a time", her services range from bereavement support to help with bathing, dressing and laying out the deceased, while also acting as a guide to arranging home funerals.
In a similar vein, Dee Ryding founded Divine Ceremony, a small independent company serving southwest England, after experiencing the death of her grandparents and her infant son in close succession. She felt that "existing services did not deal adequately with people's lives and the family's grief".
She now works closely with families, helping to create ceremonies that "reflect the way people lived their lives and helping families through the process of loss". Her services include help with wills, choosing a venue, readings and music, tailored ceremonies, one-to-one consultations and funeral workshops.
One of the more visually striking exhibits at the show was a motorcycle-driven hearse belonging to the Reverend Paul Sinclair, the Faster Pastor, as he likes to bill himself. In 2014, he had more than 500 bookings for his fleet of eight bikes, which range from Harley Davidsons to Triumph Thunderbirds.
Similarly, Liverpool-based Rory Coxhill's Final Fare New York taxi hearse offers something a little more flamboyant than the traditional hearse. He said: "People are now looking more and more for an element of humour or personality." In future, he plans to provide other vehicles to his range, such as VW camper vans and cars in red and blue – something that will appeal, respectively, to fans of his home city's football teams, Liverpool and Everton.
A Somerset-based company, Elysium Memorials, meanwhile, offers, among its range of "contemporary memorials for the home and garden", perhaps the most personalised keepsakes imaginable – glass urns that incorporate small amounts of cremation ashes into the glass itself.
Environmentally conscious Solutions
People the world over are becoming more conscious as to how the way in which they live impacts upon the environment. In the context of dying, this has resulted in an interest in the use of sustainable materials and giving the remains of a loved one a final resting place that does not disturb nature.
In the UK, coffins and shrouds made from renewable and/or biodegradable materials are becoming more and more popular. Companies such as Wealden Coffins and Honest Coffins offer a variety of elegantly designed, adaptable and customised eco-coffins all made from solid wood. The latter also includes the option of buying your own future coffin in advance and using it as a piece of furniture, such as storage for bedding or wine, until its need becomes more pressing. Respect Green Burials, meanwhile, makes coffins unnecessary with its bamboo shrouds that are 100% biodegradable.
In Hong Kong, due to space restrictions, 90% of the city's dead are cremated, meaning there is relatively little demand for coffins. One innovative company that might offer some inspiration to funeral entrepreneurs here, however, is Cradle to Grave. Run by Cath Pratley from her home in Dorset, the company provides biodegradable urns and baskets made from Somerset willow. These include urns fashioned into miniature Viking boats which carry the ashes and can be burnt over water.
Subject to the necessary land-use approvals being given by the government, natural burials are another eco-friendly trend that may someday find an enthusiastic response in Hong Kong, given the territory's green spaces outside of the island proper One British company, Clandon Wood Natural Burial has 31 acres of wildflower meadow, lake, wetland and young woodland available for natural burials near Guildford in Surrey.
Named Cemetery of the Year and Best UK Natural Burial Ground in 2014, it promotes itself as a nature reserve where families can bury their dead in a manner carried out for thousands of years. Bodies are buried in their natural state, without embalming, in biodegradable coffins and in shallow graves, in order that the remains can swiftly become part of the natural landscape.
Another natural burial site, run by Greenacres Woodland Burials, allows families to buy "living memorials", via sponsoring a bird, owl or bat box, or even a tree.
The Ideal Death Show showcased just a few ways in which information technology can make the business of death less of a financial and logistical burden for the dying or the bereaved, while also helping to enrich the process of remembrance.
One company focussing on this aspect of bereavement was LifeBank, a "peace of mind" client service platform that offers users a powerful interactive data-key, designed to protect their private information. According to its literature, LifeBank "allows individuals to privately secure, aggregate and manage all of their important data, assets, investments and complex life affairs, and ensure it can only be accessed by trusted persons".
Originating in Australia, the company's platform has clear potential in terms of planning for old age and, ultimately, death. Sandy Gilchrist, its UK representative, said: "LifeBank ensures people's knowledge, wealth assets, important documents and private life data can be kept in one place and securely transferred to family and trusted persons in the future."
Other tools which can make a difference when facing the often distressing practicalities of bereavement are comparison sites. One such site is www.aboutthefuneral.com. Whether individuals are planning ahead for their own after-death care or have been recently bereaved, they can compare available services in their area and further afield according to cost, reputation and environmental considerations.
Another company which uses technology to make things easier for people to focus on remembrance instead of logistical concerns is Forget Me Not. Besides providing its FlowerCare service, whereby the company ensures fresh flowers are laid next to loved ones' graves or memorials at regular intervals and emails photographs to families, its WebLink service takes digital remembrance into new territory.
By linking physical memorials and graves to personalised online tribute pages, via QR codes, the memorials themselves become interactive. Families are then able to add unlimited text, visuals and sound, using a range of design templates, while also inviting others to contribute.
The inaugural Ideal Death Show UK took place from 4-6 September at The St John's House in Winchester.
Kenny Hodgart, Special Correspondent, Winchester