Funeral director Oliver Towner has embraced a lot of the change sweeping funerals, particularly around the environment and direct cremations. He tells Malcolm the thinking behind his business' changes, and how his staff have reacted.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. Earlier this year at the SAIF AGM, I heard Oliver Towner from Arthur C Towner, in East Sussex, talking about his business's straightforward approach to direct cremation. I followed that up with a visit recently, to his premises in Hastings. Oliver is also at the forefront of the drive to net zero, and today I'll be talking to Oliver about how these issues are important to families and close to his own heart.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:32] Welcome, Oliver. Nice to be able to have this chat with you on podcast. How are you?
Oliver Towner [00:00:37] Oh, I'm very well, thank you. Malcolm, yourself?
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:39] Yeah, not bad. Not bad. Thank you very much. I'm looking forward to this because I know you've got some strong views. So let's get into these as a starter. So look, environmental changes, smaller services, regulation, Covid-19. There's been no shortage of massive change in funerals recently, and then what families are looking for from the funeral director. Broadly, what's your view as a business owner of how these stand in the profession just now? And are there opportunities emerging from all this change?
Oliver Towner [00:01:13] I think it's kind of a two part answer, really. The first part is to look at how things have been. I mean, as you mentioned in the question there, the last couple of years have been very difficult for our profession and our industry. But what with the pandemic, and in my eyes, being almost a sort of a forgotten industry in a way, in terms of the support we were given from from various places, to other things like the regulation that we've seen come in for FCA, for funeral plans and for CMA, for funeral directors individually.
Oliver Towner [00:01:48] So there have absolutely been a number of challenges, but ultimately regulation is great in concept. I think there are some benefits to it, for the consumer. I've always been one for open, honesty and transparency. And I think it's good that we are being encouraged to take those things on board. In terms of opportunities emerging from all this change, I think the necessity to adapt with Covid has taught the industry a lot. Things like finally being able to submit paperwork to our local crematorium digitally has been amazing. It's really helped us, and the work flow internally.
Oliver Towner [00:02:35] I mean, one of the things as well, that's kind of come off the back of Covid as an opportunity is, I've worked in the industry now for about 12 years on and off, around other things in life. And it's always struck me about the lack of awareness of mental health in our industry. I'm aware that you had someone on in the last episode, I think, talking about mental health.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:56] That's right, Andrew Crymble, yep.
Oliver Towner [00:02:57] Won't take up all that time, but I completely agree with with what he was saying. It is incredibly important in our industry and that's a huge opportunity right now. And another one, as you said as well, being environmental change. I think the one thing we learnt from the CMA is that if we don't do anything about a problem, we'll just be told how to do it by someone. We know environmental change is happening. We know that as an industry we will have to face this at some point. So why wait for someone to tell us how to do it? Why not make our minds up about it and be proactive about it now?
Malcolm Flanders [00:03:28] Thank you. That's refreshing. Okay, look, you've spoken in SAIFInsight and at the SAIF AGM recently in Scotland about how you've dealt with the rise of direct cremation, and in some ways you've embraced it as an option for your customers. I've seen that for myself. Can you explain your views on direct cremation and how you present it to your families?
Oliver Towner [00:03:48] Yeah, it's it's been a long process for us. My father, Edward, kind of identified the problem a good couple of years ago, and kind of sat down with the team and went, "well, how are we going to approach this?" And we, as a business and as a family, have always had the stance that, we shouldn't be telling people what they want, or what they want to have. If they want to have something, then okay, we'll find a way to provide that. And if we can't, we'll find someone who can and let them know how much that would be.
Oliver Towner [00:04:15] And I think with with direct cremations, personally, I don't see the problem with them. If somebody wants to celebrate someone's life in a certain way, which couldn't be done in a crematorium chapel or something like that, and they still want to have a cremation then absolutely. A direct cremation is a fantastic option. I think the one thing for me to cover on cremation is the difference between a direct cremation and a funeral, I think. And that's kind of the way that we have had to approach it internally.
Oliver Towner [00:04:44] A direct cremation is exactly that. It is a direct cremation. And we have to use the terms internally as witnessed and unwitnessed, when we're talking about direct cremations. But then, if you take all the funeral aspects out of what a funeral is, then you're left with the direct cremation. So we sat down and we went through it all, and we found that the easiest way to do it was to have, what we call a basic direct, what we used to call a basic direct, which is now an unwitnessed committal, and the enhanced direct, which is a witness to committal.
Oliver Towner [00:05:17] So we found that sometimes if people had very few family members, or they were busy, and they wanted to just be at the crematorium and witness the committal happening, that actually the enhanced option was a much better for them, because they could be there as opposed to direct when it's not particularly nice having to explain to the family that we know times are hard at the moment, and you've chosen to have a direct cremation, which is absolutely fine, but you actually can't be there. We kind of felt that wasn't right.
Oliver Towner [00:05:43] And again the rise recently, in the industry, of these huge national companies where, all well and good, and I think as I mentioned, if times are tough, then as long as you do your research, and you know that that's what the services that they are providing, and you think it's the best service for you, then great. But there was a huge difference between, again, a direct cremation and a local direct cremation where you know where the person is, where your loved one is at all times. You know the people, you can meet the people who are looking after them. They're sent to the local crematorium as opposed to somewhere else around the country.
Malcolm Flanders [00:06:17] I'm with you. I'm with you. And just to follow up question on that, how challenging was it for your own staff to get their heads round the kind of new narrative of, and the distinction that you make between direct and a funeral?
Oliver Towner [00:06:33] Quite. I mean, the direct and the funeral not so much. The problem we had internally was trying to nail down the difference between the enhanced direct and the basic direct, which is where the witnessed and unwitnessed phrases have kind of been birthed from. Because that has been what the key differentiator is. If people want to attend but not have a full funeral, well, that's witnessed committal, as opposed to the unwitnessed where they wouldn't normally want to attend.
Malcolm Flanders [00:07:01] I'm with you. That's helpful. Thanks, Oliver. Now, look, I classify you as the next generation. You're far younger than I am, so I guess your horizon is way out there. So, look, I know another area you're very involved in is sustainability, and ultimately the goal of getting to net zero emissions. Now funeral directors face some unique challenges. How has your journey been towards being more sustainable been, and what are your intentions for your business over the few years in this area.
Oliver Towner [00:07:32] So we as a business in 2025 have our 150th anniversary, which is mind boggling to me. And I think if it's not an area that we engage in as an industry, then we won't have a business, or a community to work with in 150 years. So our aim by 2025 is to have had at least some evidence based change on our journey towards, carbon negative would be amazing, but net neutrality is kind of the goal, to make sure that at least we're not a part of the problem anymore.
Oliver Towner [00:08:09] When we sat down to look at it a little while ago, I will be brutally honest and say that it's a struggle. There is very little information out there, I mean, to try to find people to talk to about it. I've contacted the AGFD, which is the Association of Green Funeral Directors, with whom we're a member. And I've had a number of conversations now with some of the team there, about other people who are doing it, and they're kind of experiences. And even they sort of said, "well, let us know how you get on, because we'd love to start a conversation around it."
Oliver Towner [00:08:41] So I've been contacting various kind of environmental consultants, and seeing what they do, and I think for us it's about initially working out exactly where we are now. So what we're doing now, what impact that's having on the environment, and then looking at how that can be changed with either smaller practical steps, with things like carbon credits, which I don't view as a solution, it's kind of a plaster to the problem to stop things getting worse in the short term. And then just ultimately how we look at our operations and what we do in terms of, be that electric vehicles, be that completely removing paper from our internal operations and doing everything digitally, which I firmly believe is possible and whatever that may be.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:29] Fantastic. That's fascinating. And I remember your comment to me a couple of weeks ago, which I do remember was the one where you made the comment that an actual direct cremation was in itself more environmentally friendly because there are fewer people attending.
Oliver Towner [00:09:45] Yeah, it's something that came off the back, I contacted a chap I think his name Mike Berners-Lee, I believe, Professor Mike Berners-Lee, who worked on the Corpse Project, I think it was called, I think it was 2016 they did it. It's a study of the environmental impacts of funerals, and it gave you the, apologise if I'm going to completely misquote this now, but it was something like a cremation, a woodland burial, a human pyre funeral and a private woodland burial. And it gave you the statistics of the four, and it said that although if you remove everything, and you just have the actual act of the committal of those four things, yes, the cremation is worse. But if you then add in things like the recurring travel to go and visit a grave, or the amount of people attending, a private woodland burial could be an hour or two away from some people, whereas the nearest crematorium could be 10 minutes. And it's those sort of subtleties that when we talk about things having an impact on the environment, we don't necessarily factor into that conversation, which we should be now.
Malcolm Flanders [00:10:42] Very true. And I hadn't, I must admit. Fascinating. Okay, look, another area of change that's got a lot of time at the AGM recently was digital. Towner is active on Facebook. I've seen that myself, and you have features on your site like funeral announcements, and also videos. You're obviously focussed on doing the right things for customers online. What would you say the key things to focus on digitally, and what benefits have you seen from your work there?
Oliver Towner [00:11:08] I can answer that in a word, really, in terms of the key thing to focus on digitally is truth, and information. I mean, all we've ever tried to do with our website, and with our approach to things digitally, is to provide people with as much of the information that they could possibly need, during what is potentially the most difficult time of their entire lives. The last thing they want is to have someone selling them something that they don't want, or putting pressure on them to do something, looking back on it and then going, "oh, well, that funeral was lovely, but it wasn't mum, or dad, or whoever."
Oliver Towner [00:11:40] And I firmly believe that we as a society don't talk about death at all. We don't talk about death enough, and we don't confront it as a topic, which means that people are left in a position whereby they haven't had the opportunity to shop around, if you will, and then it leaves them in a horrible situation of going to somewhere locally that they don't realise has been bought out by a larger company, or something like that, and then that opens the way again to not looking at options and potentially being taken advantage of.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:11] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I understand. Okay. Now, look, I know meeting all these challenges alone would be impossible, and Towner has several branches and staff, both in your family and beyond. So can you tell me a bit about your approach to people management, given the size of your business? How do your staff help you to continue to evolve and innovate, and what things are you considering to help them develop?
Oliver Towner [00:12:36] Yeah, I mean, we couldn't do anything without the team of people that we have. They have had the world asked of them over the last 2 to 3 years. I've always been proud of all the work that they do. And we do try to hold them to a high standard, because the families that trust us to help them deserve it. I often try and sit down with staff 1 to 1, where I can, and kind of just have a chat with them about where they're at, and where they want to go in this industry. If someone expresses an interest to me that they want to one day become a funeral director, or whatever it might be, or maybe they're interested in looking at some embalming work, or something like that, I will, wherever possible, make sure that those people have the opportunities for that training and to develop in that way.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:24] One final question. As you look out for the next ten, 20 years, what are your personal ambitions for the business?
Oliver Towner [00:13:32] I had this conversation internally the other day with a member of staff.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:37] I'm sorry to spring that one on you.
Oliver Towner [00:13:38] No, no, no. That's fine. That's fine. I think I said then that if we are able to continue to provide for the community that we already do, and we are as a business able to look after the staff that we have, the families that come through our door, and continue to do the work that we've done for a long time now, to the same standard, and just to really shine the light on the things that are coming down the pipeline for this industry. Because, I said in an article recently in the AGFD newsletter that, a phrase that most people in the industry would have heard before is, well, that's just how we've always done it. And if somebody in the industry hasn't heard that phrase before, then they're probably lying.
Oliver Towner [00:14:25] And, you know, while I have a lot of respect for everything, my dad and everyone in the industry prior to myself has done, I think that we need to learn from Covid, we need to learn from CMA, we need to learn from Brexit. All these things that have popped up, that just waiting to be told what we do in our industry isn't enough anymore. We need to be engaging with these things, having a say in them as they're coming out, and then really controlling it for ourselves, to look after our families, as opposed to it being a whole convoluted and difficult to understand process at times.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:53] Indeed. Oliver, well said. Look, I really appreciate your time today. It's been a pleasure talking to you and I wish you and your team all the best in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Oliver Towner [00:15:03] Thanks, Malcolm.
Malcolm Flanders [00:15:10] Thanks for listening to another Partnership Podcasts. You can read a feature from Arthur C Towner on direct cremation in February's SAIFInsight. If you have any questions or suggestions around the podcast, contact me at email@example.com. A full catalogue of episodes going back to 2019 is available at goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, or on a range of podcast apps. FCA's regulations are just around the corner and we closed out 2021 with a mini-series on regulation that would still be of interest to independents. And I should mention the Golden Charter will be at the NFE in June, so look forward to seeing many of you then. Thanks again and I'll talk to you next time on the Partnership Podcast.