The bigger they come the harder they fall

Charles No Comments

Here’s a problem for a species of mathematician: Exactly how big can a funeral directing enterprise get before it topples into incompetence and scandal?

The same law of economics would, you think, apply to funeral directing as to, say, cars: expansion creates economies of scale and efficiencies of production which make your product both competitive and technically advanced. Big = better; biggest = best. Most of us wouldn’t be able to afford to drive cars if they were handbuilt like, say, Morgans. The production line is the consumer’s friend.

This simple law doesn’t apply to funerals. In the first place, no funeral director needs to reinvest profits in research and development because the technical aspect of their work has nowhere to go. Indeed, the technical side of funeral directing is very simple and can be summed up in three sentences: Keep cool. Wash it. Pop it in a box.

Secondly, the big conglomerates and chains do not pass on their economies of scale to the consumer in the form of cheaper funerals. They have interest to pay on capital raised from venture capitalists. They have shareholders to satisfy. Dignity is eyebrow-raisingly pricey—and profitable. Independent funeral directors (the handbuilt Morgan people) find it easy to undercut the big boys and still make a perfectly good living. Co-operative Funeralcare, the people’s undertaker, could easily afford to offer working folk cheaper funerals, but for some reason it obtusely doesn’t.

Upshot? We can all afford the handbuilt Morgan. So why the heck would we shell out for a production line funeral?

Fortunately, we do not have the depth of scandal over here that they are prone to in the US (check out this story). But it is observable that our own dear Funeralcare is especially vulnerable to bungling.

Here’s a very good analysis from the US which applies as aptly to the UK. It’s by Kathy Jackson, it appeared on the ConnectingDirectors blog, and it is entitled

I Am Sad To Report The Death Of A Funeral Home

Left to mourn are the funeral directors and funeral assistants and the extended family, the community which the home served for seventy-five years. Unfortunately, the funeral home, which had been well until eighteen months when it was struck by malady for which there was no cure. The onset of symptoms was slow and insidious and was not recognized immediately. By the time the syndrome was diagnosed, there was little hope of returning the Funeral Home to a state of good or at least better health. Donations may be made to the other local funeral homes which have maintained their health and continue to serve families with respect, compassion, understanding and dignity.

Vanderlyne Pine (1975) described two types of funeral homes – community and cosmopolitan. His discussion focuses on the differences in the delivery of funeral service to bereaved families and the relationship of the funeral directors in their work relationship and with the community where they are located.

The funeral homes which are gaining momentum are those who provide their families with a sense of building a relationship, of continuity and stability during what is often a very chaotic and distressful period. While having the name of a funeral home on local sports team’s shirts is good advertising, it is not the influencing factor which will bring a family to the funeral home when a death occurs. Funeral home reputation is crucial. Community funeral directors are active in local churches as well as civic and business organizations. Pine observes that community funeral directors demonstrate a conviction that personal contact with the bereaved a well as taking care of their deceased is important (Pine 1975:74). The funeral director and the bereaved form a team whose task it is to carry out the funeral process.

In contrast, funeral directors working in cosmopolitan funeral homes are members of complex organizations which serve a large and often anonymous population. Funeral directors in these funeral homes are assigned specific tasks such as arranging, embalming, and directing funerals according to their expertise. Because their work is oriented to specific tasks, funeral directors in cosmopolitan funeral homes often appear efficient but impersonal to bereaved family members (Pine 1975:143, Laderman 2003:189).

It is no secret that I support the community funeral home as the ideal model for all funeral homes regardless of the number of calls per year or the type of ownership, independent or corporate.

In the past eighteen months, I have watched a highly successful community funeral home evolve into a cosmopolitan funeral home. Initially the changes were exterior changes, the name and colour of the funeral home sign. Families barely noticed the change because the faces they were familiar with remained constant, the delivery of service remained constant. Change began to happen with in the funeral home, three new managers, the loss of the hearse to a central pool of vehicles (and along with the vehicle, the elimination of a team member), the loss of “in home” embalming to central embalming, increased pressure to sell products, packages for funerals and later to pre-arrange funerals during aftercare meetings. With the closure of another funeral home, came an influx of new staff in greater numbers than the “old staff” who proceeded to take over and manage the funeral home without any insight into the families they were to serve or their special needs. Families began to notice the unfamiliar faces, the new routines, changes in the atmosphere of the funeral home and an uncharacteristic slovenliness. Even more so, families began to discover they were being passed from person to person over the duration of the two or three days at the funeral home. One family complained that they were “served” by three different teams, met seven different staff members and on the day of the funeral had no idea of who ‘their funeral director” was. Word began to spread – new management – new staff – high prices – and of course, the dreaded phrase, “they are interested in my money, not me” surfaced.

Sadly, more funeral homes which will die, leaving funeral directors bewildered at how it is possible for a once thriving business which was well respected and an integral part of the community to become a skeleton of its former self. Of course there is an answer, a way to save these funeral homes but in a society which seems to place little value on tried and tested ways, it is unlikely to be the first method of choice. It is not personalization or even innovation which is at stake. Certainly both of these contribute towards meeting the needs of today’s funeral or memorial consumer. Rather, what I suggest is that we look to older models of service, when our families were our priority and dividends were not.


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