Period piece

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Jessica Mitford

Back in 1995 the funeral industry had been in a state of low level excitement and terror for some fifteen years. Conglomerates were stalking the land, seeking whom they might devour. Their talk of economies of scale made perfectly good sense. The little old family firms looked a bit like polar bears today.

One of the leading figures in the early days of the buying spree was the flash, narcissistic Howard Hodgson. In those get-filthy-rich-quick, Thatcherite days, he got filthy rich quick, sold out, picked up £7m and ever after enjoyed a life of relative unsuccess, poor man (I’m being careful here in case his lawyer’s reading).

The conglomerates are still with us, of course. Dignity. Funeralcare. Laurel. Others. And they’re still at it, borrowing lots of money, buying out whoever they can. But they aren’t the future. For all the efficiencies they can bring they’ve got loans to service. They’ve never managed to sell a cheaper funeral. Far from it, they’re normally more expensive. And they’re not very good at it, either.

The conglomerate which spread most terror was the US group Service Corporation International, an enterprise with global ambitions whose levels of competence continue to dump it in scandal. SCI was compelled to retreat from the UK. Its operation was bought out by Dignity.

With its departure receded fears of the Americanisation of UK funerals. But when the fear was at its height Channel 4 ran a documentary, Over My Dead Body, which, though only fifteen years old, now looks startlingly dated. Of historical interest are appearances by the twerp Hodgson and also Jessica Mitford. She it was who, in her American Way of Death, trashed the US funeral business with a combination of mischievous mockery and British values. For all the good she may have done, it is Ms Mitford whom we must hold to blame for mistaking price for value and perpetrating the notion that, in the matter of funerals, the only good un’s a cheap un.

Want to see the documentary? It’s great, let me tell you. You’ll have to give it some time to download, so find something else to do while it does. Go for it. Click here.

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