What’s in a coffin?

Charles Cowling

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.

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11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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… Read more »

R.Brian Burkhardt
11 years ago

In the USA the markup on a casket is usually from 300 to 500%. Those funeral directors that lower that markup tack it on to their general fee.

This goes far beyond usual retail markups!

11 years ago

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… Read more »

11 years ago

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!

11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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… Read more »