The Undertaker

Dealing with the undertaker.


This trade or profession has altered radically in the last two or three decades. In the Yorkshire village where I was brought up, the local undertaker was a builder, a carpenter and an active participant in the local community. Everyone knew Cecil and although his service may have been a bit rough round the edges, his was a friendly face and manner that brought familiarity and comfort at a difficult time.

Today the great majority of undertakers are part of large (sometimes foreign-owned) companies with, inevitably, a far keener interest in the bottom line. That does not imply that they are heartless or lacking in compassion. Not at all. Many preserve the best traditions of an ancient craft. But it does mean that, as consumers, we need to be more discerning, more interrogative and more prepared to look for other options.

Services offered.

Most have a twenty-four hour phone service so you can ring them as soon as you need to. That said, it is usually wiser to wait till the morning and arrange for an undertaker to come to the house as soon as possible. If the body of the deceased is in the mortuary of the local hospital, the undertaker may offer, on that first call, to pick it up immediately and take it to his own mortuary. Be careful. If you allow that, you are in effect committing yourself to that firm. It will be difficult (but by no means impossible) to change undertakers once the body is in Firm X’s keeping. If you are not sure you want to use Firm X, tell them on the phone that you would prefer for him to take possession of the body after you have had a preliminary meeting.

At that preliminary meeting, the undertaker will give you an idea of the range of services they offer (increasingly comprehensive) but he probably won’t mention prices unless you ask him. (Which you may well not want to do at that point.) He will also discuss what type of funeral/burial/cremation you have in mind. This is important for him,as he will have to arrange with the crematorium or local vicar when he can have access to their facilities. If you are not ready to decide or fix a date (and you may well not be), make that clear and try to avoid coming to a rushed or supposedly provisional conclusion. Most undertakers realise that you are likely to be still in shock at the death and will understand that you need time to make important decisions. It is however sensible to have, by the end of the meeting, a list of decisions that need to be made and a sense of the order in which those decisions are required.

Second meeting.

Normally, the undertaker will propose a further meeting, possibly at their premises, when more detailed decisions can be made. Again this is important for him (as he may have to negotiate with other suppliers) but don’t let him hasten you into decisions you are not yet ready to make. Many people find this part of the process the most upsetting. Choosing a coffin seems especially gruesome; so does deciding what clothes the deceased should be wearing for the occasion. If you have had the chance to discuss these details with close members of the family before you go to the meeting with the undertaker, you will be able to handle this part of the business better. If you have (or the deceased had) a funeral plan with a firm other than this undertaker, this is the time to tell your undertaker and, ideally, to give him the policy. Most will be happy to handle that part of the process on your behalf, though he may need your written authority to make a claim - and a copy of the death certificate.

At this stage, the undertaker may want to know how many cars you will need to take the family to and from the church or crematorium. Again, this is more pressing for him than it is for you, so if you need more time to think about that, ask for it.

The undertaker will probably ask you if members of the family would like to see the deceased before the coffin is closed. Obviously this is a matter for everyone to decide for themselves. My own experience is that, although it is a very emotionally demanding visit, the great majority of people are later very glad they made the effort. The undertaker’s staff usually show themselves to be respectful and compassionate and make the visit as comfortable as they can. (It needs hardly be said that it is really important to stick to the schedule. If you tell him, X and Y will come at two o’clock to take their leave of the deceased, try to ensure they do indeed appear at two o’clock.)

It is usual for the undertaker to arrange for the printing of the service. (Some do it in-house.) Some will offer guidance on the design of the service or offer you samples from which you can take ideas. Always insist on seeing a proof. What seemed a good idea the day before yesterday may seem an incipient disaster when you see it in print.

The day of the funeral.

On the day itself, relax and leave everything to the undertaker who will be leading the funeral. He will see to timing, travel, seating, flowers, liaison with the church or crematorium, and, in most cases, he will walk ahead of the hearse for the last few hundred yards in formal morning dress and top hat, thereby warning onlookers that it is appropriate to show proper respect.

Receiving the ashes.

If you chose a cremation, the undertaker will deliver the ashes (in the urn or casket you will have chosen at the second meeting) to your address. This is never an easy moment. Normally, the undertaker's role ceases at that point. It will be for you to decide what to do with the ashes. Some people keep them for years; others scatter them at a favourite beauty spot; others bury them in the church yard. It is your decision. If you have questions about it, the undertaker will be pleased to answer them, but normally he (or, increasingly frequently, she) will see his duties as complete once he has delivered the casket or urn.

Paying the bill.

Most undertakers are sensitive enough not to send you the bill too soon after the event. Once you have it, do go through it carefully, checking that all the entries are correct and in accordance with your instructions. Mistakes do arise from time to time, and most firms are readily accommodating once they are pointed out. There have been reports of egregious overcharging - eg on flowers. Luckily they are rare and the majority of the profession find them disgusting.

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