Costa funeral sends message to Big Business

Karen Lloyd died recently at 51 from cancer. She liked drinking coffee so much her family decided to commission a coffin for her with the name of her favourite chain on the side.

It was a moving, sweetly eccentric gesture. We don’t typically think of corporations as claiming or deserving that kind of place in our lives. Karen’s loyalty, even love, for a brand is extremely unusual.

Mostly, we just tolerate the companies who provide the fabric of our lives: phones and shoes, flights, groceries, insurance, trousers, electricity. One might be a bit better than another, offer attractive deals or provide decent service. But this is miles away from deep admiration or love.

We’ve come to think that that’s exactly how things should be. It’s normal to think that if you’re keeping your wits about you, you should be a touch cynical about and detached from the corporate world. Which is why Karen’s funeral has come to wider attention.

Companies sometimes like to talk in terms of love and big missions; but they never quite convince us when they do. It’s easy to satirise their efforts. The slogans are neat (‘We try harder’, ‘Just do it’, ‘I’m lovin’ it…’), but we’re all world-weary enough to shrug our shoulders and walk past with wry disregard.

Right now, most corporations don’t deserve our deep admiration – and they don’t get it either. But at various times, we can catch glimpses of how it could be very different. In 1895, it wouldn’t have been at all strange for a station master to get married in his Great Western Railway uniform. Not because he was slavish. But because the ideals of the transport company resonated so deeply with his own better nature. The company’s devotion to service and reliability, the grandeur of its big stations, the sense of dignity in its pension schemes – these were things someone could take to heart and feel justifiably proud to be part of.

Corporate love: it would not have been strange for employees of the Great Western Railway to make a wedding suit of their uniform

Living and dying under the banner of Costa is an endearingly quirky thing to do. And yet, perhaps one day in the future, that kind of devotion could be more than quirky. We could actually be proud to do something like this.

What would it take for corporations to be worth a coffin or wedding suit? They’d have to engage our better selves, do proper good in the world and help us to become who we want to be. Given how much of our lives we give to our work, these sound like highly necessary and not unrealistic ambitions.