Can undertaking ever be a respectable commercial activity?

Charles Cowling


Posted by Charles


Commentators on Mr Maiden’s letter to the Funeral Service Journal (here) deploring some coffin manufacturers’ willingness to sell their boxes direct to the public did not find in favour of Mr Maiden’s practice of burying some of his service charge in an excessively marked-up coffin. The latest score is 26-0. 

James Leedam summed it up well when he offered Mr Maiden this counsel: ‘Charge a commercial rate for the time and care you take to make sure that everything runs faultlessly on the day and for the service you take pride in – much of which is not apparent to the consumer. Don’t be embarrassed to mention all that you do – proudly justify your charges. Don’t hide costs in the inflated price of the coffin – you’ll get found out.’ 

It’s not that Mr Maiden, let’s be fair, is being slippery and sly in doing what he does, it’s that he exhibits commercial timidity. In this he is not alone. 

Kathryn observed: ‘I can see why it’s not such a sacrifice for undertakers to offer their ‘services’ for ‘free’ in the context of babies’ and children’s funerals if they’re charging £££ for a small box.’ If undertaking is a proper, respectable commercial activity, why would you not charge for babies’ funerals? 

Which focuses on the question: Can undertaking ever be a respectable commercial activity? 

And the answer is yes, of course it can. Can’t it? You offer to do for others what they can’t or don’t want to do, and you charge them for it. This is mainstream stuff. Isn’t it?

It’s not necessarily how consumers see it. They don’t silently accuse plumbers of preying on the misery of others, though plumbers certainly profit from just that. Undertakers, with some shining exceptions, have never managed to dispel the perception that what they do is exploitative of the bereaved. It is a perception which Mr Maiden and his kind only reinforce. 

But it’s not all their fault. The public’s refusal to engage with the reality of what undertakers are there for compounds the dysfunctional relationship. 

People ask, ‘Do undertakers sit by the phone hoping that someone is going to die?’ Well, of course they do — though they’d rather it wasn’t anyone they know. That’s not the same thing as causing people to die. Get real. 

People — educated people — ask what really goes on at a crematorium. You lay it on. You tell them about lids prised off, bodies crammed into cremators, and the rusty white van out the back waiting to take the coffins away for re-use. And they exclaim, spellbound by such pornography,  ‘I always thought so!’ And you shout back, ‘If you always thought so, what are you doing about it?’ 

Where do we go from here? 

14 thoughts on “Can undertaking ever be a respectable commercial activity?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Unquestionably impossible, Mr XX. The gullibility of the public in this matter seems to me wilful, a symptom of widespread, infantile, Halloween attitudes to death and those who care for the dead. People seem to need to believe the worst, and it really doesn’t do them any good at all.

    So far as worst funeral directors are concerned, the basest misdeeds happen in their mortuary.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    David B: Yes, Mr Maiden has been asked to respond if he wishes.

    As to regulation, I am not quite sure where that came from. I think it a bad thing for two reasons: first, professionalised funeral directors + attendant regs will, as in the US, put up prices very sharply and guarantee no benefits whatever to consumers; secondly, regulation will infringe the ancient right of the people to care for their dead. Here at the GFG we always argue against it.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    Having spent over thirty years as a funeral director, using dozens of crematoria around the country, I have never witnessed nor even suspected anyone of re-using a coffin.

    I really think it would be physically impossible to do. The typical coffin costs the FD very little, there is no incentive to re-use coffins. It’s a common myth – but perhaps the one thing even the worst funeral director wouldn’t do.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Yes, David B, perfectly put: regulation of the funeral industry would provide nothing more than Regulations; for which an equally badly served public would then have to pay extra.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    David B.

    Nobody takes coffins back out the back door of the crematorium, the only time that may happen is if the firm was using a coffin cover which I don’t think has really taken off, but even then the body is in a cardboard coffin. I would be very surprised if the family didn’t know that was being used. As Ru says the body has to be in a solid container to be charged into the cremator. Worryingly my local Crem has started thinking about banning all sorts of coffins due to installing an autocharger.

    Has Mr Maiden been invited to comment regarding the discussion his letter has provoked? I have to say there has been a lot of assumption made regarding hiding of charges in coffin fees when they might charge £150 quid for the coffin.

    Regulation of the funeral industry would push prices up and also provide barriers to entry to the profession. So what effectively would happen is the firms currently trading would probably be able to cement their positions rather than fade away into the background and the good folk who want to start up on their own would find it too costly.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    In Ghana they have a saying: owuo mpe sika. It means ‘death doesn’t like money’.

    Andiana, I hope I did not give the impression that coffins are recycled. They aren’t. Crems are, characteristically, painstaking and respectful – if you overlook a little wireless music referred to elsewhere by Richard Newman.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Hi Ru,
    Apologies for the confusion on crematoriums and coffins – I had actually meant it in response to the end of Charles article where he talks about the coffins – unbeknownst to the families – being taken back by some undertakers for re-sale. I have no preference weather a coffin is destined for the ground or the flames, but I do have a preference for honesty.
    If some undertakers are going to, in essence, rent-a-coffin- then they should be transparent about that and offer their client’s the option, if even lawfully possible (probably not), of either renting or owning and reflect that in the price.
    Next time I will take more time before writing confusing comments off the cuff!

    Charles – your volunteer, community based idea sounds very interesting!

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Totally agree with Jonathan here. The fact is that people die, there is nothing we can do about that. It is also a fact that at the moment the majority of people either cannot or do not wish to undertake the things that need to be done after a death themselves so yes, there is a need for the profession. The key thing, for me at least, is your primary reason for joining that profession. Sure it would be nice to make a living, and I do not think it is a dishonourable way to make a living providing you are not dealing with people in a dishonourable way. If your primary motivation is to make things (as far as possible) easier for a family in a difficult time, to make the funeral the best it can be for them, and if you can make a living from it, so much the better then fine. If on the other hand you are in it to get the maximum number of funerals through as quickly as possible and make them as ‘high yield’ as possible (a phrase actually used by management to Keith during one of his frequent rows with them!) then no, that is not an honourable way to make a living.I suppose what I’m saying is that if it isn’t a vocation you shouldn’t be there.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    And yes, Ru’s obviously right, it’s ridiculous to imagine charging an incinerator, chucking out flames at some 800 degrees centigrade, with a limp, heavy, adult human body… oh, and no, rigor mortis doesn’t mean like it came straight from the deep-freeze, it’s worn off by that time… although yes, you’re right, it was kept in a fridge, but only cool, not frozen stiff… then again it does seem ridiculous to burn a perfectly good £600 wooden box that was used for under an hour… though actually no, they’re not really made of solid wood… but then how can they charge £600?…

    Oh, why on earth don’t they teach these absolutely essential facts in schools? All this ignorance about how we deal with dead bodies can only add to an unrealistic fear of death itself, and discourage learning in a vicious cycle of fear and superstition.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    Some friends of mine occasionally wonder about my profiting from death… they know me, and that I’m not willing people to die so I can pay the rent, but they have to wonder, fair play to them. I tell them; people’s relatives are going to die whether I profit from that or someone else does. I’d just rather they got me than someone who may not make them feel so supported and cared for as I do. The trick is to look at oneself and ask every day for an honest answer to the question; ‘Am I the best there is; and if not, why not?’

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    I am confused by what you mean about transparency with the coffins. Do you think they are not burnt? Here’s the thing. Crematorium backstage staff are technicians. They deal with machinary. They are as unfamiliar with a dead body as my dentist. The ovens are extraordinarily hot, and the doors can only be open for a short while in which to ‘charge’ the coffin in. It is quite fraught and surprisingly skilled. A coffin is essential. And why does a coffin destined for the flames have less meaning than one destined for the ground?

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    Are we any different from my sister, a palliative care nurse? Caring for the dying pays her mortgage.

    Tomorrow I am off to see a surgeon. Our twenty minute private consultation, with my son will cost me £180. It’s a follow-up, he already had an operation at a cost of £7,000. The money was found and spent because the surgeon is considered one of the best in the world and my son had an accidental injury. We hope for a full recovery and that justified the high cost. Does the surgeon sit around hoping for more injuries? I doubt it. But I am sure he’s glad when another injured patient presents privately!

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    Andriana, thank you for these words, very much indeed. You have clearly thought long and hard about this.

    I like your idea of an Ofdeath – but we’d need regulation first, which, for all its benefits, would infringe ancient consumer rights – in my view. And put up prices.

    It’s a really tricky one. If, as a society, we are unhappy with the results of outsourcing, then the logical thing for people to do would be to reclaim deathcare from the ‘professionals’ and build a community model founded in volunteering.

    We have been working on the alternative model of a community co-operative here at the GFG, and a major charity wants to talk to us about it. It may come to nothing, but just at the moment we are excited about it.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    Thank you for opening up this important discussion Charles…

    I believe there is definitely a shared responsibility for the distrustful and confusing relationship between consumer and undertaker. The consumer, many times, is happy to hand over the reins and say “you handle everything” but then almost expects death to be a charitable organization. The undertakers then try to appease this expectation by covertly hiding service fees into product.
    This is not much different than the “hidden charges” by phone or credit card companies – except they usually reverse it with hiding product into service. But somehow the public is more tolerant of devious corporations than they are of devious undertakers. A good swindle is expected from corporations and yet, we want our undertakers to be faultlessly ethical. But business is business and human nature is the same throughout – there are good eggs and bad eggs – you have to be diligent and check which egg you just put in your bag.

    Although, consumers fighting corporations do have more at help available, like Ofcom for the communications industry. Perhaps it’s time for an independent regulator to be formed to watchdog the billion dollar funeral industry?

    Death isn’t free and consumers, as with anything else, need to read the fine print and see what they are being charged for and until they do the industry or the perception of it will not change. Change comes from the consumer.

    And about those coffins destined for the flame…maybe it’s time for a little transparency there too…rent-a-coffin anyone?

    Charles Cowling

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