By David Barrington, NAFD Vice President

It’s vitally important to encourage people to talk about the end of life and sometimes the unexpected does help to unlock conversation. The NAFD has campaigned for years to encourage people to think about and put plans in place for what happens when they die. But the controversial advertising campaign that comparison website Beyond sought to place on the London Underground recently is quite different.

Through sustained, well thought-through and evidence-based work by many different organisations, and the huge success of Dying Matters Week, more and more Britons are becoming comfortable talking about their eventual funeral. It’s no longer the taboo it once was. But the change is slow. That’s to be expected; it’s a difficult and, for many people, painful subject. A recent YouGov survey showed that 12% of Britons say nothing will ever prompt them to think about or plan for their own funeral – and 60% of Britons say they haven’t yet made any plans, so we still have a way to go.

However, funeral directors understand that while the change is slow to come, that doesn’t mean there’s a need for ‘shock and awe’ tactics, which risk trivialising one of the most sensitive of subjects, rather than making people feel comfortable in broaching it. And that’s what makes us uncomfortable with Beyond’s arguments about the artwork they wanted to run. In our view, in any communication about death it is always important to be sensitive to people who are already dealing with bereavement. There will be thousands of people travelling on the tube every day that have recently lost someone, or who will find the subject hard to contemplate for a whole variety of understandable reasons, and so we feel that Beyond’s attempts to be ‘edgy’ in their advertising campaign risks causing more harm than good. How about those people in poor health, for whom an advert suggesting that if you have a sore throat and cough you should be writing your Will might unnecessarily spark health fears?

It’s important to say that the adverts in question were original concepts and not the actual campaign that they have been running on the Tube, which are much more straightforward in their design. It’s perhaps understandable that Beyond, as a commercial organisation, is revealing the banishment of these original adverts to try and generate headlines to promote its business to future consumers. As the saying goes – there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Let’s face it, they’ve landed themselves in the national press! However, they are promoting their brand on the back of people’s discomfort and unwillingness to face up to their own mortality. This is not an altruistic drive for a healthier society. Is that fair?

In our view, the original adverts risked trivialising a subject that is far better achieved through conversations – with family, friends, faith leaders, a local funeral director or other trusted advisors. Not through cartoonish adverts on the morning commute showing coffins instead of surfboards, or comparing choosing a coffin to choosing a wedding dress.

In banning the adverts, Transport for London rightly commented that they have a ‘serious responsibility’ to ensure advertising on their services doesn’t upset or offend. They aren’t the only ones with a responsibility to the public and we’re pleased to see Beyond have recognised this in the alternative campaign they subsequently went with.

There’s a place for humour (as funeral directors we rarely experience a funeral that doesn’t include laughter, at some point) – but always with an eye on the impact it could have on those who are suffering. Let’s focus our collective efforts on having a sensible conversation about ensuring funerals are meaningful, that people think ahead to what is important for their own, and we support bereaved people as they come to terms with a life without their loved one in it.