Something like 40% of marriages end in divorce and, like the proverbial children, funeral directors often end up having to deal with the fall-out. Bereavement is hard enough, without having a thick layer of toxic family politics and emotional wrangling to deal with too.
As a funeral director my hands are tied all ways: I’m bound by the laws of burial and cremation (try telling a deceased person’s adult children that their wicked (allegedly) step-mother is the legal next of kin and that if she won’t sign for the cremation that father always said he wanted, he’ll have to be buried, whether they like it or not); and likewise I’m also bound by consumer law, which basically states that:
a) even an allegedly wicked step-mother is still the legal next of kin and as such she’s reasonably entitled to order the funeral
b) consequently as the person paying the bill she gets to call the shots, whatever the existing family might feel about it
(By the way, for step-mother read also step-father of course. One mustn’t be sexist. And whilst putting the record straight, I’ll also say step-parents are equally likely to be innocent victims, finding themselves at the mercy of their partner’s children/family).
Family frictions at funerals (try saying that after a night in the pub – which is where most funeral directors end up after enduring a split family) often start with the mildly awkward arrangement meeting with one side doing the talking whilst the other side glower and huff in the corner, choosing silent martyrdom over constructive intervention.
From there we graduate to phone calls with hurried changes to the funeral arrangements: “We’ll need two family cars because I’m not travelling with him/her/them” or “if he/she sends flowers then please just dump them. They’re not to be brought to the funeral under any circumstances.” Hmm, easy for them to say.
Then if things really escalate, we’ll have one faction either boycotting the funeral altogether, or worse still attending just to spend the whole service giving the evil eye to the other faction across the aisle.
Very occasionally – and in fairness usually only with certain types of people - there might even be raised voices outside the church or crematorium and perhaps even a minor scuffle. That’s where I lose patience altogether and walk away. If the fur and feathers start flying then it’s not the sort of funeral I want my company’s name attached to. I’m not joking – it’s happened, believe me.
If all that isn’t bad enough it’s distressing to a degree for other, unrelated but equally grieving mourners to witness this happening. But as a funeral director I simply can’t afford to take sides because I just don’t know the truth behind it all. Sometimes the wicked step-parent does what they say on their tin: “Evil, child-hating second wife/husband – standard issue – one, for the use of.” Equally often though, it can be the deceased’s own biological relatives who are being nasty and vindictive, usually motivated by an avaricious eye to their expected inheritance.
In fact the vicar working with our last split family funeral actually said to me: “Just to warn you, the eldest son will be asking you to submit your bill earlier than usual because his step-mother is trying to close the account and grab the money out of the estate.” My heart sank – not because I was worried about getting paid. It was simply long experience telling me that would be the very least of my problems.
So, before you decide the end has come and you go your separate ways, think of your children….and think of me also; because either they, or I, will have to pick up the pieces eventually!
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”