The Partnership Podcast

Defining modern funeral directing with Sarah Jones

September 15, 2021 Golden Charter Season 1 Episode 29
The Partnership Podcast
Defining modern funeral directing with Sarah Jones
Show Notes Transcript

Sarah Jones of Full Circle Funerals talks about its goal of evidence-based decision making, and what it means to call yourself a modern, family-focused funeral director.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:05] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. Families’ needs have always been at the forefront of the funeral profession, and recently the upcoming regulators have brought it into even clearer focus. But beyond adhering to a set of rules, different independents have different approaches to family's well-being. Today, we'll hear from one, Sarah Jones of Full Circle Funerals in Leeds. Full Circle is about delivering a service which is tailored to the needs of the family they are supporting. Recognising that people have different levels of experience, and want different things from funeral directors. Sarah is Full Circle's director, as well as being a member of the SAIF Charter Product Development and Innovation Group, and today we'll hear from her own family's needs and the evidence behind her perspective.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:57] So, Sarah, lovely to see you again, and thanks for your time today. How are you?

Sarah Jones [00:01:01] I am super, thank you. Yes, how about you?

Malcolm Flanders [00:01:03] Not bad, coping in this hot weather. I'm sure it will rain soon though.

Sarah Jones [00:01:08] Yeah. Tomorrow. Yeah.

Malcolm Flanders [00:01:10] Yeah, yeah.

Sarah Jones [00:01:11]
Bring it on.

Malcolm Flanders [00:01:12] Oh, I know, I know, we shouldn't complain, should we? Anyway, look, as I said, lovely to see you again. And let's start off, I guess, with a question around values and principles. So I'm really interested in those values and principles, from a customer perspective, that have guided you since you started your business. Could you just share some of those with us?

Sarah Jones [00:01:32] Sure. So I guess, like everybody you bring with you your personal and professional experiences into everything that you do.

Malcolm Flanders [00:01:40] Yeah.

Sarah Jones [00:01:42] So I started my professional life within health and social care. So when I became a funeral director, I guess that everything that I did was sort of framed with that experience. And so the other big side of that is that in the places where I've worked previously, trying to practice to an evidence base is very important. So trying to understand what evidence there is, to suggest what people want, and need, and then trying to make sure that you practice in a way that delivers that. So when I first set up Full Circle, it was with a view to trying to bring therapeutic principles into funeral care. But it was also trying to practice through the evidence base, but of course, interestingly, in funeral care, as I'm sure you and everyone listening is aware, there isn't really a very good evidence base about what people actually value, and what's beneficial when people are interacting and having to engage a funeral director, plan a funeral.

Sarah Jones [00:02:42] So that's challenging. It's hard to practise good evidence based when there isn't an evidence base. So the way that we deliver care is taking principles from other industries where there is an evidence base, but then also, like many others, we're sort of trying to stimulate a little bit more research and questioning, and then trying to introduce a bit of an evidence base, which could then guide people to practice.

Malcolm Flanders [00:03:09]
Understand, thank you and we'll touch on customer research a bit later on in the podcast. So when you refer to a modern approach, what does that mean to you, and how do you know what it means for your families and customers?

Sarah Jones [00:03:22]
That's a great question, and I'm not sure I've got a particularly sophisticated answer to it. There's a lot of words, aren't there, that are bandied about in funeral care; traditional, modern, progressive, alternative. And I suppose they mean very different things to different people. And I'm sure, like many funeral directors, part of the challenge is how on earth do you articulate what your approach is, and what your values, are into a bit of a void. I think the majority of the general public don't have a lot of funeral language, and these things probably don't mean an awful lot to them. They don't necessarily have the narrative to know what to ask.

Sarah Jones [00:04:06] So I suppose what modern mean to me is that we're at least trying to understand and navigate what people would want now, rather than seeing ourselves as the upholders of tradition. So rather than framing funeral care as funeral directors being the experts in telling people how to fulfil a funeral in a way that is consistent with how it has been done in the past, trying to understand what people today might need and what would be best for their medium and long term well-being.

Malcolm Flanders [00:04:42] Got it.

Sarah Jones [00:04:45]
I don't a great answer to that, it's a ticky one. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:04:49] Don't worry, there's no more tricky questions. Now you talk a lot about families well-being in your materials and on your website. So what does that mean to you and how in practice do you work to ensure that family's needs are actually being met then?

Sarah Jones [00:05:03] The whole idea of becoming a funeral director, or the reason I became a funeral director, is because I think funerals are important, and I think with the right support, if people are able to create a funeral that is right for them, and their friends and family, then I think that could find a meaningful impact on people's outcomes. And by that, I mean how they feel, both from a physical and a mental wellbeing perspective, months and years down the line. And I think that there are many, many factors clearly that will have an impact on this; the time before somebody dies, the mode of death, there'll be all sorts of other risk factors, potentially for people having a more challenging grief journey. But I think funeral is an important event through that and the support that people get is important.

Sarah Jones [00:05:52] So what I mean by that is that I think at the funeral and the support the funeral directors can give in and around the funeral could potentially have an impact on people's physical and mental outcomes further down the line. And again, as I've alluded to, in many industries there would be some evidence as to whether that bold statement is true or not. There isn't in funeral care. But I think in time there could be, and it would be really interesting.

Sarah Jones [00:06:18]
I'd like to think that the majority of funeral directors, that's why they're doing it. They're doing it because they think it's going to make a difference to people short and long term. And I suppose the way that we do it is by trying to understand what people need short term, with the funeral arrangements, help them to create a funeral that seems to fit with their objectives at that time, but then also give quite a lot of support post funeral, to share a lot of information about things that might help them, things like, exercise after bereavement, and how music might be supportive, art therapy, all sorts of different... Putting information out there, some of which people will really not find particularly interesting, but hopefully it will be one or two things that each individual might find interesting and might help them just to do something that helps them to stay well after bereavement.

Malcolm Flanders [00:07:07] No, I get that. And do you find just a follow up to that? And do you find that some of the families come back to you for guidance and bereavement support and just some signposting on where to go?

Sarah Jones [00:07:17] Yeah, absolutely. Lots of them touch back. Sometimes for practical support, utilities type stuff, you know, account closures. Lots of them come back and ask us about sort of probate things. Lots and lots come back and ask questions about their children, and how could they support their children? Do we know any books, or podcasts, and lots of them do definitely make reference to having looked at some of the material that we've given to them, or had a look on the website and feed back that different bits of that have been helpful. So, yeah.

Malcolm Flanders [00:07:52] Thank you. Now let's turn to the practical realities of owning and running a business then. What qualities are important in this business? And how do you ensure that the staff you recruit, and who work with you, demonstrate the consistent approach? And I guess I'm referring to, you have a set of values and principles that guided you, so in the staff that you gather around you, how do you ensure that they sort of replicate that for you?

Sarah Jones [00:08:19] So I suppose first thing is recruitment, isn't it? And being clear what you're looking for in people, and trying to tailor your questions in your interviewing and recruitment process. As part of that, we don't just interview, we also ask people to come for discovery day. They come and spend some time in the service, which is, I think, kind of helpful way to to get a sense of what somebody's about. And then check that it's a context they think that they'd be happy in. And then we have a pretty clear document, one of which is called 'Working at Full Circle', which try to, as clearly as I can, kind of articulate what it's about, and what's important, and big section in there about language, and all sorts of things.

Sarah Jones [00:09:02] And we have an induction process, which again, there's a lot in there about the principles, and the approach, and what's important, and tries to kind of stimulate people to think about some things, more philosophically, I guess, rather than just straight down to the practical, this is how you look after somebody after they've died, sort of thing. And then we have kind of an ongoing process called reflective practice. After every funeral, the funeral directors fill in a document which reflects on the funeral and asks them to consider some things. And then we share that as a group, and try and have a bit of an ongoing kind of organisational learning and individual learning that goes with it.

Sarah Jones [00:09:45] But, you know, I suppose, as for any funeral director, if you have a certain approach and a philosophy about how you like to look after families, and the people in your care, then you know it's pretty important to articulate that clearly. And then the people who join the organisation and are in the organisation, if they understand that vision, then it'll be a lot easier for them to kind of make sure that everything that they do really is focussed on achieving that vision.

Malcolm Flanders [00:10:08] No, I got that. Absolutely. So another follow up question, if I went into your team today and you weren't around and I asked them what you're like to work for as a boss, how would they describe you?

Sarah Jones [00:10:19] I think they would say, that's interesting... Yeah, I suppose it's an environment where we're constantly sort of thinking of new things and ways to improve. But I can imagine that sometimes is also a little bit tiring and they might be quite pleased when I go off on holiday for a little while, because then I can't have any marvellous ideas about how to do things better.

Malcolm Flanders [00:10:46]
Excellent. Well done.

Sarah Jones [00:10:47] It's a mixed picture.

Malcolm Flanders [00:10:49] No, that's cool. Thank you. Okay. Full Circle is known for commissioning your own research, and you touched on that earlier. So could you explain a little about your findings, the reasons behind conducting research, and generally, what led you to focus on using research to reach these evidence based decisions?

Sarah Jones [00:11:07] Yeah. OK, so we don't really commission the research, I guess, so we do the research. Yeah, so I guess the really short story is, after we've been open about a year, I thought, "yeah, I really want to check that we're practising to the evidence base." So I, from my previous work, I still have access to a lot of this sort of information. So I looked for the evidence base and found out that there wasn't really one. There were lots of people who had an opinion, and who had kind of published these thoughts, or anecdotes, but actually there wasn't really any significantly robust research, asking bereaved people themselves what was important.

Sarah Jones [00:11:46]  I found that unfortunate, I guess. For lots of reasons. So I approached an academic from University of York and I said, "You know, I think that we should do something about this." And that was in 2017, maybe 2018, and since then there's been a number of projects. So the first project was about interviewing bereaved people themselves and asking them what was important. So we did a longform interviews really open questions, nothing specific, we weren't asking anything about specific funeral directors or anything like that. It was just getting people to talk about the funeral experience, and what they valued and what they didn't, and how they felt about it.

Sarah Jones [00:12:25] Was really, really long interviews. And then Julie, from University of York, had the job of trying to unpick all of that, and draw out some themes. So there were five themes that came out of that that people consistently said were important to them. And so we've called them the 'five factors.' So that was sort of the first piece of work, and then we tried to share that. In some respects, there was nothing particularly shocking in there, but some of the detail was really quite thought provoking.

Sarah Jones [00:12:52] And then there are two things that have come from that. The first is that during that research, quite a lot of people spoke, unprompted, about how their feelings on how people were cared for after death, they're physically cared for them. We didn't get any direct questions. So some people spoke about it and some people didn't. But some people spoke about it really quite strongly and it had a significant impact on their experience, good and bad. So that led us to think, "actually, do you know what? This is a whole other area that we need to potentially start to look at."

Sarah Jones [00:13:22] So the second piece of work was done, which was asking questions specifically about people's ideas, concerns, and expectations about how people are cared for after death. And then also surveying funeral directors to ask them, actually what their views are and what their practice  look like? We're just writing that at the moment, and again, that's been really interesting. And the other piece of work that's going on at the moment is that, so in many aspects of clinical care, you have scores that have been validated. So you might have hurt your leg, or whatever, and there is a pain score, for your pain. And so we are, with the University of Bradford, developing something similar for funerals.

Malcolm Flanders [00:14:03] Right.

Sarah Jones [00:14:04]
So trying to develop a score which is validated, and it's a really kind of long, iterative process, which is a validated score for measuring people's funeral satisfaction. And it is predominantly intended as a research tool. So this isn't about funeral directors getting satisfaction surveys from a marketing perspective, or a quality improvement perspective. It's more about having a tool that people could plug into maybe end of life research or other research projects that might begin to  show what works for people. So what other factors have an impact on people's funeral experience, and whether that funeral experience have any impact on people's well-being later, which ultimately is the question I'd like to answer. I'd like to understand whether the funeral actually matters. I think we all believe that, I imagine everybody listening thinks it does, but we don't really have the evidence to support that. So it would be nice to start to stimulate that kind of work.

Malcolm Flanders [00:14:54] Right, fascinating. So I guess we'll hear more about that over the coming months?

Sarah Jones [00:14:58] I hope so. Yeah, the challenge is getting it out there for people to read it. If it's going to be ready,  whether we can get it in front of the right people, it's a whole other challenge.

Malcolm Flanders [00:15:08]
No, I know. Well, we'll look forward to it when it arrives. All right, look,  final question. Looking forward, and by forward, I suppose, set the horizon 5, 10 years ahead. What trends and customer preferences are you witnessing that you feel will shape future funerals?

Sarah Jones [00:15:24] It's a slightly difficult question to answer, because of course, it's only going to be our fifth birthday soon. So I can't, I think, to answer that really intelligently and with insight, you probably need to have been doing this for a lot longer. I suppose, rather than completely fluffing the question, I think we're going to see some of the changes from the pandemic stay. I think there'll be much more digital. I think people will want us to be more enabled to do things on Zoom, to be able to stream things, there'll been many more photo tributes, they're are going to expect us to have the skills and experience to be able to deliver that sort of more technical stuff to them. Which I think is great. I think it's a really a positive thing that comes from the pandemic.

Sarah Jones [00:16:11] I get the impression, that slowly, people possibly, maybe it's a generational thing, but are becoming a slightly more discerning customer, and they are asking more probing questions about actually, you know, "what do I want from a funeral, and what is good funeral care look like?" But I don't know if it's always felt like this, if you see what I mean. So this may be the general feeling. And yeah, so I mean, you know, in an industry that hasn't changed for a very long time, I can't imagine that there's going to be any really huge changes, I think, but hopefully we'll just continue to move in a nice positive trajectory to improve the care that we collectively deliver.

Malcolm Flanders [00:16:52]
Right. Lovely. Thank you. And I guess at the heart of that is still the customer and the family. So as long as that principle remains, we're in good shape, I guess. Sarah, thank you ever so much. Appreciate your time today. That was a fascinating conversation. Thank you.

Malcolm Flanders [00:17:12] Thank you for listening to Golden Charter's Partnership Podcast. If you have any thoughts about family's preferences, or anything we've discussed today, you can contact me on to get involved in the conversation. You can also find our previous episodes on, or on a range of podcast apps. Thanks again for listening, and I'll talk to you next time on the Partnership Podcast.