A few weeks ago, I went on a funeral field trip to The Netherlands. I was curious to learn more about the funeral practices in my home country. The Dutch are well known for the relaxed, personal and innovative way of dealing with their dead. What can de UK funeral world learn from their neighbours?
Death: part of life or something to stay far from?
A celebrant of Dutch origin, the British way of dealing with death keeps surprising me. I was brought up in a culture where it’s quite common to keep bodies at home for a few days, to involve children in funeral services, where families organise a big deal themselves, where services are not restricted by time slots and can take place anywhere. My father’s funeral ceremony, for example, took place in a theatre of the University where he worked when he died. Although his death was unexpected he was fully prepared. A script for his funeral, complete with music selection, texts and who had to do what, was ready to be delivered. For him, like many others in The Netherlands, planning his death was part of his life.
Impression of my father’s funeral service: art created by my sister; drums, violin and piano played by my other siblings; flowers from our garden; large screen projecting an excerpt from a movie he loved; a photo of a memorable cycling trip
The British practice is different in many ways. Viewings usually take place behind the scenes and many families are hesitant to see the dead body. I have met many families who are reluctant to take young children to funeral services as they think it might upset them. Most services are limited to 20 or 30 minute slots and many crematorium chapels don’t reflect the needs of contemporary funerals. The design of many chapels remind of churches and don’t reflect needs of other religious traditions or secular services. Most of them also lack the technology to share videos, slideshows, to life-stream the service or to record it for relatives and friends who live farther away. Only 6% of the British people have a funeral plan (compared to 70% in The Netherlands), an indicator that not many think or talk about their funeral wishes.
However, this is all changing. Slowly but securely, death is becoming less of a taboo. Initiatives like Death Cafes, Death Awareness Week, Home Funeral Network, Natural Death Centre, festivals and exhibitions help people realise that death is part of life and that thinking of funeral wishes helps not only to personalise their farewells but also save costs. Celebrants, end-of death doulas and funeral planners provide personalised services to families and help them realise that they can own the way they die and go.
Death is more and more becoming part of life, and funerals increasingly become celebrations of life. A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that 54% wanted their funeral to be a ‘celebration of life’. Some 48% said they wanted it to incorporate their favourite ‘hobby, colour, football team or music’.
The world of funerals is changing and as The Dutch are ahead of the game, it’s interesting to learn what their current practice teaches us about the future of funerals.
1. Hospitality: clean, modern offices with refreshments and tidy facilities
On my field trip, one of the cemeteries I visited was Zorgvlied, beautifully located at the river Amstel in Amsterdam. When entering the office, I was greeted by a stand providing leaflets about the history and the grounds, a checklist to discuss funeral wishes and a book with walks on the grounds. A computer with a touchscreen offered guests the option to find themed walks or locate the graves of famous Dutch people buried at Zorgvlied. I also spotted a suggestion box. Any ideas to improve the service could be put into the box.
Behind the entrance hall there was a small office room where a staff member greeted me and provided me with some information about the cemetery. I also spotted two private rooms for families to discuss questions with the cemetery staff. At the back, there was a toilet, accessible for disabled people, and a small pantry with a coffee machine and a fridge with cooled drinks. A terrace at the back of the office offers guests the option to enjoy drinks and refreshments, surrounded by the rustling leaves of the trees and the silent presence of the dead.
Outdoor terrace at Zorgvliet cemetery
Clean, modern and welcoming offices like the one at Zorgvliet are no exception in The Netherlands. Many also offer umbrellas which can be used in case of rain, or wheelchairs to be borrowed free of charge. Most cemeteries also offer facilities that help take care of the grave. There’s a tap to water the plants of flowers on the grave, a bin to leave rubbish, watering cans and vases to borrow, and even chairs which can be used for a small deposit.
Facilities that help take care of the graves. A wheelchair and umbrellas which can be borrowed free of charge.
2. Community: funeral service and social gatherings in one place
Most cemeteries and crematoria in The Netherlands have a café or reception area on site with a catering service. They offer families a private space before and after the funeral service where they can meet and have a coffee or tea, a light lunch or drinks and refreshments.
Reception area and kitchen at Den en Rust cemetery, Bilthoven
In The Netherlands, it is common for immediate families to invite other family members, friends and people who have known the deceased the day before the funeral for a viewing and to share their sympathies. This often takes place at a funeral home, in the family’s house, and also some cemeteries and crematoria offer rooms for viewings. Cemetery and crematorium De Nieuwe Ooster, in Amsterdam Oost, for example, recently opened a funeral centre where families can rent rooms for viewings. These rooms can be personalised by the family. They include a music system. Tea and coffee is also included in the service.
Viewings, funeral service, cremation or burial and refreshments all take place in the same place providing mourners a single space to have their final moments with the deceased, to pay their tributes, to say their final farewells and to share memories with drinks and food. The crematorium as place for social gathering.
3. Evocative space: contemporary, belief-neutral venues tailored to today’s wishes
In the UK, the place where funeral services are being held is usually called ‘chapel’. In The Netherlands, this place is called ‘aula’, which means ‘hall’. Whereas ‘chapel’ reminds of a particular religious tradition, ‘hall’ is a generic reference to a place of gathering.
Layout and furniture of many aulas in The Netherlands are modern, flexible and neutral, with lots of natural daylight and with no references to any particular belief. The Aula of natural burial ground Den en Rust, in Bilthoven, provides guests a view on a path through the woods. The ‘Chalet’ at Zorgvliet has a glass wall looking out on water and trees. Many aulas have individual chairs which can be moved around and be placed in a circle, square or semi-circle around the coffin and the lectern. Quite different from the usual fixed rows in traditional chapels with their darker colours and limited daylight.
Aula at ‘Den en Rust’ Bilthoven, with view on path through the woods (photo credit: website Den en Rust), and aula interior at ‘Zorgvliet’, Amsterdam
The cemeteries I visited all had modern music installations and the option to show photo slides. Families can provide music through WeTransfer, CD, e-mail and use existing libraries. They all had the option to film the service, with cameras installed in the Aula to capture the ceremony form various angles. Life-streaming was also available.
The Netherlands are home to some remarkable and unique examples of crematorium architecture and design. In The Nieuwe Ooster, for example, not only modern and abstract paintings of Paradise will evoke the likes and dislikes of its visitors, it’s also the only crematorium in The Netherlands where the coffin moves up at the committal.
Paintings by Albert Muis, ‘De Nieuwe Ooster’
Another example of innovative funeral architecture can be found in Zorgvliet. Early 2017, the cemetery opened a brand new Crematorion. This remarkable, white tipi-shaped building is located on walking distance of the Aula. A dedicated road leads up to a sheltered part of the Crematorion where families have the opportunity to say their final farewell after the ceremony. The coffin is being put on a trolley and moved up into the cremator. Families may witness the committal and have the option to open the cremator doors themselves. They also may wish the coffin to remain.
Crematorion, Zorgvliet cemetery, Amsterdam
4. Family-led: funeral director becomes more and more advisor and provider of single services
On my Dutch funeral trip I had coffee with a funeral photographer, Anna Groot. Depending on the wishes of the family, Anna takes photos of one or more moments of the funeral. She creates beautiful photo books which are a precious memory of an important day.
Impression of the photo books that funeral photographer Anna Groot creates for families.
Most of the funerals Anna showed me were family-led and highly personalised. Her website shows some beautiful examples. It’s in Dutch, but the pictures speak for themselves.
“Families invent all kinds of rituals”, Anna told me. She showed a home funeral where family members laid photos on the deceased. Another funeral took place in an old factory; the family had created a path of candles on which they carried the coffin to the trestles. She showed photos of children, drawing and doing arts and crafts in a dedicated corner of the church; at another occasion, family sat around a coffin on a boat, bringing their loved one to their final resting place over the river. Classic cars, vans, and even a funeral bus can be rent as hearses.
When families take the lead, and they become creative, everything is possible and the most amazing things happen. And don’t assume that the Dutch are allowed much time: it’s a legal obligation to dispose the body within 6 working days.
I also spoke to Redolf Huiting, funeral director at PCB Uitvaartzorg, about the increase of family-led funerals. I asked him about the future of funerals. In his view, the funeral director’s role will change from directing and managing full funeral packages towards advising on the available options. “I had a client the other day and the only thing he needed from me was a hearse and a funeral bed as he wanted to take care of the body at home and bring it to the crematorium by himself. I wanted to make sure he understood the ins and outs of the process so I spent some time with him on the phone to give advice on how to take care of the body”.
Families are becoming more and more aware of the options out there, and they are becoming available at low cost. Huiting mentioned that, since March 2017, bol.com (the Dutch equivalent of Amazon) offers coffins online which are cheaper than the ones funeral directors sell. “People are getting more informed about the options out there and it’s easy to explore and compare them”.
Huiting made me realise that the generation dying now might still mainly go for traditional packages, but their children, the baby boomers, who are organising the funerals for their parents, are becoming increasingly aware of what’s possible. And when these baby boomers die and their children, generation X and beyond, who have grown up with the internet and personalised features, organise the funerals, things will look completely different. Huiting also expects cryonics and resomation to become popular alternatives to burial and cremation in the next 10 years.
5. Death as part of life: death education and remembering on the go
In The Netherlands, funerals and death may greet you while you are doing your weekly shopping, a walk in the countryside, or even when checking your phone.
Funeral home PCB Uitvaartzorg in Utrecht has recently opened three funeral shops in shopping centres. These shops offer information about dying, funerals and remembering; people can walk in for a chat or a cuppa, and the funeral home hosts evenings about funeral planning. A touch screen on the window offers 24/7 support to people who want instant information about funerals. PCB also developed an App, to be downloaded for free, offering practical information about planning and organising a funeral.
PCB Uitvaartzorg – Funeral shop. Funeral information while you shop. With touch screen for funeral information outside opening hours. The App is a handy tool to access funeral information anytime, at any place.
Another beautiful example of ‘death on the go’ can be found in Nigtevecht. June 2016, Marian van Weert opened Gedenkplaats. Gedenkplaats is located in an old fortress, and it is part of a walking and cycling route. It offers shelves and vitrines to place ashes; people can buy or rent rooms or part of rooms of the fortress to create their own remembering shrines and memorials; and the outdoor space is available for scattering or internment. The fortress also organises workshops to create our own remembrance token and it offers a tea room where people can get refreshments and relax.
Gedenkplaats, Fort Nigtevegt. A place to remember the dead, to continue bonds and to contemplate on life and death.
Compared to the British market, the Dutch are ahead of the funeral game when it comes to personalised, family-led funerals and their dealing with death as part of their life.
It might take a bit more time for the British’ stiff upper lip culture to adapt to the changing way modern society is dealing with their dead, but if the UK funeral industry want to appeal to the generations to come, it might benefit from the following lessons I learnt from the Dutch:
- Cemeteries and crematoria should get the basics right. They are places where people gather to mourn or remember a death, sometimes after having travelled a long distance. Crematoria should be warm and welcoming places, providing comfort to bereaved people: they should be tidy, with clean facilities and information about the premises.
- Make crematoria and cemeteries places of community. Funerals are an occasion where people meet and catch up, sometimes after years of separation. Crematoria and cemeteries could offer facilities to connect and to meet each other by providing spacious, welcoming waiting areas, rooms for people to gather and say farewell to their loved one, spaces to relax and to nourish the body with drinks and refreshments.
- Provide belief-neutral, flexible spaces with modern technology. An increasing number of people wants their funeral to be personal and unique, reflecting their beliefs, hobby’s, interests and personality. Funerals are increasingly becoming celebrations of life. Crematoria and cemetery chapels should have a belief-neutral design, light, and flexible, so services and rituals can easily be tailored to the needs and wishes of the deceased and their family. Modern music systems, life stream options, recording facilities and wifi help to connect with people who live further away.
- The role of the funeral director is changing from director to advisor: funeral professionals should stay ahead of the game. Due to the internet, the growing number of death education initiatives and people experiencing personalised funerals, people are getting better informed about the available options. The growing number of websites offering funeral products and services online will help people take ownership of funerals and encourage them to buy services from multiple providers. Future funerals will be increasingly family-led. The business model is changing: in the nearby future, the demand for full funeral packages will decrease. Clients will only buy particular services from the funeral director, like education and advise about the options and support them where they need it. Funeral directors who would like to survive in this rapidly changing world better stay ahead of the game through constant innovation and agility towards new developments.
- Funeral professionals should get out there and made themselves present. Many funeral directors only present themselves to the public through offices that look old-fashioned and serious and of which the door is closed. Don’t let families need to find you when the time comes. Go out there and make yourself present though Apps, media, talks, events. Inspire people to write wills and funeral wishes during their lives. Combine your services with a café or a funeral shop, a space to meet, discuss and learn.