John Adams was elected President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, one of the most important roles in the entire UK funeral industry, in May 2022. John's role includes everything from chairing meetings to meeting NAFD members around the country, giving him a unique perspective on how the industry is changing and the struggles it faces. As he reaches the end of his term, we asked him to sit down and talk about his work.
Putting death on the curriculum
One of John’s personal goals has been the campaign to get age-appropriate content on death, dying and bereavement added to the national curriculum. According to the NAFD website, 111 children lose a parent daily — a number which may be shocking to many. This is one reason why John advocates for mandatory education on death and grief.
It’s the only thing guaranteed for everyone on this planet. So let’s take the fear out of it.
He believes that adding content to the national curriculum to teach children about death would not only prepare children to cope with loss, but would also help those who have not experienced it themselves to better understand and support their peers who have lost someone. He said that while death is scary, "it's the only thing guaranteed for everyone on this planet. The only thing … so let's take the fear out of it. Let's understand it better".
The digital future of funerals
You might have a vision of the funeral industry as a traditional one, where modern technology is not always welcomed. John, however, took this conversation point as another opportunity to highlight the importance of education. When we discussed the impacts of changing technology on the funeral industry, he argued that social media can be a powerful tool when used correctly.
Rather than just promoting his own business, John said that his use of social media is based on the responsibility he feels to help people; he uses it to educate people about grief, loss, and funeral arrangements, among other things. He also shared his belief that technological advancement can have huge benefits to the funeral industry, mainly when it comes to ease of communication: "[the purpose of technology] isn't to cause problems, it is to assist and improve life, make life easy, and actually it provides better levels of service as well".
Live stream and video funeral services
Another way technology is changing the funeral industry is with the increase of video funerals, especially for the purpose of live streams. When we asked John about this, he said that having a live recording allows friends and family to be part of the service, even if they cannot be there in person. This is especially important in light of COVID, which sometimes means that even close friends and family are not always able to attend a funeral service.
When it comes to having a recording of the funeral not for the purpose of being watched in real-time, however, this can give us something to think about. "What's your reason for rewatching it over and over again?" John asks. "If it helps you, that's good. But we need to be careful. You need to be careful that you're moving in the right direction".
Funerals in a secular nation
Technology isn't the only thing changing the funeral industry — increasing secularisation means fewer people than ever before are opting for funerals at places of worship. According to John, the UK is seeing a rise in civil funerals, because while the majority of people are not churchgoers, many still have "a connection to the Church and God" — especially when it comes to death and what comes after. This means that many people have civil funerals which include prayers and hymns, while not actually having a religious funeral.
Bereavement awareness is so important because religion isn't there now. It's not as strong as it was.
This is one way that people can plan a service which accommodates both religious and non-religious family members — as John puts it: "it can be very personal. There can be no traditional format and procedures, but you can still have the Lord's Prayer, you can still have a hymn, it can be whatever you want it to be". On the other hand, you can also opt to have a humanist funeral, which has no religious content at all. There are a wealth of options for personalised memorial ceremonies, including Aura Flights' service which scatters ashes across the world by releasing them in space — you can learn more about that here. What's important to remember is that, as John says, your funeral can be whatever you want it to be.
Mourning and community
With secularisation, however, comes another set of challenges. In the past, many people were supported by their church and their church community in times of loss and sadness, but now that fewer people have a connection to religion, many have lost that sense of community and haven't always been able to find it elsewhere. John says this is part of why he believes bereavement should be included in the national curriculum — "bereavement awareness in the national curriculum is so important because religion isn't there now. It's not as strong as it was".
It's important to know, however, that even if you aren't part of a church community, there are many ways you can get help and support when dealing with loss. Many funeral directors now provide counselling services, and there are also increasing non-religious community networks forming to support those who experiencing bereavement, as well as charities specifically formed for this purpose. Accepting help can be hard, but a strong support network can be invaluable when you have lost a loved one.
How did the pandemic impact the funeral industry?
The height of the COVID pandemic was a difficult time for the funeral industry, as the virus meant that huge numbers of people were arranging funerals. Those who work in the industry were not only hit by a much larger workload, but by the emotional toll of facing the grief and loss of so many bereaved families and people. As a result, the industry has experienced staffing shortages, a problem it has in common with many industries across the UK.
Some people would be saying, “I bet you're doing well” — we’re going into nursing homes when the place is full of COVID and showing respect and dignity
Now that the immediate strain of the pandemic on the industry has subsided, John says that a huge part of dealing with staffing shortages is ensuring that workers feel good about going to work. "I'm a big believer the care starts within the building you work", John said, "what I try to highlight is just how special the sector is and how honoured we all are to be involved in what we do".
The heart of funeral care hasn’t changed
With that said, John does think there are some important changes happening in the industry: "it's been seen as a male dominated, elderly white men… Things are changing in the industry, and rightly so". While he heard a lot of light-hearted speculation during the pandemic — "some people would be saying, I bet you're doing well" — he made sure to emphasise the difficult reality of the job: "we're going into nursing homes when the place is full of COVID and showing respect and dignity … We turn up every day without question, we’re there at three in the morning, smartly dressed, a clean ambulance and trying to help someone".
What I try to highlight is just how special the sector is and how honoured we all are to be involved in what we do
Despite how difficult it can be, the pride John has in his work is eminently clear: "I think I think it is remarkable what we do. And I don't think the funeral industry as a whole fully understands how special they are". The main takeaway from our conversation with John is the evident care and dedication he has for his work, both in his role as NAFD president and as a funeral director. Like John, the funeral industry as a whole has overcome many challenges and its workers continue to provide people with an essential service, and do so with compassion and care. John puts it best: "you can't fake it. It's too emotionally invested. You can't fake it".
At Aura Flights, we share John's passion and belief that doing what we do is an honour. We specialise in scattering ashes in space, from where they will travel to rest across the globe. With direct cremations and personalised memorial options more popular than ever, speak to us today about offering Aura Flights services in your funeral home.