Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers has been serving the communities of Sussex and Surrey as funeral directors for almost 165 years and our team likes to think of ourselves as having a high level of knowledge in the issues surrounding death, loss, and bereavement. From our offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham, and Hurstpierpoint, we help our local clientele when they are experiencing some of the most difficult times, but we also feel a responsibility to examine trends within our industry and consider how changes might affect our customers and the services we provide. Today, Manager Abi Pattenden talks about a change that she has seen in the time she has worked in the funeral industry – the duration people wait for the funeral, after a person has died.
‘I have worked for Freeman Brothers for just over 12 years and a lot of things have changed in that time. Some of the most striking have involved the extent to which people now want a funeral to be personal. This has led to several changes. For example, virtually all funerals now include music chosen to either reflect the wishes of the person who has died, or as a way of evoking a mood. Many more people choose a non-religious funeral officiant. This means the service is developed from scratch according to their wishes, rather than starting with a template as sometimes seems to be the case with religious services. People are having the confidence to step outside what would probably be thought of as ‘the norm’ in the hope of creating a unique goodbye. One of the impacts of this has been that the time taken between the person dying and the funeral taking place has gradually increased.
‘National averages indicate that this ‘waiting time’ has been increasing for roughly a day a year over the last few years – a slow change, perhaps, but one that becomes significant in a relatively short period of time. This is also our experience. When I started working at Freeman Brothers in 2007, the average waiting time was about ten days, while now it is 21 days.
‘The reasons for this are varied, and caused by several factors. One of these is the choices that clients make. I have written a separate post, available soon which compares an average funeral, and the decision-making behind it, in both 2007 and 2019, but the aim of this post is to discuss considerations more generally.
‘Firstly, people are living increasingly further from their families. Once, a close family would expect to live within a small radius, and children would be expected set up home nearby. If everyone who needs to attend a funeral is very close, it is easier to arrange it at short notice. Increased travel means more people partner with those from further afield – if one half of a couple is from Australia and one from the UK, they can’t both live near their families. Simply needing to give people more time to get to the funeral potentially adds to the duration of the waiting time, and the more people who are distant, the more complex this becomes.
‘Then there are changes which have happened in the funeral industry, and other industries which cross over with it at a time when someone dies. In 2009, the whole suite of paperwork relating to cremations altered, introducing a ‘right of inspection’ for the documentation completed by doctors (which is often required for a person to be cremated). Firstly, this paperwork takes longer to complete, meaning doctors have to find more time to complete it; this can often make a difference to when it becomes available. Secondly, it has to be at the crematorium further in advance of the funeral. Where the funeral is a Wednesday, the ‘right of inspection’ period n- which lasts 48 hours – will be the Monday and the Tuesday. Before this, there is another inspection process so the paperwork should really arrive at the crematorium during the Friday before, at the latest.
‘All deaths have to be registered, with expected deaths requiring this before the funeral can take place. Over the last few years, Registrars have had an increased role as they undertake more civil weddings, with the introduction of Civil Partnership ceremonies and then Same-Sex Marriage (although this does not impact Northern Ireland – I’ll discuss regional variations again shortly) also adding to their workload. Births – which also have to be registered – peaked recently in 2012 but have not decreased back to the lower levels of the mid 90s and there are also more people dying. Therefore, appointments may be harder to obtain quickly.
‘People are increasingly dying in hospitals, and these may be in a different county (for example, many people from the Horsham, Billingshurst and Crawley areas are treated in Surrey and from Hurstpierpoint area in Brighton). The need to visit the county where the death took place to register the death, combined with considerations such as the above exacerbate the potential difficulty of obtaining an appointment very soon after the death has taken place. Registering a death requires a death certificate, which can be difficult to obtain where hospital doctors work shifts, but as GPs increasingly work flexibly and/or part-time, deaths in the community can be similarly affected.
‘Demographics also make a difference. As people live longer, they may be older when they need to arrange a funeral. An 80-year-old arranging a funeral for their spouse of the same age may have mobility issues or other additional support needs which may extend the whole process.
‘Those who require a Church of England funeral may find delays due to the availability of their minister. There are fewer ministers covering wider areas with more parishes. Churches, too, are taking a broader role within the community as venues for local organisations such as playgroups, reducing their availability.
‘These are some of the reasons for the increase in the funeral wait, and there are others, but it’s also worth briefly discussing the cumulative effect. If someone dies today, there will be a limited amount of service time and space available in ten days’ time, simply because many funerals taking place in that time period were booked several days ago. Therefore it becomes harder to have a funeral at short notice without compromising over, for example, the time of day at which it takes place. This creates a circle whereby funerals at popular times are driven increasingly further into the future. Additionally, as people see funerals taking place further removed from the time of death, they view this as more acceptable, and are less likely to feel pressures to have the funeral sooner rather than later – again this creates a circular effect. Whilst funeral directors will always try and be flexible, they may also struggle to accommodate a request for their services at short notice if most of their funerals have longer waiting times.
‘The final point to make is that while this is a UK-wide trend, it is by no means universal. Some religious groups have the need to have a service as soon as possible, while some communities may still have funeral traditions which mean the service is still taking place more quickly – I understand a few days is still normal in Northern Ireland and rural parts of Scotland, for example. Like all trends and averages, these figures only tell part of the story, and the reasons behind them are as unique as the funerals themselves and the clients we serve.’