THE BUSINESS of death is changing and funerals are no longer the solemn occasions they once were, says funeral director Janice Hutton.
“Celebrations of life are taking over from the morbid, black funerals,” she explained. “Not everyone is religious and civil funerals are becoming more and more popular, with colourful coffins and decorated willow coffins, as in the recent funeral of Lady Margaret Kagan, along with green burials in places like Rose Hill (the woodland site in Birkby).
“At one woodland funeral I conducted near Grassington, the deceased had specified that everyone, including the funeral directors, should have champagne and chocolates.”
But, despite these changes, she believes the subject of death itself remains a taboo and most of us would rather not think about it.
“Two thirds of people have not written a will and a quarter of those are over 65,” says Janice, who lives in Shepley and represents the North West for The Society of Bereavement Practitioners.
“And 81% have not written down any preferences about their own death or funeral.”
She warns that leaving such matters unrecorded and unspoken can throw families into disarray at a time when they are vulnerable and grieving.
“It’s not that it matters to the person who has died, it matters to the people they leave behind them,’’ said Janice, who is married with two daughters. “Their families simply don’t know what to do.”
After 12 years in the funeral business, Janice has encountered many bereaved families suddenly faced with organising a funeral. “They are thrown into a state of indecision,” she added. “They might never have had to plan a funeral before. It’s so much easier if the deceased person has left instructions about what they wanted.”
A former PA and Huddersfield magistrate (she was the town’s youngest, sworn in at the age of 27), Janice, now 50, says she felt that being a funeral director was her ‘calling.’
“I always wanted to be one,” she explained. “From being 18.
“If I look back it’s probably something to do with going to my grandma’s funeral, which was quite a difficult experience. I didn’t think the service was very well done.”
But in the 1980s female funeral directors were still relatively rare and she couldn’t see a way into the profession.
It was only as she approached her 40th birthday that she decided to finally pursue her ambition. Eventually she found a funeral director in Bradford who agreed to take her on as an unpaid intern for six months while she learned the job. Janice also studied for a diploma in funeral directing and at the end of the six months she was offered a paid position.
She also qualified as a civil funeral celebrant and is a member of the Dying Matters Coalition, organisers of the awareness week.
Her 10 years in Bradford were busy, sometimes planning up to 12 funerals a week, including high profile ceremonies. One of the most distressing that she dealt with was for the murdered Leeds toddler Casey Mullen.
“As the hearse arrived at the church all you could hear was the clicking of camera shutters there were so many photographers there,” said Janice.
The most extravagant funeral she arranged was for a traveller, at which no expense was spared. It cost £8,500, paid for in cash, while the average is usually around £3,500 for a burial or £2,700 for a cremation.
Two years ago Janice set up her own business, Gateway Funeral Services in Birkenshaw, with partner Richard Arnold and organises funerals all over the Kirklees area.
It is the only West Yorkshire funeral company in the Good Funeral Guide.
Although female funeral directors are more common today, she says her choice of profession still catches people out. She explained: “If I ask someone what they think I do and then tell them their faces drop.
“I have been to someone’s house and arranged a funeral with them, then right at the end they have said, ‘so when is the funeral director coming?’
“But most people are more accepting now and I think some people prefer to talk to a woman because they can grieve more openly.”
Although Janice appreciates that some might think her ‘calling’ is a little macabre she says there is no aspect of the job that she finds uncomfortable.
She explained: “When I’ve done someone’s hair and make-up and dressed them and the relatives say ‘doesn’t she look beautiful,’ then I find it very satisfying.
“I enjoy the fact that I’m looking after people at a really important time and I can be there for them. It’s a job that I have a passion for.”
The Dying Matters Coalition is part of a drive to ensure that everyone has access to high quality care and support at the end of their lives. This involves improving service provision across the NHS and changing attitudes and behaviour.
Around 500,000 people die in England each year. Heart failure and strokes are the biggest killers. One in four people in the UK will die of cancer. With an increasingly ageing population, the majority of older people will be living with a number of conditions. For example, around 30% of people over the age of 85 with cancer will also have dementia.
Even 100 years ago, many more people died at a younger age, they tended to die at home, and more died of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. Increased life expectancy has made death a taboo subject.
According to Dying Matters, many more people now live into old age and tend to die outside the home which means that most of us do not experience a family member or close friend dying until we are in mid-life ourselves.
It is increasingly rare for someone to see a dead body.
Society as a whole has never been less exposed to death. As a result, fear of the unknown means that people sometimes avoid those who are ill or dying, and do not feel able to support them.