Great death care matters — but what is it?

Man at bus stop in London looking at Poppy's advert which says 'The day I dreaded was the best it could have been because of them.'

Four minute read

Poppy's CEO Clare Montagu responds to the UK Commission on Bereavement's landmark report with a call to raise standards in death care for everyone.

During 2020 and 2021, over half a million people died in England and Wales. An estimated three million of us were bereaved. The Covid-19 pandemic not only increased the number of us who were grieving, but lockdown measures influenced the way in which we were able to grieve.

What impact will this have in the long term? And could positive change come as a result of this experience? The UK Commission on Bereavement was set up to investigate these questions, to listen to people’s experiences and to provide practical recommendations for action.

With this autumn’s busy news cycle, you’d be forgiven for missing the Commission’s findings, which were released in October 2022.

The importance of great death care

At Poppy’s, we see every day how important a meaningful funeral is in helping family and friends to grieve. So we were pleased to see that this report examined the role and process of organising a funeral and listened carefully to the experience of bereaved people.

The Commission identified real challenges — affordability for some people; lack of knowledge about how to arrange a funeral; and limited support for some minority groups to organise culturally-appropriate funerals.

But one thing was missing from the discussion — the importance of great death care. We talk about this a lot at Poppy’s, where the outstanding care that we give to our clients, both living and dead, is woven into everything that we do.

Our clients tell us that our care — great death care — has a significant impact on their ability to grieve.

They feel held and supported by Poppy’s throughout the process of organising a funeral. They feel they are in ‘safe hands’, as Jeremy, one of our recent clients, put it.

But what do we mean by ‘great death care’? It’s not a commonly recognised term.

What is great death care?

Great death care means treating the person who has died with gentleness and respect. It recognises the person they were, not as the anonymous and dehumanised — ‘the deceased’. It means being transparent and open about this normal, natural process, and avoiding invasive procedures such as embalming.

It means treating their family and friends with compassion and kindness, and working to their timeline and their needs.

This could mean supporting them to keep the person who has died at home for as long as they want, or it could mean enabling them to wash and dress the person who has died before their funeral. Or for people who don’t want to get involved in care after death, it could simply mean feeling reassured that the person who has died is in excellent hands.

Great death care is also about being completely transparent — about the costs involved in a funeral and the way in which we care for someone in the mortuary.

At Poppy’s, we enable friends and family to visit someone who has died to see how we are looking after them. We also invite health care professionals who want to learn more about great care after death. We are proud of our beautiful, light-filled mortuary and are delighted to welcome people into it.

Great death care is also about making choices that care for the planet and leave a positive legacy. This could mean using electric vehicles, opting for a natural burial ground, or using flowers from your garden.

None of this sounds controversial. It’s probably fairly obvious. But our experience is that standards of care in the funeral sector as a whole are just not good enough. Despite a number of high profile media exposés, poor practice remains.

When death care isn’t good enough — and what we can do about it

People do not know, and do not know to ask, how funeral directors look after the dead people in their care. They often won’t even know where their person is if the mortuary isn’t on site in the place they arrange the funeral. They certainly won’t be invited to visit the mortuary. If they did, they might see conditions that they found uncomfortable.

We have seen other mortuaries with, for example, people kept in a cold room in body bags, on racks. This feels industrialised and undignified. It is also not necessary.

At Poppy's our mortuary is a wood-panelled, airy and light converted chapel. The room is friendly and welcoming, and the people we care for are in their own space in enclosed fridges.

Sadly, there are plenty more examples of poor care. In 2020, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) investigated pricing practices in the funeral sector and concluded that the market was not functioning properly. Read our comment on this at the time.

We hope that the CMA investigation will bring greater transparency about costs and prices. This is so desperately needed. We hear all too often about ‘upselling’ to extra services or nudges to encourage people to buy a more expensive product. You do not show your love for someone by the kind of coffin you buy. Read more about planning a lower cost funeral.

Whenever we talk about these issues, people are shocked. Rightly. Perhaps reading this blog is an uncomfortable experience for you. But until we all find ways to talk more openly about death, and what happens after someone dies, the funeral sector will remain shrouded in mystery.

Sadly, grieving people — which includes all of us at one time or another in our lives — will not always get the care and support they deserve.

At Poppy’s, we are determined to raise awareness about the standards of care that everyone should expect. We believe that everyone has a right to great death care.

The debate and interest around the UKCB report is one opportunity to champion this cause, to show what’s possible through our work, and to join with others who are advocating for change. Together, the clamour for change will be too loud to ignore.

Read more opinion pieces from Poppy's — find out why we don't use euphemisms to talk about death or why we believe that bereavement support matters.

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