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Dead Good Culture?

By Simon Smith, Green Fuse Funerals

What is affecting practices in the funeral industry and how can we improve them?

There has been a deluge of bad publicity for the funeral industry this year, with the two programmes, Dispatches on Channel 4 and Exposure on ITV1.

This was partly offset by the positive view of funeral directing portrayed in BBC2’s Dead Good Job, but we all cringe to see such awful behaviour and business practices and it is a great shame that the caring and diligent work done by so many is swept aside so easily by things that are wrong within our industry.

It is true that the bad practices were largely exposed in big companies, where the pressures on staff are often greatest to maximise profits and run ‘efficiently’, and where management is further from the daily work being undertaken, but there are lessons that can be learned throughout the sector.

There has been a great deal of sniping and blame, with funeral staff pointing the finger and being “outraged” and “disgusted” by the behaviour of the staff who were filmed. And no doubt they have been blamed and dealt with by the companies who employed them, who have been quick to claim these are isolated cases, presumably therefore rendering the management blameless.

I think we need to look at this more constructively and within a broader context. The big companies with outside shareholders, and those with external investors such as venture capital companies, put tremendous pressure on managers to squeeze the profits, because that is the only thing the investors are interested in. They have no idea what daily work is like and, for them, the investment is no more than a commodity to be traded in order to yield the highest possible return.

Managers get ahead by running the most profitable units and staff, who may want to give families a more caring and time consuming service, fear for their jobs. Those people undertaking too many funerals every week inevitably become de-sensitised and hardened to their work, depersonalise it and protect themselves against the fact of facing your mortality each day, which is an uncomfortable reality of working in funerals. Most are poorly paid and given insufficient support to cope with the pressures and challenges they face.

If you are not meeting the families and learning about the person who inhabited the body, you are handling, your compassion isn’t being aroused by anything. If you are stressed and under pressure your compassion is suppressed.

I have worked in corporate culture change, and I have seen how quickly people leave their individual values at the door and take on the corporate ones. I have also worked in venture capital and I know the pressures these investment companies put on the companies to perform financially. The former business owners, who still own a chunk of the shares, stand to lose everything if they don’t meet their targets. They often wish they had remained independent and in charge of their own destinies.

The problems that have been recently highlighted by the TV programmes are systemic and driven by the company culture. Culture is the sum of the beliefs and values of the organisation, which then are translated into systems and behaviour. The beliefs and actions of the top management are followed all the way through the system. When what a manager says is not matched by their actions, staff know this immediately. When we call the company ‘caring’ and then try and sell the families things they don’t really want, or deny them things that they do want because they aren’t profitable enough, staff feel betrayed.

I believe that funeral directing is best suited to small companies because it keeps the work with families close to those making management decisions. At our small funeral directing company we each do everything. So when I am preparing a body, I know the people who love that person, I have heard stories about them. It makes it easy to care and to want to do the job as well as possible. The bigger companies somehow need to keep that ethos.

So in larger companies the management needs to work very hard to foster a genuine caring, compassionate and value-led culture. They need to have a zero tolerance policy – not only for the kind of behaviour the programmes have highlighted, but also on the kind of pressure that encourages that behaviour and managers not walking their talk.

Managers cannot point at the people below them and say it is their fault. Managers need to walk the floor, get involved in the work and lead by example. This is not just about knowledge and skills, but also about attitudes. They need training to develop their own skills and attitudes, thereby passing those onto others.

Funeral directing is a very complex and emotionally taxing job, requiring tender skills and an open heart. We are there to help families to create a funeral experience in which they can be involved and which has meaning for them, to provide information and support each family with creativity and improvisation. Each company has to develop a culture that supports these aims, and the systems that support the daily work.

The funeral staff are the tip of the iceberg. The underlying problem is much deeper and must be tackled. Just launching an investigation and blaming individuals who have behaved badly is missing the point. Culture is subtle, it is translated into systems and behaviour without fail. What is the culture – the real culture, not the nice words in the brochure – of your company? To find that out you need to study your company, what people say and what they do, very carefully.

The Modern Funeral Directing training created by Green Fuse and Chester Pearce Associates avoids being prescriptive. It stems from the premise that attitudes and values are as important as knowledge and skills and encourages people to think for themselves and to feel valued in their work. Funeral directors in charge of busy funeral homes and branches should consider this type of training and the importance of creating the right culture and attitudes in their companies.

Simon is a director of Green Fuse Funerals, an independent funeral director and training provider for funeral celebrants and funeral directors. Prior to his funeral career, Simon worked in venture capital and with large corporations on leadership development and culture change.
For more information visit or call on 01803 840779.


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