An interview with: Mandie Lavin, CEO of the NAFD 0

NAFD

With the very real prospect of increased regulation looming on the horizon, it’s undoubtedly a time of change and upheaval for the funeral industry in the UK. We caught up with Mandie Lavin, the CEO of the country’s largest funeral trade association, the National Association of Funeral Directors, to find out about her vision for the organisation, as well as what the NAFD and its members would like to see from regulation.

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Mandie Lavin, CEO, NAFD

Hi Mandie. How have you found the first six months of your role as CEO of the NAFD, are you all settled?

It’s been amazing and overwhelming to have received such a high level of support from everyone. Much of the work performed by funeral directors goes unseen and unrecognised, so standing back and observing it first-hand is quite remarkable. The insight provided by this job in the first six months alone has been absolutely unique.

We’ve also been struck by how compassionate and emotionally invested funeral directors are when it comes to helping families overcome grief. It’s a big part of the job.

I think our members go the extra mile to ensure that someone who has died has their wishes fulfilled. Members of the public don’t often know much about funerals, and the impact that a funeral director will have in helping the family organise the funeral and overcome grief is phenomenal. Having organised funerals for both of my parents, I had been so very impressed by the service and empathy that I experienced that I wanted to play my part in the Association.

What would you say your main aim is?

I came into the job really with three aims. Firstly, I think that the whole area of funerals is going through enormous change. The profession has a great deal of tradition attached to it, yet regulation in Scotland and an increasing use of technology are raising issues around price transparency; consumers don’t always feel that they are in a position to shop around and ask questions when someone has died. This places the funeral industry in a privileged position and this is something which we have to navigate carefully to ensure fairness and public confidence.

Secondly, we need to understand what our members need from us on a daily basis and how we can support them more. For example, if a member does find themselves the subject of a complaint, we need to be able to help them deal with it diligently, quickly and fairly. We need to have easily accessible guidance and practical help available when they contact us.

Finally, I’m really interested in education and industry standards. After writing an article for our Funeral Director Monthly magazine on the different ways people get into the profession, I found the number and diversity of entry routes fascinating. Some people enter through a family business, while others enter through very defined educational pathways within larger organisations. I think we have to understand what national education standards should look like, and how we can work with our partner organisations to establish these. The whole area of education and practice standards is going to become increasingly important as regulation develops.

Although we are small and perfectly formed, we do often meet with Ministers and civil servants and influence Government thinking and policy direction. We can get a lot done on behalf of our membership.

Speaking of the variety of routes into the industry, how was it that you became CEO of the NAFD?

I have always had an interest in end of life and palliative care, having worked as a Marie Curie nurse and managed a large London NHS hospital out of hours. I regularly dealt with families who had lost someone close and sometimes in very traumatic circumstances. It gave me a deeper understanding of how to say and do the right thing at those times, to try to ease pain and suffering. I’ve also worked for a wide range of regulators and professional organisations, such as the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, where I did a lot of work on the Shipman Enquiry. I am a practising Barrister, and during my time in chambers I often represented people on the margins of society that found themselves in difficult circumstances after they’d lost people and their lives had just fallen apart.

My work at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society involved working with and helping members, as well as enforcing standards and my experience in regulation across different professions will be important at the NAFD. I was heavily involved with the standards and regulatory side of things, in all my previous professional roles, where the key is to establish what it is that needs to be improved so that the whole industry is better off and the public better served.

A good funeral can become a key part of the grieving process. Are funeral directors on the front line of that?

Absolutely, I think a lot of the care that funeral directors give families actually goes on after the funeral. Funeral directors have an overwhelming responsibility and influence over people’s future wellbeing – it’s not just about caring for somebody who’s died and arranging a funeral. Most funeral directors are highly respected and an important part of their local community. They are the people that families turn to in their hour of need.

We know that funeral directors do a fantastic job here in the UK. Is part of your role to make sure that people know that, while also ensuring that there is a formalised code of practice, which is reflected by regulation?

Indeed. I think funeral directors have nothing to fear from regulation, as high standards already exist and people are striving to make them even higher. I think the question for the industry is where do you set the baseline – what is the minimum acceptable standard, and what does ‘wrong’ look like?

In Scotland, we’re about to see the new Inspector of Funeral Directors appointed and announced. Following that there is likely to be a period of understanding how the industry works. We have pledged to play a key part in the induction of the inspector. There’s a big conversation to be had, not only with the inspector, but also with members of the public. What do they expect when they deliver someone whom they love very dearly into the care of a funeral director? It’s a very sensitive area and I’m not sure if that dialogue with the public yet exists in a way that is needed.

What sense do you get of NAFD members’ feelings towards regulation? You mentioned that you welcome it, is that feeling shared among the NAFD membership?

We have completed surveys with members in Scotland and 97% of respondents said we should be working with our fellow trade organisations to enter into dialogue with the Scottish Government. Any regulations that are implemented need to be fit for purpose and we have got off to a very good start working together with SAIF (Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors) to ensure that we can respond collectively and collaboratively in the public interest. On Saturday 1 April, we had our Stirling Debate and signed the Stirling Agreement which maps out the ways in which the NAFD and SAIF plan to work together with the Government to shape regulation in a way which ensures that what emerges is proportionate and workable.

There is a statutory duty of consultation built into the Scottish Burial and Cremation Act that means stakeholders must be consulted prior to any changes being made, so any regulatory changes will be fit for purpose. It’s now our job that, as far as possible, we put forward proposals which are in the public interest.

What would you say are the greatest challenges for funeral directors today?

Whether you are a smaller, independent funeral director or a part of a larger corporate structure, I think the business environment is challenging. Cuts in public funding mean that it is more challenging to  plan a funeral in a timely fashion. delays in funerals are a cause for concern.

Technology will also have more of an impact, there is no question about it. We live in a far more  enabled world than ever before, in terms of the way in which we access information and in terms of our ability to communicate. People are asking more questions and approaching funerals with different expectations, so it’s vital that the information people need is readily available and that anyone who wants to shop around is able to do so.

There is an entire network of people who need to pull together to create a funeral that works for the families; from florists to celebrants and ministers, from embalmers to medical professionals. We all need to be on the same page for the public good and the public interest. We need to set aside any difficulties that may have been experienced in the past and sit around a table to find solutions which work for the public. My message today is one of conciliation and collaboration.

Thank you Mandie. Pleasure talking with you, and we look forward to seeing how things develop on the regulation front.

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Behind the Scenes at Scattering Ashes 0

The team from Scattering Ashes hold up a mini Viking funeral boat.

With cremations now accounting for an impressive 76% of all funerals in the UK, more and more families are looking for creative – or even spectacular – things to do with their loved one’s ashes.

That’s where Scattering Ashes come in. Founded in 2009 by Richard Martin, this incredibly comprehensive site aims to help its visitors find the perfect way to say goodbye, whether that be a peaceful seaside scattering or going out with a bang in an ambitious firework display.

This month, we caught up with Richard to talk about scattering techniques, Viking funerals – and why you don’t want to leave ashes at Jane Austen’s house.

Hi Richard! Thanks for the interview. How did Scattering Ashes come to be?

Ashes being scattered from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth
Richard and the team can help you scatter ashes from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth plane, among other things.

I worked for the Environment Agency and DEFRA for many years, and it was looking like it might be time to change career. So, I thought, ‘What would I like to do?’

I’d scattered my dad’s ashes years before, and felt that we were left a bit at sea because the funeral directors didn’t have any information. We scattered his ashes at his golf course, and we weren’t made to feel very welcome when we went there –  and we certainly weren’t made to feel welcome when we wanted to go back. It all just felt a bit unsatisfactory.

So, I had the idea that perhaps I could help people by providing information about scattering ashes, because there was nothing out there online. I started blogging and then the business grew from there.

A Viking Longboat urn from Scattering Ashes
The Viking longboat urn from Scattering Ashes actually floats.

What’s your favourite scattering method on the site at the moment?

One thing that seems to have hit a chord with people is the Viking boat.

We do an almost metre-long Viking boat that holds a full set of ashes. You can set it afloat, set it on fire, and it goes up in a blaze of glory. We’ve tested them, and they’re pretty cool, I have to say. When we’ve seen them set sail, they’ve looked amazing! I quite like the fireworks too.



Why do you think people are looking for more exciting things to do with ashes now?

I think society has become more accepting of death. I also think that the old religious practices don’t suit as many people these days – maybe you don’t necessarily want a vicar speaking at your funeral because he never really knew you, and you’re not religious in the first place. And more people are thinking, ‘Well, actually, I don’t want that sort of faux-Victoriana, I want a bit more of a celebratory approach to my life’.

Ashes are scattered directly into someone's face in this scene from The Big Lebowski.
That scene from The Big Lebowski.

You run courses on scattering ashes for funeral directors. Do you have any top tips for a successful scattering?

Mind the wind is my main one.

There’s that scene in The Big Lebowski.

Exactly. Another is to be safe: a chap died last year scattering ashes after he got washed off shore in Cornwall, and the year before that a couple died in Spain doing it, and the year before that a lady fell off a cliff doing it in Ireland. Don’t go to these extreme places, because you’re putting yourself in danger.

A biodegradable water urn shaped like a turtle
This floating turtle urn from Scattering Ashes is completely biodegradable.

The third thing is probably to be aware of the amount of ashes. People tend to think it’s going to be light. In movies, like The Big Lebowski for example, there’s literally a few handfuls. But in reality, there’s something like six pounds of ashes.

So, people often end up scattering for quite a while, then they upend the urn and get this little conical pile of ashes, and it looks odd. Then they realise, ‘Oh god, we’ve got nothing to move it around with,’ and they’re using their feet, and then they go, ‘This is undignified.’

But with a bit of thought, you can make it quite a poignant, memorable ceremony, which is what we try to educate people about.

You keep a (really very comprehensive) record of places that allow scattering – do people often say no?

More and more often, now. When we first started a lot of football clubs were saying yes, and now many say no. Some are trying to cater for it with memorial gardens instead: they realise the demand, but they don’t want it impacting the pitch.

The more people scatter ashes in one place, the more troublesome they find it?

Jane Austen's house in Chawton
Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, where visitors have been asked to stop secretly scattering ashes. Image by Joaotg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Absolutely. Two particular places come to mind. One is the top of Ben Nevis: a lot of Scots will have their ashes scattered at the top of Ben Nevis. The ecosystem up there is relatively fragile – mosses and lichens. It might look barren, but it’s not.

Ashes are rich in calcium and phosphorus, so when you put a lot of ashes there, you’re changing the ecology of the place. So, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked people to stop scattering at the summit.

They had to put a press release out for Jane Austen’s house because people were sneaking over the wall at night and upending the urns on the weekend. The gardener might come back on Monday morning and find three piles of ashes that had been dumped, and of course, a rose bed can only take so much.

A panoramic view from Ben Nevis, where people are no longer supposed to scatter ashes.
The view from Ben Nevis. Image by Leo Hoogendijk courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You won Best Bereavement Resource at the Good Funeral Awards in 2015 – what’s your secret?

Honesty, really. I try not to be partisan, and to look at both sides and just use the facts. I don’t have any particular drum to beat about this; I think people should have the right to choose what they do with ashes, as long as it doesn’t impact others. Also, it’s pretty comprehensive: I’ve phoned up and emailed virtually everyone. There must be getting on to 800 posts on there now.

Impressive! And what’s next for Scattering Ashes?

We’re offering training courses for funeral directors and crematoria staff and celebrants, which is new. We’ll also be increasing our trade offer, putting wholesale options on the site. And we now have a sister site here called My Pet’s Ashes, which offers similar services for pet owners, because they’re part of the family too.

If you’d like to find out more about Scattering Ashes, head on over to the site at www.scattering-ashes.co.uk. And if you have your own ash scattering story to tell, we’d love to hear it! Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Meet the Maker: Cremation Glass Jewellery 0

Glassmaker Kenny Scott of Ash Glass Design.

Pendant with flecks and swirls in the glass made from the ashes of someone who has died

What do you see when you look at this pendant? To the untrained eye, it might look like … a pendant. But to those in the know, it’s something unusual, and completely unique: those flecks and swirls in the glass are made from the ashes of someone who has died.

In fact, the necklace is just one item in a range of mourning jewellery and sculpture created by glassmaker Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass Design. Based in the picturesque village of Clovenfords in the Scottish Borders, Kenny and co. craft bespoke cremation glass jewellery for families who want a subtle way to carry their loved one’s ashes with them.

So, how does one become a cremation glassmaker, exactly, and how is cremation glass actually made? To find out more about this relatively new answer to the question of what to do with ashes, we had a chat with Kenny …

 

How did Ash Glass Design get started?

Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass DesignKenny began his career at the tender age of 16, leaving school to take on a five-year apprenticeship in making glass from scratch. 20 years later, he was creating glasswork for museums and clients when he received an unusual request:

“One of my friends who’s a funeral director approached me and asked if I would make a memorial pendant for someone using ashes”, Kenny told Beyond. While at first Kenny wasn’t sure (he describes it as “a wee bit of a Marmite moment”) the family was so pleased with the result that he immediately realised that he wanted to do it again.

“After I made the pendant and met the family, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had when making something for someone”, Kenny explained. “They were so happy, and it’s such a precious thing that you’re making for them, that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’

“Basically, that was it: I put a wee range together, and from there it’s kind of grown. I love doing it.”

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Why do people like cremation jewellery?

CreAsh Glass Design's cremation glass mourning ringmation jewellery isn’t for everyone ­– but while some find the concept morbid, others like the idea of keeping a loved one close in a subtle way. “I speak to all the customers, and I think for them the nicest thing is the fact that they can have their loved one with them all the time, and it’s not in your face. It doesn’t have a big sign saying what it is – it’s just a lovely piece of jewellery”, Kenny said.

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everybody says that they get so much comfort out of having it.”

In Ash Glass Design’s range, rings are the most popular option: “Somebody said to me, it’s like they’re still holding my hand.

“We do lots for weddings as well, my goodness. For somebody who has maybe lost a parent, it’s like [their loved one] can be there on their wedding day. It’s a lovely way to have them with you.”

“There’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt.”

How is cremation glass jewellery made?

Making cremation jewelleryThe process of making cremation glass jewellery is long and somewhat delicate, with great care taken to make sure the right ashes (“labelled, bagged, boxed, bagged again”, Kenny reports) are used.

At Ash Glass Design, everything is made in-house. After a discussion with the family about the design, Kenny melts their required colour of glass to make a base. He then carefully adds the ashes before sealing it over with clear glass to make a perfect finished surface.

After some time spent in the kiln – it takes a day and a half to gradually cool the hot glass down – the glass is polished down with diamond tools and set into the gold or silver using a traditional technique. Any ashes left over are returned to the family along with the finished piece.

“You have to know the procedures for cooling glass down, how to heat it up, how compatible it is with other materials, so it’s quite a wee science on its own,” Kenny said, adding that “there’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt. You’re always making new designs as well, to stretch the boundaries a bit.”

“I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them”

Do you take requests?

Because Ash Glass Design is a small company (Kenny, his wife Emma and “amazing” goldsmith Joanna) the team are able to take requests to make each piece of glass unique: “If somebody wants a bespoke colour in their jewellery, we never charge any extra … We do what we can to help folk get what they want. If [a customer] wants something to be adapted somehow, then we look into it for them”, Kenny explained.

“Sometimes it’s not as feasible as they might think initially, but we can talk them through it, and find the best option for them.”

Customers appreciate this personal service: “I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them. Even a couple of years down the road, we still get them phoning back, asking how we are. It’s lovely.”


Want to find out more about Ash Glass Design? Check out their website, www.ashglassdesign.co.uk, give the team a ring on 01896 850447, or contact Kenny at [email protected]


About mourning jewellery …

A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold.
A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold. Image by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning jewellery dates back as far as the 1600s, when stern memento mori-themed rings (‘remember that you must die’) were gradually overtaken by more personal tokens of grief. Examples from the British Museum demonstrate how gruff messages like “learn to dye” were replaced by kinder tributes, such as “not lost but gone before” and “not dead but sleepeth”.

At its peak in the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was worn as part of a strict dress code for the bereaved. Mourning rings were joined by broaches and lockets, and were often made with jet (a precious stone that, being black, was thought to be mourning period-appropriate). Many contained a lock of the hair from the person who had died, or a miniature portrait.

Popularity eventually declined as life expectancy increased – by World War One, mourning jewellery was out of vogue. But the desire shared by bereaved families for physical mementos of their loved ones never really went away.

Now, the rise in cremation – 70% of people in the UK choose it over burial – and increasing openness about death are leading to a rise in interest, with companies like Ash Glass Design offering a more contemporary take.