Are you in or out?

Charles Cowling


It’s not often that you see a funeral entrepreneur on Dragon’s Den, but last night’s show shone a brief spotlight on an enterprise which, in an industry unaccustomed to innovation, is likely to elicit responses ranging from ‘It’ll never work’ to ‘Tcha.’ Theo Paphitis ruled himself straight out, no messing. But it turns out that death spooks him.

It’s one of those online planning sites (you know, the ones that never make it) with a twist. It’s more than a just passive repository of funeral wishes. It’s also a service comparison website which enables consumers to find the funeral director who’ll give them what they want.

The idea is that you plan a funeral online (with plenty of help), and your plan is then sent anonymously to all funeral directors in a geographical radius set by you. The funeral directors respond with a quote and a pitch. They name a price and they also say why they think they are best for the job. They can link to their website and anything else that makes them look good – third-party endorsement, a video clip on YouTube, whatever. You then choose the funeral director who seems both nicest and best value, and from there on it’s face-to-face and personal. If it doesn’t work out, you go back to the website and choose someone else.

How does it pay for itself? This is the bit that funeral directors are going to hate. You buy a coffin from the website at a cheaper price than you are likely to be able to buy it from a funeral director. The website pockets the margin.

Want to know more? Go to the website and try it out for yourself. It’s called Yeah, yeah, what’s in a name?

Is it likely to catch on? Don’t ask me; I don’t have a business brain. But I’d hazard a guess it stands a good chance of establishing a niche. More and more people are shopping around for a funeral. CompareTheCoffin does all the legwork for them and still almost certainly enables them to make a saving. It seems to have something of the win-win about it, for best funeral directors, too – but, as I say, don’t ask me.

I must declare an interest, though. When the originator of CompareTheCoffin, Steven Mitchell, approached me at the conception stage and asked me to write some text for his website, I did some drilling down, not in a Paphitis way, but into the ethics of it. I satisfied myself that, yes, this is an ethical business idea, Steven is a good guy, as is his web developer Akmal (this is a rare partnership between a Jew and a Moslem), and I set about earning a few meagre pence as a day labourer.

Whether or not CompareTheCoffin is a runner is something you are in a far better position to judge.

After last night’s show the CompareTheCoffin website came under what looked like sustained cyber-attack, which may perhaps be rated flattery. If it’s back up after its drubbing you can find it here. Catch the Dragon’s Den show here

14 thoughts on “Are you in or out?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Steven, I think I’m probably coming across as negative to you. I don’t mean to. I think that any means of encouraging FDs to be more transparent is great.

    I have no doubt at all that you have sourced a price list showing a casket for £5800. I wonder how many of these the FD actually sells though? And of the number that they sell, how many are sold through ‘upselling’ or ’emotional selling’ – ie “Wouldn’t you want the best for Mum..?” And with the totally moral stance which CtC is taking, I presume you won’t be doing that?

    As for your other question, I believe you need to think of it from the other point of view – the consumer. It’s not really about considering ourselves (as FDs) in the running, it’s about the convenience and the practicality for the client isn’t it? Put yourself in the client’s position – FD down the road or FD 10 miles away?

    Then put yourself in the FD’s position. Without the sale of the coffin, the profit margin is considerably reduced (for most). At that point the FD has to ask the question “Do I want to travel 20 miles for this funeral”?

    I’m fascinated by the scheme, none the less. I guess you have asked lots of FDs for their opinions, and I presume they have all told you that it’s a go-er or you wouldn’t have done it. They are the people with whom you are going to be working after all.

    Do keep us updated, and if you get enquiries in my area, please do contact me, I’d love to help out.

    Good luck

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Steven Mitchell

    I’ve found the owner of the research – as Charles correctly said it is a finance company. I’m trying to get a copy of it.

    On my desk I have a coffin pricelist supplied by a very well known funeral director business showing a casket for £5800 on it’s own! and also it cultural on which type of coffins/caskets people go for and also what people are prepared to spend. Communities that you wouldn’t first think spend a lot of money on funerals – actually do.

    I’ve been thinking about your question; What radius around a traditional funeral director would you consider to be “in the running” to win business? Within 3 miles? 5 Miles? 10 etc.
    The system allows you to bid on funeral lead regardless of location and also you would be twice as likely to win the business as you won’t have competetion of the consolidated firms.

    Interesting discussion though

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    What’s so secret about it? You can get a price of a funeral by ringing your local FD. If you can find one who quotes £6000 I’ll eat my top hat (if I had one I would anyway).

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Oh, Kingfisher, I meant to add: that’s an astonishing declaration of the price of your funerals. Easy does it; you’re in danger of provoking apoplexy or even aneurism in any funeral director who reads this blog.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    I entirely agree with you, Kingfisher. And we hold in mind that these figures are produced by a commercial entity which flogs financial products to take the sting out of invidious expenses. The cost of dying = funeral+disposal+winding up the estate. Which is why death can be expensive for people who opt not to have a funeral, for it is a fact that the richer you are the more it costs to die.

    A median figure would give a much more accurate estimate of the overall cost of dying, I suspect.

    But that’s all one. A funeral+disposal should be treated as a standalone expense.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    James is right Steven. The £6000-£7250 cost is very misleading, and causes massive waves of discomfort every time it is quoted anywhere. It might be the average overall cost of dying, perhaps including probate administration, solicitor’s fees etc etc, but it is certainly *not* the average cost of a funeral. To give you some idea, I have just closed my books for the year, so I can accurately tell you that the average cost of a funeral that I arranged was £2885.77 – I’m a little cheaper than most, but not £3000 cheaper I assure you!

    I’m still intrigued by how this will give FDs a “chance to win business they otherwise would not even been in the running for” – could you explain this please, as it would interest me hugely, but I don’t understand how it can.

    Many thanks, look forward to your reply.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Steven Mitchell

    also thanks for the ‘Good Looking’ compliment – I’m assuming you’re talking about Charles?

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Steven Mitchell

    Dear all

    I can honestly tell everyone we made nothing up, the research was carried out by Dr Kate Woodthorpe ( Bath university. and the figure is out of date and apparently now it’s £7250. She actually said this while being interviewed by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s today programme about 3-4 weeks ago.

    She explains this as the total cost including things like burial plot (and maybe headstones) but it’s clearly an average, with many funerals cost much less, and some obviously costing much more.

    To answer the other questions, you need to put yourself in the place of the consumer. I believe the majority of people will continue to do what they do now, i.e. go to the FD that their familly has used before, or the one that’s closest to them, or a big name. But a sizable minority are either comparing prices/service and/or looking online, before making a decision on which Funeral Director to use, and if a consumer can fill out one form, and we do the work for them, that has to be easier for them. The benefit for Funeral Directors to come on board is this a chance to win business they otherwise would not even been in the running for and as the whole process is free to the user and to the funeral director, there is no reason not to sign up. Only reply to enquiries when you want to, but we know these leads will be genuine as we have already asked the user to part with money for the coffin, so you shouldn’t be wasting your time by replying.

    I can only assure everyone that everybody involved in this project only has the best intentions and we want to work openly with anyone who wants to work with us, but please have in your mind, “how many high street insurance brokers are there now?” and we believe this is how consumers think now.

    Best regards


    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Why do I instantly distrust the site – for all its thoughtful research and good looking team? Because the entrepreneur told a bare face porkie to his prospective backer about the average cost of a funeral in the UK!
    Show me the research that supports a national average cost of £6000 and I’ll reconsider, and own up to being an undertaker frightened of families buying their coffins direct (at a price not disimilar to what we charge!).

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    I’m not sure whether to deal with Charles’ or Steven’s comments first. Perhaps both at the same time …

    Charles knows me, so will appreciate that when I use the term “most funeral directors” I am excluding a few who are happily flexible, forward-thinking and willing to try out new ideas. I think that these few, however, make up a very very small percentage of funeral directors.

    Where I think this argument starts to fall apart is in the idealism. Yes, this is a service industry, but I think it is wrong to state that “what people are looking for, above all, is a human being they like and trust.” I hear, sometimes on a daily basis, of the distrust and bloody awful service people have experienced. If this is the case, they have alternatives, so why don’t they exercise their right to use those alternatives? I think most people are so freaked by having to go to an undertaker that they would rather sweep the whole thing under the carpet, pick a name from the phone book, make a random choice. Their expectations are so low that anything goes really.

    Sadly, I don’t think any one person, or even any group of people, is going to change the way of Funeralworld. I wish this wasn’t the case, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and beaver away in our own little ways at getting it right for our own clients.

    Sorry Charles, but everyone does not know that “FDs slap a heck of a margin on a coffin”. Most people have no concept of the cost price or the selling price of a coffin. It’s something they would rather not think about, and certainly something they wouldn’t question at the ‘point of sale’.

    Steven, I agree with you that “funeral directors have nothing to worry about, and everything to gain” but I don’t think they will see it this way. FDs hate competition, and anything which infringes on what they see as their right will upset them.

    Could you explain how “the object of the bidding system is to provide leads for business that the funeral director would have had no chance of getting”? – I don’t quite follow this I’m afraid.

    I like your linking of the Insurance Comparison websites – but these display prices immediately online so people can see at a glance who provides the best value. If they had to wait for the insurance companies to e-mail them back, would they work so well?

    And that brings us back to the consumer. In the insurance world, they are probably looking for the cheapest. In Funeralworld they might be, but not necessarily. I can’t (yet) see how CtC allows consumers to make informed choices.

    Please don’t take this as negative – I am perhaps more supportive of this idea than I make out. I would happily come on board as one of your FDs. I’m open about all my pricing, and in fact I sell most coffins for very similar prices to those on your website. But just beware of the inflexibility of most FDs!

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Steven Mitchell

    Dear all,

    I thought I’d add my comments, basically to say that I believe funeral directors have nothing to worry about, and everything to gain.

    The object of the bidding system is provide leads for business that the funeral director would have had no chance of getting, and therefore this is full business opportunity.

    Yes loosing the profit on the coffin is a bit of hit, but nowhere near as big a hit as not getting the funeral all, and good FD’s do see at that way.
    With ~ 50% of the market consolidated with 2 big players, (and those people aren’t going to do this, certainly not for the time being) there is more than enough market for all the independents and small chains, and this is a great opportunity for them.

    The best comparison is the insurance business where initially companies wouldn’t be involved with price comparison websites, but now there is only a couple that make a point of not being involved.
    But for consumers comparison sites are embedded now and everyone uses them. ‘Simples’ isn’t flippant, but it’s not morbid or miserable, our advice is very “matter of fact”.
    It is a service comparison site and most popular search term on the internet to do with funerals is ‘Coffins’. We actually think that the reviews that funeral directors receive (which will be published on the site, including ratings) will be more important than price / value.

    What do you think?

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    Interesting points, Kingfisher. Rather than turn down business, would it not make more sense for FDs to stop burying so much of their profit in their coffins? In the case of CtC clients they can tender at a price which reflects this loss of revenue.

    I think it’s a mistake to suppose that most people’s most important criterion is to find the cheapest undertaker. Everybody knows what to expect from the cheapest – in anything. What people are looking for, above all, is a human being they like and trust. This is a service industry.

    Let’s not forget that it’s consumers who are wholly in charge of the decision making on this website. The entrepreneur behind it plays no part.

    If this venture succeeds in inducing FDs to charge in a transparent way, then I think it will have served a very useful purpose. Everyone knows now that FDs slap a heck of a margin on a coffin and, in the age of the internet, this just makes them look dodgy even when they’re not. It also takes the piss out of the people who manufacture the coffins.

    FDs do not have a god-given right to include a coffin in a package. They offer a range of separate services, each of which should be charged for in a proper way.

    My belief is that, for too long, the funeral industry has not been sufficiently consumer driven, and this has led to too many funeral directors who are complacent or self-important or downright third-rate.

    At present it is almost impossible for consumers to differentiate between funeral directors. I’d have thought that any initiative which enables consumers to make informed choices is a good thing. CtC does this, and not in a hostile way.

    As for the name… Well, yes.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    It’s very interesting this, and I see lots of very positive ideas in this website.

    What concerns me is this concept of tendering our funerals to funeral directors who aren’t going to get the sale of a coffin out of it. I suspect that the vast majority of FD’s will immediately turn down the suggestion. Coffins are, after all, subject to major mark-ups by FD’s, so they stand to lose a lot.

    That’s all good news for the few independents around who would be happy to help Steven out, but perhaps it’s not quite as many as he may think it would be?

    My prediction, if it works, is that he will need to become a funeral director too.

    I also have to ask the question: ‘If I’m looking to register my advance wishes, who would I do it on a website called Compare the Coffin’?

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Looks like a good site. Your writing is so distinctive Mr. Cowling that I expected to see ‘POSTED BY CHARLES’ at the bottom of every page.

    Charles Cowling

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