The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Undercutting the undertakers

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Business in bargain basement funerals is booming in Germany. Budget undertakers now enjoy 25 per cent of the market, up from 16 per cent two years ago.

A typical German funeral is comparable in cost to a British funeral: somewhere between £2,500 and £3,000. But the funeral price comparison website will quickly lead you to Sarg-Discount (translation: Coffindiscount), who will cremate you for as little as £412.89, and to budget undertaker Aarau, who will bury you for £860.

Old school German undertakers are not surprisingly hot under the collar about all this and respond in the language of undertakers the world over:  “Either there are hidden costs, or the body is treated without dignity,” warns Rolf Lichtner of the German equivalent of the NAFD. Whatever the truth of this, the image of budget funerals in Germany is somewhat tarnished by the fact that the ceo of Aarau, Patrick Schneider, is a former Stasi officer with a criminal record – just as the image of budget funerals in the UK has been besmirched by the activities of serial cheat and bungler Richard Sage.

German budget undertakers retort, of course, that dignity isn’t something that can be measured by the number of euros spent.

There may be an interesting sociological slant to this Teutonic trend. Dagmar Haenel, an anthropologist at the University of Bonn, thinks that cheap funerals reflect a contemporary throwaway mindset and reflect a divergence in the behaviours of different social classes, noting “We also have a rise in very individualised burials, sometimes very costly” by rich and educated people. “When it comes to funerals, the struggle of the classes is gaining ground,” she concludes. Here in Britain, on the contrary, a budget funeral is generally much more interesting to educated professionals than to working class people.

It would be impossible, in Britain, to get prices down to German levels. But there’s room at the bottom for sure. And how good it would be to see more people dispense with the customary trappings and trimmings and focus their attention instead on the principal business of a funeral, the farewell ceremony, an event where what is said and what is done matter most, and where what is spent is supplementary. Not only would the bereaved get much better emotional value for money, they would also be setting a good example.


More on budget German funerals here

21 comments on “Undercutting the undertakers

  1. Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 7:09 pm

    A Cortège?

  2. Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 4:52 pm

    A tributary?

  3. Vale

    Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 4:45 pm

    A ministration of celebrants? A procession?

  4. Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 2:43 pm

    A Party of Celebrants?

  5. Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Nice, XP. A corpus of celebrants? I’m tempted to observe that, since they soothe savage breasts (as it were) perhaps a balm of celebrants — but I won’t.

  6. X Piry

    Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Surely it’s a body of celebrants?

  7. Jonathan

    Wednesday 9th November 2011 at 10:04 am

    A middle class of celebrants?

    It’s past 10 o’clock – mourning coffin, anyone?

  8. Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 7:21 pm

    A drone?
    I include myself in this convocation by the way.

  9. Vale

    Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 5:12 pm

    The trouble is celebrants are a solitary breed only gathering occasionally in roosts around Totnes or Huntingdon – but boy can they talk when they do meet.

    Hence my suggestion – a gabble of celebrants

  10. Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 2:13 pm

    We’re British, so the subject of class is inexhaustible. How many people these days classify themselves as working class these days — apart from left-wing stand-up comics? Working class people and aristocrats (because they’re all born on estates?) like to do things as they’ve always been done. They are social conservatives. In fact, we all are. We like to do things as we’ve always done them — pull out the familiar script, etc, do it as we did it for all the others. If it works, great. Hello, Christmas. But if a familiar ritual no longer works, it’s likely to be middle-class folk who call time on it and pioneer a different way. And I think you’re right, Kingfisher, the modern, post-religious funeral is largely driven by the middle classes. And no, of course they shouldn’t impose their values, I think we all agree on that. But I think they — we — are allowed to suggest that all those flowers, that horse-drawn hearse — you may be able to do just as good a job without bankrupting yourself, you know. It’s fair, I think, to question the value of spending 90 percent of your money on the bit leading up to the funeral and skimping on the event whose legacy is the most important part of the experience.

    Grieving styles have always swung back and forth between sure and certain looking forward to a corking afterlife, and a disposition to bewail loss. The Victorians liked to give vent to grief and reflect on the awe and majesty of the death – hence present-day FDs’ fancydress and awfully majestic motoring cars. But they have survived into an age where most prefer not wailing but sunny retrospection, and that’s why they look out of place at so many modern funerals.

    So it’s not about class, really. It’s a matter of, as XP wisely observes, what you want to get out of the funeral. If it’s some sort of celebration of life, that should inform everything. What’s your grieving style?

    But I digress. A collective term for a convocation of celebrants. Erm, an uplifting rush?

  11. Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Judging by remarks “elsewhere” a Devaluation of Celebrants. I don’t agree with this at all though. I’d say a Reverement of Celebrants or a Customisation of Celebrants.

  12. Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Well said Kingfisher and X piry.
    And come on people, someone else suggest a collective name for a group of celebrants.

  13. Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 11:33 am

    Class is the all-important word. We are all terribly middle class aren’t we? And we care about funerals, and have a middle class approach to them.

    But is that right for those who aren’t, and don’t? Should we impose our ideals? Where have I read that before?

  14. X Piry

    Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 10:46 am

    All interesting stuff and agree with GM and Jonathan.

    Back to Charles’s post – am intriqued by the quote “cheap funerals reflect a contemporary throwaway mindset”. Is it that, or are people just prioritising differently. Cheap funeral, but good party afterwards?

    The class difference is striking, too – the biggest displays of flowers often come from families less able to afford them. Again – priorities. And this also comes back round to the discussion that follows.

    Perhaps a possible FD question is “what’s the most important thing you want to get out of the funeral?” That way they can know if it’s a big public display, a private ceremony with great meaning or a combination of the two.

  15. Jonathan

    Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 7:50 am

    You couldn’t phrase it this way, obviously, Kingfisher, but when the family asks ‘how long?’, you’d say words to the effect of ‘well, if you want a meaningful event, we’ve found a bit longer works best; or if you want to rush into it without thinking and regret doing so later, you can get it over with a bit quicker.’

    You’ve had much more experience of this than I have; but all the families I’ve worked with in this way have been grateful, in the end, for being slowed down. I just remind myself in the first two or three days of their anxiety that it’s precisely the desire for hurry itself that makes it desirable to hurry, and quiet patience can heal this self-defeating cycle of fear.

  16. Gloria Mundi

    Tuesday 8th November 2011 at 1:23 am

    Well all respect to Kingfisher, he has to make the first contact and I don’t, but not for the first time I ask “what’s the hurry?” Some people may be as you say, but don’t we all find that often people are grateful for a lead and an informed opinion? I don’t myself find it easy to ask leading questions, but maybe sometimes we have to and we should. Or maybe we’d better go and buy some tents along with Jonathan. Or just keep plugging away with any public liaison and education ploys we can.
    And – why should small independents have more time than the big chains? (OK, maybe that was a rhetorical question…)

  17. Monday 7th November 2011 at 6:27 pm

    I love the theory of this approach. We tried it once, more by luck than judgement admittedly, and it worked a treat.

    I guess the approach can only realistically be adopted by small independents. Corporates just don’t have time to adopt this do they? Wait 3 days before booking the crem? Unheard of…

    It’s true though that some things, particularly newspaper notices, are required quickly. Miss the printline and it could potentially mean delaying the funeral by a full week.

    The other issue, I believe, is that there are some, possibly many clients who just wouldn’t want this approach. They just want the date and time sorted, the ceremony is almost irrelevant at this stage. It’s not until after the event that they realise it wasn’t the right thing. Delaying the organisation of the funeral for a couple of days whilst the ceremony was created would be a major disruption for these people.

    So my question is, how does one make the decision which route to follow? The FD must ultimately make that call in the first few minutes of talking to a client, often on the phone. Do we ask leading questions? Do we use gut feeling and not even offer the choice?

    I think it’s a little more involved than just saying we’ll sort out the ceremony first, and it’s probably a lot more work for the FD and the Celebrant (and more pressured probably as the Celebrant would need to get round and see the client PDQ). I still love the approach though. I just wish I knew how to put it into practice.

  18. Monday 7th November 2011 at 6:12 pm

    A Catafalque of Celebrants? Or a Tribute perhaps..

  19. Jonathan

    Monday 7th November 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Oh, yes, Gloriamundi, how often I too have put my feet over that boundary, only to have to struggle back again because “it was too late”.

    But who says it’s too late? Why can’t the family pay to have what they want? Who overrules them?

    Well. The newspaper ads have gone in, the crem has been booked, the hotel for the gathering has ordered the food, the limomousines and hearse have been earmarked for the crem slot, the coffin’s on its way from China… in short, the goods train has begun rolling downhill. And all before the ceremony was even considered.

    How can even “the more enlightened and sensitive FDs” place these trivia before the very purpose of the event? Laziness or greed are the only motives I can come up with.

    “Much to do”. Yes, but what? The family “had no idea”; maybe here’s our clue, that it’s the public, the 99%, who need educating about this, not the professionals.

    Occupy, then?? How about it? How many celebrants could we get camped outside some highly visible crematorium?

    I’m game if you are!

  20. Monday 7th November 2011 at 8:52 am

    Ah, that’s it, GM. Start from the ceremony and work backwards. That’s the way to express it!

  21. Gloria Mundi

    Monday 7th November 2011 at 8:26 am

    Interesting, Charles. How often have we GFG- ers agreed: it’s the ceremony that matters, so please Mr/Ms FD, start with the ceremony and work backwards to what may turn out to be unwanted fringe extras, like big black cars. So much more important are things like where do you want to hold the ceremony. Recently met a family who had some lovely ideas, but they couldn’t be fitted into the 20-minute Crem model. I was rash enough to point out that they could have exactly what they wanted in a village/community hall, room in a hotel etc, either before or after a committal at the dismal local Crem. They had no idea, and by then it was too late. And they were dealing with one of the more enlightened and sensitive FDs.

    There is much to do. Onwards!

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