An interesting thing about undertaking is that you don’t have to come at it from a position of actually being an undertaker. Does that make no sense? Let me explain.
I know how undertakers feel. I am a writer. It is very difficult to come at writing from the position of being a writer. My good friend Christopher is a writer. He wrote a very successful book. Nigel Slater, Monty Don and Anna Pavord raved about it. Result? Penury. Very few writers strike lucky enough to make a living from writing (though their agents and publishers do well enough out of them). They need to do other things. If Christopher wants to finish his next book (it’s about forests and promises to be just as brilliant as Forgotten Fruits) he needs to broaden his earning base, bustle a bit, do some journalism or copywriting, a few shifts pushing trolleys at B&Q, a newspaper round, whatever. A bit on the side. I once did time in prison. As a teacher. It was quite a good little earner—until I was sacked. I am now an occasional funeral celebrant. It keeps my financial scoreboard ticking over. But it keeps me from my writing. There’s no winning combination.
Just about everyone else can make a living by pursuing single-issue careers, lucky people. Surgeons. Electricians. Brazilian waxers. Dog groomers. They don’t need their bit on the side.
Undertakers began as portfolio workers. They were builders or joiners. Undertaking was a sideline. Nowadays, though they are undertakers first and foremost, they still can’t make a living out of it, dammit. No, they need their bit on the side, too. So they have to work hard to make themselves indispensable in all areas of funeral planning—to be a one-stop shop for everything you need. Which is why they collect fees on behalf of crematoriums, priests, celebrants and burial grounds, making themselves responsible for the debts of their clients. Desperate lunacy! It is why they have to hold all service and merchandise providers, people who do things they can’t, in hired dependency. Thrall is all.
It’s a terribly delicate business model and it can so easily fall apart. Why? Because undertaking is so easily relegated to an ancillary service. Because there’s so little to it. Result? Hirer hired. Anyone can set themselves up as a funeral arranger and turn the tables—a monumental mason, a celebrant, an event organiser.
Is it all unravelling for the funeral directors? Not necessarily. But they need to smarten up, definitely. Old school funeral directors have failed to address the disconnect between the care of the body and the creation of the funeral ceremony. For most, these remain separate specialisms—and where clients want a religious ceremony they’ll always be so. But the rise of the secular ceremony gives a funeral director the opportunity to offer exactly what their clients want: a joined up service. Most are intellectually incapable of this.
Down in Devon, green fuse hire mortuary facilities from local funeral directors, where they care for the bodies entrusted to them. Family Tree and the Green Funeral Company, both of whom have their own mortuaries, are also rare, triumphant exceptions, the best it gets—but, like my friend Christopher, I don’t suppose they’ll ever be troubling the financial services industry. They are content in their honourable estate of relative poverty, happy in their own skins, terrifically nice people.
Funeral directors live in ever-present danger of someone better coming along and enslaving them. And the news is that their newest threat has arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for: the funeral consultant!
I have been contacted by two such in the last month, both of them ex-funeral directors who can use their insider knowledge to muscle down prices for their clients. One is Andrew Hickson at Your Choice Funerals. I won’t tell you who the other one is until he has got his website sorted.
Will the news of their advent cause the marmalade to drop from the nerveless fingers of breakfasting funeral directors the length and breadth of the land?
There’s always going to be a market for a cheaper funeral . But my feeling is that people are going to be reluctant to accede to the care of their dead person being subordinated in any way. What do you think?
While you consider, go straight to Amazon and order your copy of Forgotten Fruits.