By Jeremy Field

Past President, the National Association of Funeral Directors

Earlier this month, there was a rash of newspaper articles decrying fast food chain McDonald’s for including the example of a young boy, struggling to connect with his late father, discovering they shared the same taste in burger in one of their advertisements.

“McDonald’s accused of exploiting childhood bereavement” shrieked the press and critics called into question the judgement of McDonald’s and its advertising partners for using bereavement to sell burgers.

Something about this response troubled me. There is no doubt that it was a risky move by McDonald’s to so closely link the loss of a parent with the opportunity to buy a Fillet-o-Fish. However, as a profession, we know only too well that opening up any kind of discussion around grief and loss is all too hard – and especially in young people. Look at footballer Rio Ferdinand’s raw grief, in the recent BBC documentary Being Mum and Dad, as he struggles to help his older son open up about the loss of his mum. Why as a society are we so incensed that McDonald’s has not shown bereavement the reverence we have come to think it deserves? Frankly it SHOULD be discussed over a burger, over a cuppa, while waiting for a bus, in fact anywhere, everywhere and all the time. It is only by tackling the taboo we have built around the subject of death that we can hope to support people when loss occurs.

One of the main pieces of advice we give families in our care that are struggling to open up a discussion is to find something, find a connection, something small that can open up a discussion and that is exactly what is shown in the advertisement. How is what McDonald’s did any different from the advice we give families every day and from the small conversations millions of people have every day when they look at their child and say ‘Goodness me you look like your  Grandad”, or “Wow your Nana loved that book too.”

In many other cultures, the McDonald’s advert would have barely raised an eyebrow. Places like Mexico where the dead are very much part of life and discussed all of the time. Places like the Toraja region of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, where they keep the dead at home with them for days, weeks, even years, talking to them as though they are still alive and treating them still as a central and important member of the family.

These cultures must look upon our reticence to raise issues around bereavement and find it strange and unusual. It is also not helpful, as we in the funeral profession know all too well.

I was not the only person to find the outcry against the advertisement unhelpful. The writer Fay Schopen, who lost her mum when she was a child, called the outcry “ridiculous” in The Guardian and noted how many people had missed the point:

“Crucially, what a lot of people spewing outrage all over social media have misunderstood is this: the death of the boy’s dad is not solved by him eating a Filet-O-Fish. The message isn’t “Don’t worry about your dead parent – eat some fast food!” Simply, he is pleased he finally has something in common with his dad. When your parent dies when you are young, anything, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, that helps you feel closer to them is a revelation and a comfort.

“Today, 30 years after she died, I am still eager for crumbs of information about my mother. Unearthing a new fact, or hearing an observation about our similarities from someone who knew her, feels like a wonderful kind of archaeology.

“If child bereavement had been discussed openly when my own mother died – and you can’t get much more open than an advert on prime-time TV – then perhaps my grief may have felt less like a secret and shameful thing.”

She also noted that hooking people into a product via their emotions was pretty standard practice by more middle class brands and wondered whether, if the advert had been made by the likes of John Lewis, the outcry would have been the same?

It seems to have passed many people by, but that advert by McDonald’s was released during Dying Matters Week. Was this McDonald’s trying, if possibly in a slightly ham-fisted way, to make a socially useful point as well as remind people of its products? All adverts have a commercial intent behind them and as Fay Schopen observes, the advertisement was “hardly the most egregious manoeuvre in the history of capitalism.”

In my view, it’s a shame McDonald’s felt they had no choice but to pull the advert. All and any contributions to the work of Dying Matters should be welcomed. Just because it was an advert, that didn’t mean it couldn’t serve a useful purpose.

If just one child, struggling with the loss of a parent saw, in that advert the possibility of finding a tiny connection of their own with the person they’ve lost…or a parent saw a technique they could adapt to open up a conversation, then I’d say that was worth the price of a fish sandwich. Wouldn’t you?