What’s in a coffin?

Charles 9 Comments

At Musgrove Willow you can go and watch the coffin being made — and even lend a hand.

There’s a big coffin show on at Chiltern Woodland Burial Park this weekend. I can’t make it, sad to say. If you can, it looks good. And Chiltern is a lovely place.

Coffins are what visitors to the GFG website most want to know about. Brits are really into coffins. Does any country offer a bigger range? I don’t think so.

It bugs consumers that they cannot buy direct from most coffin manufacturers because the funeral directors ‘persuade’ manufacturers not to sell to them. It bugs consumers that funeral directors slap the biggest margin on coffins they can get away with. It probably bugs the manufacturers, too. It bugs consumers when they learn that funeral directors bury some of their professional fee in their coffin prices. This all adds up to a feeling that they are being cynically diddled when their defences are down.

But, here’s the point, even a normal retail markup would likely be reckoned unfair. It is observable that the same people who are wholly happy to pay for a meal out when they could buy the food on their plate for 5x less at Tesco cannot see why the same rule should apply to coffins.

It is related to a general feeling that funerals are too expensive. This is a problem for funeral directors, because they are not. Funeral directors need, therefore, to work extra hard to demonstrate that they give value for money. One of those ways is to be hyper-transparent about costs.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Why do consumers feel that the normal rules of retail do not apply to coffins? The answer may be that funeral consumers have a particular feeling about the coffin: it is the last beautiful, personal gift they can buy for the person who has died. They would like to feel that they chose it and bought it and gave it to the funeral director to put their dead person in. Or that they chose it and asked the funeral director to get it for them. They see the funeral director as agent, not retailer. Above all, they want to own that coffin.

If there’s anything in this – and I’ll be interested to find out if you think there is – then funeral directors will do well to sell their coffins at more or less cost and justify their professional fee in terms of: specialist expertise + hours + overheads expressed as an hourly rate, like any other professional. This need not make them feel insecure. They do things other people can’t or won’t, after all.


  1. Charles

    Funeral Director A:
    Coffins – cheap, BUT Professional fees – EXPENSIVE

    Funeral Director B (in same street):
    Coffins – expensive, BUT Professional fees – CHEAP

    Simple enough? No. Because:

    A charges £120 for a pickup, B only £80. B says £15 a day for storage, while A charges nothing at all (but insists on embalming if you don’t ask him not to, at £130). A charges £170 for a hearse ride while B charges just £90, but B wants £50 each for bearers while A includes bearers in his hearse fee (and so he’s actually £120 cheaper than A on that item, with £80 more written on the estimate). (Or whatever.) And so on. Confused yet? I am.

    A and B end up charging roughly the same for one funeral, and vastly differently for another. They are both transparent about costs, but very, very obscurely so. They can only charge a certain amount, broadly, but they’re free to decide how they charge it, and the most successful is the one who can best play hall of mirrors.

    A lot of the public make it easy for them by visiting only one of them anyway. You’d need to be an extremely calculating and level-headed mourner to make genuine comparisons before committing yourself.

    As for the coffin, it’s the bit you choose, the part you have some say in, the thing that represents Auntie more than anything you can see in the landscape. And the reason the normal retail rules don’t apply is that in normal retail experience you can choose where you buy something, who you buy it from, whether you eat out or in, go to Tesco or Morrison’s or grow your own. It’s because the manufacturer tells you to bog off when you try and get a coffin, even at a fair retail price, that makes you pissed off with him and the funeral director, and rightly.

    But, again, the difficulty with getting over this by charging an hourly rate is it makes it hard to estimate costs in advance, and leaves you having to justify them even more. And it opens you to exploitation and challenge, in practice if not in theory. It makes people less secure, in my experience, not reassured that they’re being treated fairly.

    So if there’s an answer here, I wonder if it is that the only real way for a funeral director to be transparent, to give the feeling of being treated right, is to be open-hearted more than open-priced, and to charge overall what she herself would be willing to pay someone as lovely as her?

  2. Charles

    Well, you’re quite right, Jonathan. And you express it in a way which most effectively produces the befuddlement that must descend on any consumer trying to do a bit of price comparison shopping. There’s nothing you can benchmark a funeral director price levels by. You have to know exactly what you want in advance and get that costed item by item.

    Hours-wise, can you not fix a price for the job based on your estimate? That way, clients won’t feel there’s a meter running.

    I think it may be that, because people have such low expectations of a funeral, they underestimate the value of putting it together with a first-rate human being who happens also to be highly competent. When funeral directors talk about themselves it is most often in terms of Vehicles, Premises, Chapel of Rest, Coffins, Five Generations, Horse-drawn Hearse, On-site Parking, Arrangements, Casket Spray, Headstone. Well, it’s nice to know she can marshall all this stuff, but she needs to talk most about herself as a person. People buy from people, not price lists.

    So yes, as you say, open-heartedness matters most. This is a nice-guys game.

  3. Charles

    From my experience as a builder, a fixed price quote works well as long as the client sticks to the schedule, and doesn’t ask for any changes that might constitute disputable ‘extras’. The very last thing I want to do when arranging a funeral is have a rigid schedule; rather, I encourage families to feel free to change their minds along the way. Where money is concerned it has to come down to a good relationship and good understanding based on mutual trust and respect and, I make no apology, love, sometimes.

  4. Charles

    Back to the building analogy, builders charge for ‘labour and materials’; materials are charged more or less at cost, making comparisons between quotes a lot easier. But this practice may discourage FDs from bothering to suggest much choice (no profit on merchandise, whatever is chosen), and thereby limit the choices available?

    It’s when commercialism (normal retail rules) influences ‘professional’ practice like this that problems ensue, as with everything else in our money-bedevilled society. Humph!

  5. Charles

    I may not sell coffins, but I do work within the funeral industry. I find it disgusting that FD’s have the power to stop a coffin company growing if they choose to sell direct to the consumer. As a consumer its awful that I can’t decide I want buy a coffin direct without being directed to an FD! I also think it’s awful that unless FD’s make a fat chuck of cash on extra products then many FD’s just won’t offer it!

    At Sentiment our margins are quite low – about 20% average across the board of products , we are transparent about our products and even offer clients options to make their product more cost effective for them – this is because we know funerals are expensive and most people want the best but can’t always afford it, we want everyone to have something but we’re certainly not going to give it away for free. We have fixed package prices to make life simple but if money is tight then we’ll strip the package down to the bare minimum just so a client can walk away with something.

    A client may buy a DVD photo slideshow from us, and they may well want the kit to show it on – but the projector and screen is expensive. We have often come up with the option of the client borrowing a screen from work or from a friend. Essentially we lose money because we still have to drop off the projector without making a mark up on the screen. I have even had clients ask us to knock off the cost of the DVD case because they want to make their own and we have even filmed a funeral and been asked not to edit it because they want to cut costs. We have to take a few hits like this because in the long run its better for everyone. Now FD’s aren’t about to say Hey, if you’re broke how about we just strip this funeral down a bit so it works for you and for us – if all you want is no bells and whistles lets not have bells and whistles!

    Sentiment in its early years wasn’t what you’d call a ‘lucrative’ business – HOWEVER – people do buy from people and over the years Sentiment began to make money because the of the quantity of clients that started rolling in. This was down to the fact people liked to deal with US as people. We are friendly and personable and we go beyond the call of duty… Yes in some cases and I will admit it’s been frustrating because the amount of time spent ‘guiding and nurturing clients and offering alternatives just didn’t seem worth it monetary wise, but it is worth it – because those clients tell their friends and over time the Its the quantity of clients that snowballs and turns a business into a successful business.

    Because we know our own value, we are not ashamed to admit that what we offer is a luxury extra to a funeral and it’s not cheap. We are not hiding costs, we say if you want cheap then do it yourself if you want professional then you’ve come to the right place. FD’s have a right to feel the same way too, there is a lot of time put into organising a funeral, and overheads too – so you can pay a professional to plan the funeral or do it yourself – most people will prefer to pay a funeral director, so FD’s never need to worry about going out of business …Yet! but in time I can see funeral planners like The Fantastic Funeral company taking over the Funeral Directors role, because they work on an open book , charge for time and work on the budgets of the family

    A funeral planner, like a wedding planner, like funeral director is actually a luxury – you could do it yourself if you really put your mind to it – but because consumers actually see Funeral Directors as a necessity they feel that they should be putting the consumers best interests at heart especially when they are so vulnerable – it’s not like whacking 800% onto a pair of Armani jeans now is it… your happy to be taken advantage off when you choose to buy those jeans for your own ego or go to that fancy restaurant or shop at Waitrose instead of Morison’s – a coffin however is on a whole other level, all of a sudden whacking on 800% onto a coffin (coffin that is is seen by the consumer as a necessity) isn’t going to bide well!

  6. Charles

    I do agree it can be confusing and frustrating, however there is one very easy way of comparing the services on offer. Look at the bottom line. If you go into two different FD’s with the same specification and ask them for a quotation then you will know which one is the better value. However that is based just on a monetary value.

    There is also a personal value to the people you have just seen. One may be £200 cheaper than the other one. But you may like the people at the expensive one. You may feel safe and secure with them.

    Then what do you do?

  7. Charles

    One of the reasons we hosted the coffin exhibition here at Chiltern at the weekend was to start people talking – I hope that by the public having the opportunity to see for themselves what’s out there in the world of coffins (and there is a huge choice!)people will begin to appreciate that they are consumers when they are commissioning a funeral director’s services, and deserve to have as much or as little involvement in the details of the funeral as they would have if they commissioned Sentiment! Over 250 people came here over the weekend, and I really hope that all of them have gone away to spread the word about the existence of another approach to the tricky subject of death – being informed is the most powerful tool we have.
    Images from Handled With Care 2010 can be seen here – http://www.woodlandburialparks.co.uk/Chiltern-Woodland-Burial-Park/Coffin-Exhibition-2010/Images-from-the-weekend.ice and for all of you who missed it (including you Charles) the good news is we’ll be doing it bigger and better next year on.

    PS Get better soon, am missing your unique viewpoint on this fascinating industry 🙂

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