Are Funeral Directors burying tradition?

Modern living and a multitude of belief systems prevalent in our society have caused a trend shift in the way funerals are held as well as organised.  Over the last century, funerals and the attitudes towards them have changed from a sombre period of mourning to a celebration of life.  This change in attitude has somewhat reinvented the traditional funeral to meaningfully commemorate the life of a person. 

But it does not stop there as the rise of technological innovation, together with recent Covid restrictions to attendance at funeral services, has hastened a change in the way funerals are held.  Added to that the supporting infrastructure within the funeral industry has had to develop.

Conduct of Funerals with Covid

The protection of funeral home clients and staff from the virus has necessitated enhanced cleaning and sterilisation of premises and vehicles and has led to more remote working and social distancing.  In Guernsey we recently moved from limited attendance at funerals of 10 family members to 20.  Now we are in stage 3 almost all restrictions have been lifted with the main remaining requirement being the recording of contact details when more than 100 attendees.

These restrictions have prompted funeral directors to stream funerals for those who cannot attend, with the option to provide online contributions to the service from remote family and friends which has certainly supported the families affected. 

There has been a long tradition in Guernsey of producing funeral reports listing attendees at the funeral, along with names of persons being represented which is provided to the family.  These reports subsequently appeared in the local press and research shows that they are read by many and sell newspapers.

However, when this was temporarily lost for what became a private funeral and the thought of subsequent memorial services at a later post lockdown date usually does not happen.  Families naturally try to accept their loss and move on as best they can, and they generally do not wish to revisit with a further public event. 


Expressing our sorrow for a family’s loss

During this unusual situation how do friends and family express their sorrow or condolences to the bereaved which they traditionally did by attending the funeral?  This of course can still be shown by writing letters and sending cards. Facebook has become a medium for death notices and this has prompted people to “like” and or leave messages of sympathy. This is considerate but it is very public which may not appeal to some and Facebook does not collate comments in a meaningful way in order that the family can share or retain the messages. 

Beckford’s believes further use of technology can assist where it offers a complimentary service to our families who wish to take advantage.  Family and friends who are unable to attend a funeral, can leave their name securely and privately on our website (using a link provided in the death notice), in lieu of their inability to attend in person. The option is also available to leave a message of condolence for the family which is not possible when attending the funeral.

The family of the deceased receive a copy of the list of names of people who would ordinarily have attended the funeral, as well as any sentiments expressed.  This private expression of sympathy has become a source of comfort to bereaved families and can subsequently be shared.

How has organising funerals changed?

Instead of going to see a family at home or in the office, funeral directors are now able to use video communications software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Facetime, with families.  Emailing or taking instructions over the phone has become the norm as face-to-face meetings are minimised.  The families can sign documentation and return either electronically or by post. The minister or officiant will not attend the family’s home but will again use video communications software or telephone the families to obtain information to build an appropriate tribute or service.  This does not replace the benefits of face-to-face discussions which has in most cases resumed but it has proved to be another way of communicating with clients, including those who are unable to attend in person due to their overseas location. Investment in video equipment to enable streaming of funerals has become a norm enabling those unable to attend to participate.

Of course, viewings of the deceased by the family were still able to occur in these Covid times subject to some additional guidelines.

We wrote to Deputy St Pier during the first lockdown suggesting streamlining the manual documentation processes and he responded quickly and positively to our suggestions.  Paperwork is now sent and received by the Doctor, Law Officers and Greffe electronically.   This process continued when we came out of the first lockdown as it was running efficiently. As the States of Guernsey undertakes its own digital transformation programme, we anticipate further online completion of documentation and approvals will be the norm and we encourage such further efficiencies.

The evolving risks of data efficiencies and security

Naturally, the move from manual systems to increased use of technology has been brought into stronger focus by Data Protection legislation and worldwide security breaches have forced the funeral director and others to ensure systems are secure and procedures documented and enforced. 

Secure data management requires expert support and guidance and that is why the funeral director cannot continue to operate without upgrading systems and infrastructure after seeking appropriate professional expertise.  Doing it themselves or on the cheap is a dangerous route and disrespects the families that have entrusted you with access to very confidential information.  Changes need to be ongoing as systems and procedures need constant monitoring, improvement, and attention.

Beckford’s IT services are outsourced to a reputable local organisation and there is a managed service in place for monitoring, patching, anti-virus, and support of the company’s infrastructure.  Within the last 12 months, a considerable upgrade was carried out which saw all our permanent staff supplied with new hardware (laptops) and all data and email systems migrated to Office 365.  This upgrade enabled the company’s IT infrastructure to become, and fully operate as, a cloud-based system which provides flexible working solutions, business continuity, and secure remote access. Security considerations were actioned, and all staff are now trained regularly on cyber security.  In addition, various security measures have also been implemented, including two factor authentication and a next generation firewall which has further strengthened threat protection.   

This has been a major expense, but as funeral directors invest in staff and training, premises and hygiene, hearses, ambulances etc they cannot afford to neglect the security of their critical data particularly as relates to clients.

Guiding Families through the Experience

The traditional service of funeral directing, of guiding and assisting families through the naturally very emotional and stressful times, has always been there and continues to be so. The conduct of funerals has evolved but so has the increased obligation of funeral directors to inform families of all aspects of the process in an easy and informative way which is transparent and supportive to all decisions that they are expected to make.  This can be eased considerably by funeral directors facilitating knowledge and understanding. One way we have developed this at Beckford’s is by making our web site a knowledge portal that explains what we do, how we aim to assist, what is expected of families, how they can assist and minimise as much as possible distress, the questions that will need answering and the conduct of the whole funeral process and what it will cost.  The “traditional” lack of transparency is being replaced by a new “traditional” transparency that helps and advises clients.

So, are Funeral Directors burying tradition?  

I do not believe so.  Funeral directors have adapted to the changes in the demands from their clients, including a different way of working and supporting families during a pandemic.  Funeral directors have had to move in to the 21st century and many have developed their client offerings to accommodate this, building on traditional good service.  Evolving to meet the new demands of a tech savvy generation that rightly have a thirst for knowledge and innovation in a more streamlined, tech-enabled, and cost-effective way.