Square Pegs in Round Holes

Charles Cowling


 Posted by Charles


Love him or hate him, Barry Albin-Dyer is Britain’s only celebrity undertaker. Love it or hate it, he’s written another book.

It’s called Square Pegs in Round Holes. It’ll appeal to fellow undertakers up and down the country because it promises to reveal the secrets of his enviable business success. But its lessons are not exclusive to Dismal Traders. Barry’s Way may (or may not) be appealing to all manner of entrepreneurial people.

He’s nothing if not ambitious: “From the outset, my goal was to make Albin’s the best funeral business in the world. I’d like to think I’ve done that.” Undertakers hoping to pick up a trick or two are likely to be disappointed. Albin-Dyer does not go into operational detail. But two essential characteristics of a successful undertaker which are abundantly personified by Albin-Dyer were accurately detected when he was at school. His headmaster observed: “He undoubtedly possesses considerable aplomb and a great capacity for organisation.” Spot on. He’s a high-functioning showman. All the best undertakers are.

Much of Albin-Dyer’s recipe for success is orthodox enough – homespun, even. He’s a down-to-earth man, rooted in his beloved Bermondsey. He loves to make a difference and he loves to put something back. I don’t doubt for a moment that he is one of life’s nice guys. For him, there is a high moral value in honest, hard work. He believes that a business must have an ethos; he calls this ‘the goodness’.

As a boss he comes across as a hands-on benevolent despot. Each day begins with a staff breakfast for information sharing and team building. There’s even a 5-a-side football team. Everyone’s bonded and very disciplined. And you never know where Barry’s going to pop up next. There’s nothing radical about the way he does things, but there’s plenty of thoroughness. And buzz, too. His would seem to be a small business of the very best and most vibrant sort.

He is aware of the importance of embracing change – and of putting the business into the hands of his two sons before he gets too old to change. Well, nothing changes all that fast in the funeral industry, so there’s little challenge here; the changes he identifies in the course of his working life hardly made the earth move. He can’t see a future for an online planning service. He may be wrong about that. I’m not sure that his use of a call centre serves the cause of personal service.

Albin-Dyer has lived through interesting times which must have exposed him to temptations to go really big. The conclusion he has drawn from the activities of the consolidators, from Howard Hodgson and SCI through to present day operations like Dignity, Co-op, Laurel Management, Funeral Services partnership et al, is that they don’t work: “Large funeral companies spread themselves too thinly and aren’t able to provide the kind of personal service that small companies like us can.” He doesn’t want to lose ‘the goodness’. I wonder if he’s right about this. Sure, the present crop of consolidators gets things serially wrong. Dignity is the brand that dare not speak its name, and the others are little better. Funeralcare’s trying a little harder. But our shopping malls are full of admired brands. There’s no reason why funeral directing should be any different. There remains much opportunity for a successful operator, in my view. I mean, if John Lewis did funerals…

Albin-Dyer steers clear of philosophy. He doesn’t talk about how funerals can be experiences which are transformative of grief. No Thomas Lynch, he; if he broods on these things, he doesn’t brood on them in this book. Not only does he exemplify the near-universal separation between undertaker and ceremony maker, he asserts that the two have nothing to say to each other: “I know that there are clearly defined boundaries between my role and the role of the priest or vicar. And I make sure that neither I nor any of my staff ever step across it.”

No mention of secular celebrants and the changes they are bringing to the way we do funerals. No thoughts about the opportunities for creative collaboration with ceremony makers of all stripes, and joining up this great disconnect between the cortege and the ceremony. That’s an eyebrow-raising oversight. Don’t get left behind, Barry.

Buy Square Pegs in Round Holes here

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andrew plume
andrew plume

and thinking about Dignity (sic) Plc and my very recent post re their recently announced profits, I seem to recall that they ‘offered’ Barry a not insignificant seven figure sum to take the business off of his hands, some years ago……………………


andrew plume
andrew plume

Chales said “….Well said about Afghanistan, Andrew. That needed saying…”


Rupert Callender

Like most things you say Charles, I had to read that at least three times before I got it.

Rupert Callender

Whoa there Charles, was that you expressing mild praise for Funeral-“We put the car into Funeralcare”-Care?

I look forward to the next gripping installment of Barry’s memoirs. By all accounts, he is a thoroughly nice bloke, and let’s be honest, he and us are likely to leave each other’s toes well untrod.

andrew plume
andrew plume

aaah Charles, a very well written piece I have to say – I expect little else. As to Barry and his business, I myself certainly wouldn’t call it ‘small’- Albin’s is growing very nicely and let’s (all) not forget their significant work in repatriation of the service personnel from Afghanistan – ok they of course get paid for it but it’s not the easiest of work. I should also add that I’ve been an Albin fan for many years, so there’s just a hint of bias in this post