Key Worker

After 20-odd years of making do with the outdated plumbing and electrics that I inherited with my house, I’ve finally reached the point where a major upgrade is now necessary and unavoidable. And despite the prospect of having my home reduced to a bombsite for a few weeks, it’ll be a welcome diversion from 12 months of nothing but work, collapsing in front of the telly in the evening and then wash, rinse and repeat. 

I was always bitterly opposed to the idea of lockdown and I’m still convinced that the social and economic cost of it is going to mean that whatever victory might eventually be claimed over Covid will be a very hollow one. But at least I have been able to carry on working. I consider myself deeply fortunate not to have been amongst the millions of people who’ve either been furloughed, or worse still, had their livelihoods summarily seized from them as a consequence of businesses being locked down and unable to trade. And because of that, I have a great deal of difficulty in accepting that as a funeral director I’m regarded as a ‘key worker’. In a modern technological society like ours, I don’t think there’s any such thing. Every worker is key and the functions that each and every one of us performs will be vital to thousands of people at any given moment in time. Doctors might well save lives, but not without the help of nurses, and neither group would be much use if paramedics weren’t there to deliver the patients in the first place, provided of course that they in turn have access to vehicle mechanics to maintain their ambulances for them. And if your water pipe bursts at home then all the doctors, nurses and paramedics in the world won’t be as much use to you right then as a decent plumber would. 

But there’s another reason why I have difficulty with the label ‘key worker’. To my mind it carries the inference that the term is restricted solely to public sector workers in healthcare and the emergency services; and that private sector providers of equally vital, if slightly more routine services: the people who fix your plumbing so your house isn’t flooded; who get your Wi Fi back online so you can carry on working from home; or even those who bury your dead, aren’t so important because they make money out of it. In reality, the only difference between us and the NHS and emergency services is that they don’t have to present an invoice after performing their work. If you think that plumbers or funeral directors charge outrageous amounts for their services then you really wouldn’t want to know what even the most routine surgical operation costs; or the cost to the taxpayer of something so seemingly mundane as your neighbour’s trip to A & E after falling off his ladder. In comparative terms our hourly rate is no higher than that of the NHS, although quite understandably the great British public don’t always see it like that. 

The restriction to just 5 mourners at funerals during the first lockdown (whoever would have thought we’d end up referring to it as the first lockdown?) was inhuman and meant the current limit of 30 seemed like a positive luxury when it was first brought in. But as funeral directors the issue of what to charge for our services in those early days of lockdown was something of a moral dilemma. Our overheads hadn’t altered, and each funeral still required exactly the same amount of manpower and resources. But particularly in the case of burials it just didn’t seem right to be charging our standard fee when families were faced with having an enforced graveside service regardless of weather conditions, and with just 5 people there. So we reduced our fees, at some cost to our business, simply because it felt like the right thing to do. I’m not claiming poverty here and I’m certainly not looking to garner any thanks or admiration either. But everyone with a job has a part to play keeping the country running and in the last twelve months there’s been a great many workers and businesses who have gone to enormous lengths to keep society going as best as it was possible to do. Meanwhile, certain others were spending their time making TikTok videos and still getting paid while doing it.    

I’ll be honest though: I haven’t actually missed conducting large funerals. There has been something genuinely quite fulfilling about only conducting small, intimate ceremonies. It’s been lovely to have all the fripperies and fripperies stripped away to leave just heartfelt little events. And it’s been very levelling too. Funerals that would previously have felt very sparsely attended and lonely have no longer felt like that, which is a very timely reminder that all lives are equally valuable. In the same way, it’s often it’s the most underpaid and under-valued workers who perform the most valuable and vital jobs. They’re the real key workers. 

James Baker is a funeral director and the author of ‘A Life In Death – Memoirs of A Cotswold Funeral Director’ (2012) and ‘The Unmourned’ (2020) 

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