An Interview With Brian Parsons

Brian Parsons is a funeral director and training consultant to funeral directors, trading under the name Funeral Training Service London. He trains new funeral directors and works to enhance skills of existing funeral directors. Brian researches, lectures and writes about the British funeral industry, particularly regarding the latter part of the 19th century up to the present day.

I was delighted to sit with Brian and pose a few questions.

When did you know you wanted to be an undertaker?

I was about fourteen or fifteen when I got to know a cemetery superintendent and he introduced me to a funeral director. I’d never been to a funeral at that point, but then I went to a neighbor’s funeral and was very intrigued about it all. There was a hidden world that worked seamlessly. It was all going on somewhere, but you weren’t exposed to anything, and didn’t see anything apart from big vehicles, people in black doing certain tasks, and nobody would say much about it.

The intrigue has never ceased. Because when I left school at sixteen, I started a three-year apprenticeship scheme for a funeral directing firm. I began in the workshop finishing coffins.

Coffins would be brought in ready-made, but empty, so you had to learn how to line them and put the handles on, they were all different. Some of them had the most beautiful linings. There was quite a range of caskets because the firm I looked after held many Travellers’ funerals and they would always buy the best casket available. They wanted the most expensive caskets in the range and they wanted the best for the person who died. This was in no way the undertaker encouraging people to spend more money; this was the family saying, ‘this is what we want, this is what we do’.

It’s a client led interaction. To quote a cliché, it’s the ultimate stress purchase. The funeral director starts off on a bad foot because people are distressed and they’re purchasing something they don’t want to pay money for because they don’t want people to die… let alone be landed with a £6,000 bill for the funeral. It’s a transaction that the vast majority of people don’t want to enter, but have to. At the same time, the funeral director takes instruction. We offer a huge range of options to get from point A, when the person has died, to point B, when the person is laid to rest. There’s a huge amount that can happen in those days, weeks, sometimes months between the two. There are no rules - we can keep a body as long as necessary.

I didn’t do the second year of training because I wasn’t particularly interested in the stone and monument side of it. I went straight on to the funeral directing side and at the same time I trained as an embalmer. Within a two-year period I did quite a bit of training and began funeral arranging.

It was a learning curve. It was one thing to read about the possible ways people might react to a death, and another to actually interpret what was happening.  I learned to tread carefully, negotiate tactfully, to use the right words, particularly when there is a dispute within the family, or when there is a very tragic circumstance. It’s an art, it’s not a science, and you can’t always get it right. Sometimes you’re left in situations where you can’t win.

Someone once said that a funeral director is a bit like a meteorologist in that the meteorologist gets blamed for bad weather and we get blamed for the loss.

How long have you been an undertaker and in which aspect of the business are you most involved?

I’ve been an undertaker since 1982. Now I attend to training needs and spend quite a bit of time looking after staff, but I still get involved with undertaking.

I do a great deal of interviewing. We’ve become good at weeding out people who think they might be good at the job, but maybe their reasons or motivation for doing the job is not in line with our expectations. Maybe they want to work as a funeral director to in some way resolve the aspects of their own loss, particularly if they’ve been recently bereaved. The last thing we want is for people to get emotionally involved in someone’s loss. We don’t know the client we’re dealing with. They’re not engaging us to become counsellors or to take the emotional strain on our shoulders. It’s the practical, immediate necessities that have to be managed. The churn of staff is probably not high as you might imagine.

What type of training is involved in the mentoring role?

Some training can be delivered in a classroom setting, such as telling people about recent changes to legislation and how that impacts upon the funeral arrangements that they will be carrying out, to training new funeral directors where you have to carry out mock funeral arrangements with them, or where you’re teaching them how to direct funerals. You go out and shadow them. The art to teaching is to get them to actually do the work. You give then the skills and then a push. You’re there in the background, but they’re actually doing it, pointing them in the right directions and giving them confidence to do it.

I asked Brian about the role of women in the undertaking industry.

There have always been women working in the industry. There’s a hidden area here because particularly in the smaller firms, and the vast majority of firms in the 1950s were small, the husband would be the funeral director and the wife would assist in an administrative capacity. And we mustn’t forget that women have had a very important end-of-life role because they assisted in the preparations for laying out the dead. There was a formal network of layer-outers that existed in the community right up until the 1950s. Someone would notify the local lady who would come along and wash the body and prepare it and the reward was probably a fish and chips supper.
But as fewer deaths occurred at home and people died in hospital, that tradition died away. The male paid-for carer in the form of a funeral director really took over the responsibility for the dead.

There are a significant number of women embalmers. Probably around 1/4 to 1/3 of the membership of British embalmers is female. Embalming was a way of professionalizing the occupation by stating that we have an effective scientifically based treatment that’s inexpensive and can be used to halt any deterioration until time of the funeral. Women have a significant place in funeral directing today. Not only do large corporations have equal opportunity policies and some have had those in place for many years, but also it’s recognized from thirty to forty years ago that women have a role as funeral arrangers and conductors. There are many funeral arrangers and conductors and women in senior management.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about your job?

We have Charles Dickens to thank for the biggest misconception of the undertaking business. It’s thought that we’re trading off the vulnerable bereaved. Or maybe there were just too many undertakers in the 19th century and they were all trying to get work. Maybe some of them did manipulate. But you can’t tar everybody with the same brush, and particularly one from over one hundred and twenty years ago. Yet that seems to be the legacy. It’s very easy for the press to accuse funeral directors of manipulation, but the clients’ experience isn’t that. The large majority of the clients know what the funeral is going to cost before it takes place, because everyone gives an estimate. So there’s transparency there, and if the client feels there isn’t enough money they can make adjustments to the cost of the funeral.

It’s not in people’s interest to manipulate because in the funeral directing business it could lead to bad debt and publicity. People may jump too quickly to say we take advantage because we’re in a business with an endless supply. We’re not here to ruin people, at the same time we have fixed costs of running a business and they’re very high. Staff must be paid and trained and investment has to be made in the business.

I asked Brian’s thoughts about Jessica Mitford's controversial views on the American undertaking trade.

Last year was fifty years since Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death and it was one of the most successful books to be published. The Americans got their knickers in a twist.

You’ve got to ask the question, from what perspective is this being written and why is it being written? Mitford’s book came out in 1963; months after Ruth Mulvey Harmer published a much better book called The High Cost of Dying. Mitford’s book eclipsed Harmers’, which was much more rigorous in terms of research.

My theory was that Mitford had a problem with death. And the problem was that she had lost both of her children. If you read her autobiography, there is the briefest mention of the most horrendous death of her 10-year-old child in a London road accident. This would splinter most people. She endured this, and she also lost another child. This brings me back to the funeral director being that convenient person who is on the firing line after loss. I can’t take credit for this theory because Thomas Lynch, the great American writer, poet and funeral director, pointed this out after she’d died.

Her work concerned America and also England. She writes in a homely and endearing way about funerals in England in the 1960s. The most disappointing aspect of her book was that she permitted it to be updated, which appeared in the 1990s just after she died. What was produced was a poorly researched and inadequate version of what was happening in the industry. At that stage the industry was under predatory attack by an American organization and wasn’t looked at in a sophisticated way. It sunk and was not rigorous enough.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

Again, it’s a cliché, but looking after people in great need, solving problems and difficulties. Death is a hugely complex area, not only emotionally, but also the bureaucracy of death that has to be dealt with.

Thirty years ago when I started work, we never saw the burial or cremation of the foetal remains, or a very young child under twenty-four weeks. Today we’d see a funeral for such children. We also deal in the funeral of body parts. A leg or a brain may be reunited with a person after that person has been interred, or buried, or cremated. Perhaps the reason being the body part was held back for examination.

How did you become interested in the history of undertaking? And what inspired you to write your book, The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950?

I had a break in day-to-day embalming and went to do a degree in business. I was very inspired by a lecture about the sociology of business and in the first term the lecturer discussed how business and society had changed. I found that fascinating and could see how the industrial revolution and technology instigated change and impacted the work of the funeral director. So I embarked on the research of the organization of funerals and delved in to the history of undertaking.

I discovered that no one had really looked adequately at the 19th century. There’s one or two bits of writing and literature, but there hasn’t been a really serious study of the 19th century undertaking business and certainly no one had looked at the 20th century. That became the principal focus because I was interested in how the organization of funerals had changed, particularly from the war period to the 1990s.

The increase in cremation and the increase in people dying away from the home, the introduction of embalming, the shift from the manual craft of coffin-making to mass production, the introduction of the motorized vehicle to replace the horse drawn hearse, the increased responsibility of the undertaker, and the increase in transportation across the world - all these factors came together as well as the business factors. Here was an industry that was dominated by the small trader, the family business, yet this family business was suffering because families were smaller, sons and daughters didn’t want to go into the business. So what did they do? They sold them to realize money for their retirement. That gave the organizations an opportunity to use a centralized form of operations to manage funerals and costs and still provide a service. It all came together and it needed codifying.

Many thanks to Brian whose new book The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950 is now available here from his website.

Brian joins The Memento Moriatas for an evening of Tales of Ritual and Remembrance at the Coffin Works in Birmingham on October 8. It promises to be a special night in the Shroud Room of the former Victorian coffin fittings factory where we three will present illustrated talks on all things funereal. Tickets and more information here.

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