Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855, and is the town’s longest-serving business. The company now has a further three offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and maintains an excellent reputation for offering a caring, bespoke service. Although the organisation began in 1855, the team strives to provide a full range of contemporary services and, two years ago, adopted an online platform for managing charitable donations. Community Co-Ordinator Becky tells us more…
When I first started at Freeman Brothers in October 2017, charity donations in memory of those who had died were accepted in three ways: cheque, cash at the funeral itself, and card payments via phone. Customers who wanted to collect donations online had to do so independently, and some did – they would set up pages online via services such as JustGiving, and circulate the link among family and friends.
The practice is incredibly useful – with our population being so transient, it enables details to be shared easily and quickly via email from a desktop or tablet, or via mobile, with links being shared through social media platforms or messaging apps. This means that, not only can people donate at their leisure, but also that they can do so from any location, and share the link on with others in their network.
This was something that we as a company were keen to bring in-house, as we realised that there were other options and further capabilities of such pages. It would also mean that we could stop taking card payments via phone – the practice isn’t terribly secure, and also limits donations to being made during our office hours, which is inconvenient for a lot of people.
Our Manager, Abi, and the current Mr Freeman – Freeman Brothers is owned and operated by the fifth generation of the Freeman family to manage the business – took a great deal of time and care to choose a service which met our needs, and those of our customers. They wanted to find an organisation which also provided lasting online tribute pages, in addition to having the capacity to donate online to a chosen charity. This was something which would set our service apart from the pages which are typically used for mass participation events to gather sponsorship for the person taking part.
We knew that there were several organisations offering these types of pages. Depending on the service chosen, friends and family may be able to leave written tributes, add photos, and find out the details of when the funeral is taking place. What drew Abi to MuchLoved in particular is that the company is not-for-profit, therefore ensuring that charities receive the maximum amount donated.
My colleagues and I were trained by MuchLoved, to ensure that we understood the system and were able to use it effectively. When customers choose to make use of the service – which is included as standard with any funeral we arrange – they have to nominate someone to take control of the page once it is set up. The Funeral Arranger will organise the basics of the page, and then it is handed to the customer to customise and share the details of it far and wide.
Our customers appreciated the service when we launched it in August 2018, and donations surged. It was clearly of great benefit, and we knew that this was helping people to feel more connected to the funeral, particularly if they were unable to travel due to their own circumstances or time constraints.
With 2020 turning out to be an unpredictable year, we are even more grateful to be administering donations online. Firstly, the volume of calls we have occasionally been dealing with during the coronavirus pandemic has been high, so it may have been difficult for those attempting to donate via card to get through. This could’ve been further impacted by those who may have liked to have donated in cash at the funeral – ordinarily, this is something we still do – and were seeking an alternative means. When the pandemic first impacted funerals, we stopped taking cash donations in order to support social distancing measures, and the matter was fairly self-policing too, as attendances at funerals were highly restricted. Although restrictions have been eased, and more people are able to attend most funerals, we have continued our policy of not accepting cash – happily, the online donation system has meant that charities haven’t been negatively impacted.
In fact, donations have increased significantly during the period of social distancing. Although it has been challenging for my colleagues and customers alike, a positive to come out of this time is that donations to charities increased versus the same period in 2019. Much has been made of how the burden of bereavement has been heavier at this time, so to be able to provide a service such as an online tribute page, which is a dedicated space for memories to be shared, could be helping people in an additional way.
The statistics on use of our MuchLoved tribute pages tell an interesting story. Whilst no two years provide a true like-for-like comparison, and 2020 hopefully due to be a significant outlier rather than a norm, it’s difficult to compare accurately. The data I’ve used compares the year running from 1 August 2018 to 31 July 2019 with the year running from 1 August 2019 to 31 July 2020. I’ve then taken a monthly average for use of various features during both of those years.
For the year ending on 31 July 2020, there was a 123% increase in ‘Thoughts’ left per month versus the previous year. Similarly, there was a 133% increase in the average monthly use of the ‘Candle’ feature. On average, there were an additional 127% more images uploaded on average each month. Clearly, people are making use of these pages to share memories of those who have died, and engage in a collective experience via the internet, even if they are not able to do so in person.
It feels likely to me that there may have been an increased use of our tribute pages during the year which has recently ended anyway, given that it is also the second year during which we have used the system. New technologies always have an adoption period, and familiarity tends to generate increased use, so for those who had perhaps experienced the system in the first year, they may have been more inclined to use it again during the second year, and perhaps increase their engagement with it.
As with any element of our services, we will continue to monitor how our digital offering is being used, and look to make changes in line with what we notice and any feedback we receive. For now, we will continue to do the best we can with the resources we have available, and working under any restrictions we have to comply with, whilst delivering the high quality of service for which we are renowned.