Category Archives: Co-operative Funeralcare

Funeralcare for sale?

Monday, 3 June 2013



The capital shortfall at the Co-operative Bank is estimated to be somewhere between £1–1.8 billion. This debt has been downgraded by Moody’s to junk status. The Co-op is going to have to sell assets in order to pay it off. 

Here’s the news for Funeralworld. Today’s Daily Telegraph speculates as follows: 

Further asset disposals are under review. The bank has already announced the sale of its life insurance business and the parent Co-op Group may be asked to sanction the disposal of other assets that range from funeral parlours to farmland.

Things could get interesting. 


Where did it all go so terribly wrong for the Co-op?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Co-op Logo 001


The GFG is relentless in its criticism of Co-operative Funeralcare for two reasons above all.

First, we believe that Funeralcare does not operate in accordance with the vision Rochdale Pioneers, who would be dismayed, at a time of rising funeral poverty, to see the way Funeralcare treats the poor. Instead of focussing on its core purpose, namely, to enable working people to buy what they would not otherwise be able to afford, Funeralcare’s latest utterance was a trifling press release, billed as “new research”, about the use of mobile phones at funerals

Second, we fail to understand how a business can apply economies of scale (hub mortuaries, car pools, peripatetic funeral conductors) and come up with a standard funeral price several hundred pounds more than most independents. 

Despite this, The Co-operative Group continues to be held in great affection — so the bad news about the Co-operative Bank, whose debts have been downgraded to junk status, was not greeted by Occupy protesters and the sort of howling vilification reserved for other banks in trouble. 

I had an email the other day from Edgar Parnell, onetime Chief Executive of the excellent Plunkett Foundation, which was so helpful to us when we were developing our community funerals initiative. Parnell, whose life has been dedicated to the co-operative movement, has long deplored the errant ways of some co-operative societies, and he is clear in his analysis of where so many of them have gone wrong. His analysis of the regrettable state of The Co-operative Group is, in our opinion, persuasive. This is what he said: 

Many will have been shocked by Friday’s news that the Co-op Bank chief had resigned following the downgrade of the bank’s debt, this as a sequel to the abortion of the Bank’s plan to takeover 632 branches from Lloyds Bank.  Ostensibly, the causes of these events have their origins in the financial downturn, problematic loans and the increases in the sums of capital that will be required to be held to meet new regulations in the banking sector. However, the underlying issues run much deeper than this. 

The management of the Co-operative Group appear to believe that they are running a conventional business, with the aim of profit maximization, that just happens to be owned by members rather than by investors. Whereas they need to be clear that the function of all co-operatives and mutuals is to intervene within the marketplace in the best interests of their members. The Group’s management either do not  fully understand, or choose not to adhere to, the underlying essentials of the model of enterprise required for any form of co-operative or mutual to be successful. 

Chasing growth to the detriment of the real interests of the membership has proved to be the downfall of major consumer co-ops in many countries in Europe*. Executives often seek to pursue a growth strategy because it means a bigger empire, more status and higher pay for them. The correct response to expansion proposals, including merger proposals, should always be to focus upon what is best for the membership and most likely to result in the achievement of the purpose of the enterprise. When co-operatives grow, in terms of the number of members and/or turnover, they are frequently beset by multiple problems. They lose sight of their original purpose, are prone to switch towards serving the interests of senior executives or cliques rather than those of the bulk of their members. As a consequence, they come to be regarded as irrelevant to the lives of their members and in the worst case they are hijacked by self-interested groups. 

If co-operatives and mutuals are to carry out their function and achieve their purpose then it is vital that all involved have a clear understanding of:

  • ·         The member-controlled enterprise model
  • ·         The organizational risks inherent within the model
  • ·         Their economic basis
  • ·         The specific requirements of MCEs in terms of their leadership, organization & governance, management & accounting, financing, human relationships, and the public policy framework required 

A video (12 minutes) explaining the ‘Member-controlled Enterprise model’ can be viewed at: 

More information is available at the Member-controlled Enterprise website at: 

Examples:  two European consumer co-operatives that failed to understand the nature of the risks involved in following inappropriate growth strategies 

Dortmund-Kassel, Germany: Coop Dortmund started in 1902 with 349 members, one shop and two employees; following successive mergers it became Dortmund-Kassel, an enterprise with 500,000 members, 350 supermarkets, 16 department stores and 74 business centres, employing 15,000 staff and with a total turnover of DM 2.5 billion. In 1989 approximately DM 45 million was invested in shop modernisation, 31 new shops with a surface of 25,000 sq. m., and the expansion of 12 shops. In 1998 Coop Dortmund-Kassel collapsed and was eventually liquidated. The reasons for this failure are attributed to the management seeking to follow practices and methods more appropriate in investor-driven organisations, i.e. the exclusion of members from goal-setting and policy decisions; full autonomy of the professional board; measurement of success by growth, market share, volume of turnover, profit and shareholder value; and corporate methods of fundraising to attract investor-members (promising high return on invested capital in the form of share dividends). One result of this strategy was to reduce members simply to passive shareholders and ordinary customers. 

Konsum Austria: In 1995 Konsum Austria became bankrupt. It had slipped from being known as the ‘Red Giant’ on the retail scene and having 25% of the Austrian population as members. In 1978 the process of merging all of Austria’s consumer co-operatives into a single national society commenced. Unfortunately, the management was left to run the new super-co-op, which began chasing market share with little regard for its position as a member-controlled enterprise.

Enerprise Diagram

If small is beautiful, look lovely

Thursday, 4 April 2013


There isn’t a single successful business in Britain that doesn’t seek to grow through mergers and acquisitions. Consolidation, they call it. It’s a factor of competitive capitalism. Or greed, if you prefer. Whichever. The bigger you are, the more efficiently you can trade. Efficiency enables you to bring your prices down, blow off competitors — and hey Tesco.  As Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City FC, would say, “Ees normal”.

So far so bad for Britain’s independent undertakers. Your days are surely numbered. Consolidation is under way. There’s no future for plankton in an ocean ruled by whales.

If you don’t believe it, consider the fate of our brewers. In 1900 there were 1,324 distinct beweries in England. By 1975 there were 141. Ees normal.

The technological development that made this possible was the invention of keg beers, which are sterilised and lifeless. They have a much longer life than living cask beers. They do not need to be kept so carefully, they can be transported for longer distances and they’re cheaper when they get there. Under the influence of advertising, consumers in the ’70s were easily persuaded to enjoy just a limited number of national brands. The little breweries could not afford to advertise. Older (elderly) readers of this blog will recall with misty eyes the halcyon days of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, the Co-op and Dignity of their time.

The development which is making it possible today for the big players in the deathcare market to burn off the independents is, of course, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan whereby you stitch up tomorrow’s market share today. The adoption of embalming from America has arguably been a useful technology, too.

So what happened to Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, younger readers may ask. And where can I get some?

Well, just when the big brewers thought the field was theirs, something interesting happened. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) happened, the tables were turned and, sorry younger readers, the victorious keg beers were poured down the drains of history.

Camra’s campaign stimulated an appetite for well-made beers and choice. It appealed also to romantic values — and the great British pub is nothing if not steeped in nostalgia. In the words of James Watt, managing director of craft brewers BrewDog, “People want something better, something ethical, and something made by passionate people … I think there is growing disillusionment with products which are generic and mass-produced.”

He’s right, of course.  The total number of breweries in England is back up from 141 to around 700 and rising. Which is why Camra is credited as the most successful single-issue consumer campaign of all time. In economists’ jargon, economies of scale have been trumped by economies of scope (choice). The big brewers can’t compete with the micro-breweries, most of which brew a variety of ales, because the production of small batches of cask beers does not fit profitably into scale production operations.

Camra, you may think, restored beer to its Golden Age. You’d be wrong. One of the reasons why keg beers were able to gain such traction was because most small brewers back in the day made ale that was cloudy, sour and full of sediment. Pretty horrible stuff, much of it. Today’s micro-brewers are of a far higher calibre than their forebears. The Golden Age of ale is, in fact, now. Camra didn’t turn the clock back, it wound it forward.

Is it possible that Britain’s independent undertakers might buck economic orthodoxy in the same way as the micro-brewers and chase off the purveyors of keg funerals?

They have a lot going for them. Like the micro-brewers, and unlike makers of, say, artisan cheese, they can compete on price with the consolidated undertakers. Better still, so incompetent and greedy are the consolidated undertakers that indie undertakers are universally cheaper. It’s absurd! The big players could fight back by starting a price war — but the likelihood of their doing so seems small. The micro-brewers are able to compete because of Gordon Brown’s 2002 Progressive Beer Duty (alternatively known as Small Brewers Relief), a 50 per cent reduction in beer duty for those breweries producing less than 5,000 hectolitres of beer. Indie undertakers need no such leg-up.

A great many of today’s indies are as good as it gets and much better than the generality of smalltime undertakers of the past. They have a lot in common with our micro-brewers: they’re intelligent, savvy and skilful — a new breed. They are characterful, individualistic and very much their own people, a welcome contrast with the corporates who tend towards bland homogeneity in spite of some excellent staff at branch level.

Because indies are passionate business owners, they are prepared to work incredibly hard. They offer a service which is of and for their community. They offer a quality of personal service which is everything a funeral shopper could want. Personal service does not fit profitably into scale production operations. 

It is unlikely that a Camref (the Campaign for Real Funerals) could achieve for undertaking what Camra has achieved so rapidly for beer, the thirst for the latter being the stronger. What’s more, most funeral shoppers have no idea that there are such brilliant indies out there.

So it would be good, perhaps, to see our best indies walk with more of a strut, make more noise about what they do and take the fight to the keggists. A well-kept beer is good for drinkers; a well-kept secret is no use to funeral shoppers. 

ED’S NOTE: Real ales are brewed for all occasions and come with all manner of characterful names. They include: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Bitter Bully, Posh Pooch, Festive Totty, Gonzo Porter, Ragged Bitch, Crop Circle, Summer Lightning, Bishop’s Farewell, Truffler Dry, Bad Elf, Torpedo Extra IPA, Naked Ladies, Storm King, Hop Wallop and Bonkers Conkers.

So far as we know, no maker of real/craft beer brews one specially for funeral wakes. There’s a big market here. If you can’t brew one, can you at least suggest a good name?

People’s undertaker doing fine

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Nail coffin

Wholly non-relevant photo


The Co-operative Group reports that, for the 53 weeks ended 5 January 2013, funerals revenue was up 6.4% to £348m, with operating profit up to £60m from £55m. 


Basket cases

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


A real Fair Trade coffin from Ecoffins


Here’s an interesting claim from The Co-operative Group

“The Co-operative has a long tradition of leading the way on fair trade and the launch of the first-ever Traidcraft endorsed fairly traded coffin range at our funeral homes is a natural, if unusual, progression.” 

This first-ever status is endorsed by Traidcraft:

Larry Bush, Marketing Director, Traidcraft, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with The Co-operative in a brand new area of fair trade.  We have a strong track record of working together with the Co-operative Group to launch fair trade firsts.’ 

The Co-op must have put out a press release about this (we can’t find it) because the story is everywhere. We pasted a sentence from the article into Google and it threw up 213 results, all of them, pretty much, newspapers. That’s a fantastic strike rate for a press release, a coup for the Co-op – and an insight into the quality of what we are urged to believe is bona fide news, not propaganda served up as news. 

The Daily Telegraph version of the ‘story’ further tells us that: 

‘Green funerals, where clients choose materials from sustainable sources and carbon emissions from the day are kept at a minimum, have grown by 20 per cent in recent years and are now worth more than £8 million.’   

Goodness only knows where they sourced those figures. The article goes on to tell us that:

The bamboo and willow coffins are made in Bangladesh, where communities are given a fair price and money goes toward schools and health care.

Although wooden coffins approved as “rainforest friendly” have been fashionable for some time, these are the first coffins to be designated “fair trade” by official certifiers.

Traidcraft, a charity that promotes Fairtrade around the globe, said the coffins are the first to bring in money and fair working practices to a community in the developing world.

An early version of the story states that these coffins are being sold by the Co-operative Group ‘as part of its ethical strategy’. A more relevant and pressing ethical strategy, we’d suggest, would be a rededication to foundational values and the provision of affordable funerals to the poor and the disadvantaged. 

Because we’ve been very busy here at the GFG Batesville-Shard we never got around to finding out what William Wainman at Ecoffins thinks about all this. After all, he has been selling fairtrade coffins for as long as anyone can remember. We assumed he might be cross. So we very grateful to those of you who sent in his riposte:

Ecoffins started manufacturing bamboo coffins in 1999 and is the only World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) manufacturer of coffins in the world. We were accredited as a member of the WFTO in 2007 following two rigorous independent assessments of our factory in China. This allows us to use the WFTO logo, providing a guarantee that we are Fair Trade suppliers. Additionally, all the companies which we buy products from outside the EU are also fully accredited members of the WFTO. 

This is absolutely not the case with those coffins Co-operative Funeralcare will now be selling. Their manufacturers are not WFTO accredited and therefore will not be able to claim Fair Trade status for their bamboo or willow coffins. They should also not make claims that imply that they are the first to do this in the UK. 

Copies of the WFTO assessors’ report on our own factory can be viewed at 

Are we to suppose that Co-op Funeralcare was ignorant of the Ecoffins accreditation? Or that they simply didn’t let it get in the way of a good story? 

As for those who credulously published the story, shame on your fact-checking. 

Hat-tip to MJ, DB and JU

Why did we delete that blog post?

Monday, 11 February 2013

This morning we received an email which had been forwarded in error by Mr Potts, Customer Relations Manager at The Co-operative Funeralcare, to a bereaved family – not we hasten to add one of the families referred to in the message – who forwarded it to us.  On reading it, we immediately deleted the blog post describing the incident referred to out of respect for the wishes of the families concerned.  We have redacted those parts of the email which indicate the location of the incident and the date of the press story; and those which reveal contact details. 

We thought the email worth publishing for its own sake – because it isn’t often we get an insight into what goes on in the engine room.


From: Neil Walker (CLS-Exec) 
Sent: 11 February 2013 09:11
To: Anna Osborne (CLS-Probate Consultants); Sanjeev Chahal (TS) (CLS-Probate Operations)
Cc: Ziad Shukri (TS) (CLS-Legal Advisory); Karen Morgan (CLS-Wills); Jon Potts (Funeralcare); David Collingwood (Funeralcare)
Subject: Incident within Funeralcare



Funeralcare had an incident in the  XXXXXXX    part of the country a few weeks ago.  As you would expect Funeralcare dealt with the matter in a sensitive and appropriate way with the 2 families involved; to the extent that neither family wanted anything to appear in the press.  Unfortunately the press in the local area published a story relating to the matter xxxxxxxxxxxx

In the unlikely event that the probate advisory team get questioned on the matter by a client who has any concerns whatsoever, could you please could you ensure that the client is offered the opportunity to receive a phone call from Co-operative Funeralcare.  Please could you ask your team members to capture name and contact details of the client and pass them onto yourselves as team managers? 

Could I then ask that you pass the client details onto Jon Potts, Customer Relations Manager, Funeralcare.  Please ensure that you follow up any e-mail with a phone call to ensure that Jon or a member of the team has picked up the details?  Jon’s contact details are: 




Fill in the blank

Friday, 8 February 2013



This post has been taken down in respect for the wishes of the families involved. 

Driving up personalisation to the next level

Thursday, 10 January 2013


This is The Cooperative Funeralcare’s new telly ad. Lorinda Robinson, Head of Marketing, The Co-operative Funeralcare, said: “The advert focuses on personalisation and The Co-operative Funeralcare’s ability to deliver personal touches to make a funeral more memorable and respectful. The business has been a pioneer in TV advertising in the funeral industry and the new advert highlights how, as the UK’s leading Funeral Director, we ensure that every funeral we arrange is completely personal and unique.”

Piece of mind for the man with the plan

Thursday, 22 November 2012


There’s an unsparing piece in The Times, 11 November, on financial products associated with funeral planning:

Hundreds of thousands of the poorest pensioners are losing thousands of pounds by buying into poor-value funeral planning products offered by some of the most trusted high street names.

Funeral benefit plans offered as add-ons to over-50s life insurance promise to help those aged between 50 and 80 to set aside a pot of money for their families to pay for their funeral … First, the majority of people who invest in over-50s plans end up paying in much more money than their relatives receive in the cash lump sum. Second, in many cases the funeral plan add-ons are assigned to particularly expensive funeral directors, and, finally, the lump sum payouts are not protected against inflation or linked to specific funeral costs so they are likely to cover only a small proportion of the cost of a future funeral.

Sales of over-50s policies rose 25 per cent between 2008 and 2010, with 346,128 people buying policies last year alone. Sun Life Direct, for example, has 750,000 such customers … This type of insurance policy does not have a “cash-in value” so policyholders often find themselves facing the dilemma of whether to continue to lose money paying premiums until they die or close the account and forfeit the cash lump sum.

The funeral benefit option on these products effectively assigns the cash lump sum to a funeral provider with whom it has a commercial deal, usually Dignity or the Co-operative.

Insurers are also pushing policyholders’ families towards funeral directors that charge the highest fees. The two main providers that arrange funerals as part of a funeral benefit add-on are Dignity and the Co-operative.

Dignity and the Co-operative argue that it is worth paying more for their service … A spokesman for Dignity says: “Dignity provides an allinclusive service with no hidden extras.”  A spokesman for the Co-operative says: “The Co-operative provides customers, and their families, with the invaluable peace of mind afforded by planning for their funeral in advance. We believe that, when compared on a like-for- like basis our charges are fair and reasonable and highly competitive for the standard of service that we provide.”

Age UK, an organisation that helps the elderly, has been accused of exploiting its reputation to sell unnecessarily costly funeral plans. A former senior employee of Age Concern is critical of these plans. He believes that Age UK is trading on its good name to sell overpriced products to vulnerable pensioners. He says: “Age UK uses its local branches as a route to a market where it can sell its branded products. Very often it is the less well-off pensioners using day care centres that are sold these products. Age UK funeral plans are particularly poor value because they encourage families to use expensive funeral directors rather than a cheaper local director.”

Age UK’s unholy alliance with Dignity brings in something like £9 million a year. 

The last point the article makes is that funeral plan funds are not regulated by the FSA. Did you know that? Ah, you always assumed they must be. Well, they’re not; they’re regulated by the Funeral Planning Authority — whose shareholders are trade associations for pre-paid funeral plan companies, creating a conflict of interest.

Coming soon: more thoughts about the ticking time bomb of the pre-paid funeral plan. In the meantime, stash it under the mattress. 


Pay up or else

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Ian Godfrey’s brother Michael died intestate aged 40 in August of this year. His funeral arrangements were undertaken by Ian’s sister, Sally. The chosen funeral director was the Nailsea branch of Co-operative Funeralcare, who duly prepared an estimate. Click on it to bring it up to full size (Sally’s full name and address have been redacted): 




The funeral went ahead and, throughout, the people at Nailsea weren’t just exemplary, they were lovely.

Ian and Sally did not have ready funds to pay for Michael’s funeral but they explained (this happens all the time, doesn’t it?) that there was money tied up in assets which would have to be sold. 

They explained this also to Michael’s credit card company, who froze his account and will add no further interest payments to the outstanding sum. They, together with Michael’s other creditors,  are happy to wait until funds are available. “We understand that these things take time,” they all said. 

All, that is, except for Co-operative Funeralcare who, Ian tells me, are “threatening to sue my sister, who paid the deposit and is therefore now considered to be the customer.” There have been demanding letters. Here is the latest demanding  letter. Again, click on it to brig it up to full size. 




The staff at Nailsea have continued to be sympathetic and helpful. It’s the people at “‘credit control’ or whatever they like to call themselves” who are, Ian and Sally feel, being very hard-nosed. Ian adds: “it is on the phone that the threat to sue was more explicit – however they do make it clear that they will not hesitate to do that in their letter.” 

Ian and Sally are desperately anxious about Funeralcare’s behaviour and feel that, though they have kept in constant touch and tried to keep them informed, they simply haven’t been listened to. They don’t want to be sued and they don’t think it’s right that they should be sued. But they don’t know who they can speak to in the organisation to ask for the time they need to liquidate Michael’s assets. 

In their position, what would you do? 





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