Coffin and splutterin’

Charles Cowling


In the correspondence columns of the Feb Funeral Service Journal we find this touching plaint. Dig the velveteen undertakerly verbals, especially in the first sentence: 

Dear Sirs Re: The missing link 

One of the fundamental items provided by a Funeral Director is the coffin used to contain the mortal remains of our clients’ loved ones. 

When we attend a restaurant we expect food and, in my case, a bottle of wine too. I recently arranged a funeral with a very creative family who had taken the opportunity to purchase a Bamboo Coffin directly from an associate member of a professional trade association. I was disappointed to learn of the ease they experienced in obtaining what would normally be a consumable product only supplied to the trade. 

Funeral Directors strive to deliver a complete comprehensive service meeting the needs of bereaved clients. We are here to support, offer choice and deliver a sympathetic service charging fairly for our service. When you take a bottle of wine with you to the Restaurant you expect to pay ‘Corkage’. As a Funeral Director I struggle to ask a grieving family to pay the ‘Coffinage’ on an item purchased privately from a trade supplier. The family I had the pleasure of helping challenged every element of the funeral costs and there was no way that we could sustain the regular average revenue with this particular funeral. 

The Funeral Directors’ add-on to the trade cost of the coffin covers the unplanned mortuary fridge breakdown and all the other little things that we, like any other business, wish didn’t crop up. By providing the families the opportunity to purchase items independently, thereby furnishing the funeral themselves, are we witnessing the beginning of the demise of the Funeral Directing business? 

As an independent, we strive towards offering excellent service with an underlying desire to thrive rather than just survive. It is unfortunately about money. Money pays for the sandwich I had for lunch today and hopefully the £10 meal for two tonight from M&S. It is what keeps the world spinning.  

I would be interested to learn of other Funeral Directors who have experienced associate trade members jumping the gap from ‘Trade Supplier’ to ‘Retailer’. Like every other Funeral Director I like to be included in every aspect of the funeral . Is it a case that our ‘Trade suppliers’ no longer supply direct to the customer, or more a case of me stepping sideways and swallowing my pride? 

I look forward to hearing your comments. We are all working hard to maintain our market share following a year when the death rate in most areas has been unexpectedly low. I hope in the true Christmas spirit we can come together and make sure we are not the missing link. 

Yours faithfully

Jason Maiden

Chelsea Funeral Directors


GFG comment: 

Beyond observing that Mr Maiden is probably wrong to stick with his fridge, sorry, we just can’t be bothered to rise to this. Don’t let that stop you. Does the analogy with a full-service meal apply? Where does this leave takeaways? What are we to take of Mr Maiden’s DIY approach to eating — that M & S meal?

Any food for comfort for him, anyone? 

27 thoughts on “Coffin and splutterin’

  1. The Good Funeral Guide – Can undertaking ever be a respectable commercial activity? – The Good Funeral Guide

    […] on Mr Maiden’s letter to the Funeral Service Journal (here) deploring some coffin manufacturers’ willingness to sell their boxes direct to the public […]

  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Let’s be fair here, Jenny, it was. Anything more than a 20-min arrangement meeting cuts into an undertaker’s time; any departure from the same-old-same-old can create an organisational nightmare. You know what they say about nuisances like serial ‘viewers’ and coffin climbers…

    It’s a major point of differentiation between the best and the worst. The few relish the opportunity; most just wish the client would go home and wait quietly for the hearse on the day appointed.

    Only some undertakers want to lead interesting lives.

    Bit harsh?

    Jonathan, Mr Ooclo makes even your most inspired utterances seem commonplace.

    Mr XX, agree, and there have been warnings from the trade bodies about competition on price and races to the bottom. It illustrates the failure of the industry to understand the value that consumers place on service and to market themselves on that – or to market themselves at all. How good it is to see the dinosaurs threatened by cheeky upstarts prepared to put themselves out. Long live evolution. Thank you for dropping in, Mr XX. Do come back.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I think what worries me most here…he says he recently arranged a funeral with a very creative family…like it was a bad thing!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    David Holmes

    My charge for this coffin, as part of my £950 basic funeral / direct cremation service, is a not unreasonable, £190

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    David Holmes

    By coincidence, the new Bradnam’s price list arrived today.

    The least expensive coffin available from them costs around £60. Bear in mind it will also need; an engraved name plate, £15, a lining of some kind, £20-30 and a set of handles. When deciding on a fair selling price, labour must also be added, as well as storage. Premises sufficient to unload and store coffins have a cost too. My rent is around £16,000 a year, rates /heat/ light add another £7-8,000 Would it be fair to include some other overhead costs? Advertising? Vehicles? Admin, accountancy, cleaning and Management costs?

    I appreciate not all of these costs are directly attributable to coffin sales, but none the less, they exist. I also agree that it is better to be upfront about a funeral director’s fee rather than hide it in other items.

    Should someone want buy a coffin only from me, perhaps for DIY, I would probably sell for around £150.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Yes I do think so, Kingfisher. Current practice suggests some fds must try and persuade consumers to opt for max profit coffin for Mr Ooclo, thereby keeping their fixed fees looking reasonable. Fact is that if the fixed fee covers costs, overheads, wages and profit then it is reasonable, however it may look from outside. Again, it’s the arithmetic that decides the ethics, not the trashy magazine salespeople.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    I believe the author of the letter works for Chelsea Funeral Directors – who were bought out fairly recently? I wonder if the new owners, with debt to finance are finding the going a little difficult?

    I have seen several FD’s complain that reducing prices is a ‘race to the bottom’ and therefore should not be ‘allowed’ It seems the idea that they are monopoly or duopoly providers is alive and well with the dinosaurs of funeral service.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    “…mortal remains of our clients’ loved ones.”

    Don’t you just love it? The initials spell Mr Ooclo. So dignified, so respectful. I’m calling all my stiffs Mr Ooclo from now on.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I read this letter with disbelief in FSJ on Tuesday, then I went running through to the back office and stuck it under Keith’s nose with cries of ‘can you believe this *insert expletive here*’ He could. As someone totally new to the funeral industry, what consistently amazes me is that everything we are trying to do is seen as revolutionary…at least in these parts. To me its self evident, probably because I do not have the benefit of years of experience. Still, with any luck this sort of attitude will soon start to disappear in the face of Darwinian forces!

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    Picking up Charles’s point on coffin mark-ups: 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.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Tracey Warren

    I did read this and my reply is this – if a family want to supply their own coffin bought from the internet then that is fine. As i have a comprehensive broken down price list the family can just pick and choose what they want from us. Mr Victorian Undertaker has to realise it is time to change, boo hoo hoo to his shrinking profit margins real funeral directors do it for the love not the money !
    PS sadly I last year a family was told by another funeral firm that they could not supply their own coffin due to Health & Safety reasons – enough said !

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    Agreed, Jonathan, although the client would probably be none too pleased to hear “If you provide your own coffin our fee will be increased to …”

    Much better to make his professional fee realistic and open to start with, thereby making it insignificant whether the client buys a coffin from him or not, don’t you think?

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    In construction contracts you frequently come across Prime Cost Sums (e.g. for kitchen appliances). At tender stage, contractors state how much profit and attendance they will add to these sums. Simple and transparent.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    It’s simple arithmetic:

    Cost of coffin to client (supplied by fd, where his profit = £p, and it costs him £c ) = £x,
    (where £x = £p + c)

    Cost of fd’s time = £y

    Fd’s fee = £x + y.

    If coffin fee is lost to fd, he simply increases his total fee to:

    £ p + y,

    otherwise expressed as £x – c + y,

    so he doesn’t lose out and the overall cost to the client is the same.

    Provided he’s not originally making an unfair profit, that seems reasonable. But if he’s complaining, it suggests he’s hiding something, and will therefore surely perish. (But at least he’ll get a cheap coffin).

    Do, as the Americans say, the math.

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    Good God. Let’s just say if one sold them for £160 one would make a reasonable ‘trade mark up’ profit. Enough said?

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling

    Wow, look at these coffin charges. And Mr M wonders why people are buying direct.

    What’s the trade price of that simple elm?

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    I say, it’s just not cricket. I don’t know where it will end ………. chaps in the club not obeying club rules.

    Just hope that James Leedham’s ideas don’t catch on. We’ll have to abandon ship, don’t you know?

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling

    Lisa, come over here and give our home funeral movement a shot in the arm, would you? It’s not nearly as buoyant as we’d like.

    Note to readers: Lisa is Exec Director of the Funeral Ethics Organisation in the US, author of ‘Caring For the Dead: Your Final Act of Love’ and, in the last few months, ‘Final Rites’ with Josh Slocum. She’s an indefatigable campaigner for consumer rights. Back in the day she was a chum of Jessica Mitford. Check out this link:

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    Lisa Carlson

    I’m wondering if Mr. Maiden refuses ship-ins because they might come in their own coffins?

    Actually, Mr. Maiden should probably start looking for some part-time work, refinishing antiques perhaps. The home funeral movement is growing with more and more do-it-yourselfers.

    Charles Cowling
  20. Charles Cowling

    This is the dinosaur that will probably see his own extinction, We must be blessed with forward thinking FD’s around here.

    Charles Cowling
  21. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    But there’s a clue in those velveteen verbals, if only dear Mr Maiden were to reflect. Where people feel brave enough to engage with the mortal remains of their loved ones, there’s gratification to be had. Coffin choice is part of this, especially in a scenario where people shrug off the Uriah-Heepery of ‘You would like the best [mark-up] for her, wouldn’t you?’.

    Knowledge is power. We were offered the option of spending £14.95 a bottle on indifferent plonk or bringing our own wine with a corkage-fee at a catered gig the other day. Corkage had named benefits: receipt of our wine delivery, chilling it in time for the gig, provision of an endless supply of polished glasses, providing staff to pour it . . . cool. We were happy to pay our money and take our choice.

    One is moved to view the alleged ‘pleasure’ of this man’s service as ironic. At best.

    Charles Cowling
  22. Charles Cowling

    I’ve seen this in several trade journals now and I’m waiting to see what the reaction is. We are happy to provide as much or as little as the family wants and often provide more than they pay for!

    My initial reaction to the letter was “is this guy for real”, but then I realised that he’s almost certainly typical.

    I’d love someone to ring around and do a survey of just how many of my colleagues would sell just a coffin and for how much.

    Charles Cowling
  23. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    The funeral trade is constantly evolving and now is a time of great change. With the death rate low and FD start ups popping up all across the country, traditional funeral directors need to evolve or risk extinction.

    The internet has changed the way we buy goods and services and 21st Century consumers are very savvy shoppers. With a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can discover the price of a coffin and order one to be delivered straight to their door within 48 hours.

    So, instead of focusing on the loss of profit, would funeral directors do better asking why a family would be motivated to purchase a coffin directly from a supplier? Could it be:
    (a) that the mark up that funeral directors have been accustomed to charging on coffins is now evidently excessive?
    (b) That the family wanted a particular type of coffin which was not offered.
    (c) What they wanted would have cost too much through the funeral director?
    (d) The family researched coffins on-line and found what they wanted at a better price (as most of us now do with any other purchase).
    (e) The family wanted to decorate the coffin to make it individual and liked the idea of participating in the funeral arrangements in this way.

    Any attempt by funeral directors to restrict the trade of coffin suppliers is surely missing the point – no one resents paying a reasonable handling charge, but the excessive mark ups now being charged, particularly for eco-coffins, seems scandalous. These pricing policies are liable to bring companies into disrepute and in an increasingly competitive market will damage their reputation and turnover.

    It is time to be transparent about costs. Charge a commercial rate for the time and care you take to make sure that everything runs faultlessly on the day and for the services 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.

    Charles Cowling
  24. Charles Cowling
    Carole Renshaw

    The world of choice has opened up the possibility of shopping around for different aspects of a service now. Any business that sees orofit dilution because the customer has chosen to source it themselves, should refocus down on what they are good at in their pipeline – improve that – and be clearer on their core business and exploit it!

    Traditionally, providing every aspect of the funeral process has been down to the Funeral Director – the gap from them doing this, and being only one part of the cog in a much bigger wheel is widening. It’s time to decide if this is still the business they want to be in. Consumer choice is here to stay!

    Charles Cowling
  25. Charles Cowling
    Simon Ferrar

    Here!Here! Mr Kingfisher.

    As you rightly state on your website Andrew “You (the customer)are in charge”.

    Mr Jason Maiden are you really of this century?

    Charles Cowling
  26. Charles Cowling

    I would take issue with the penultimate paragraph, and in particular the sentence “Like every other Funeral Director I like to be included in every aspect of the funeral.”

    This is simply not true. For ‘every’ substitute ‘many’ or even ‘most’ – but certainly not ‘all’.

    The issue, I believe, is that the traditional mark up on a coffin is unrealistic. It’s where funeral directors hide things, because the general public have no perception of the price of a coffin. It’s how they can quote a low ‘professional charge’.

    Come on profession, move with the times. You see an example of a coffin supplied directly to the public and you fight it? Why not try a different tactic, accept that the change is underway, and thrive on it?

    Charles Cowling
  27. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Well I’m not in his trade, but from out here, it looks like an extraordinary case of special pleading. I particularly enjoyed his final comments – so sorry to hear the death rate is unpardonably low, and yes, let’s join together in the true spirit of Christmas to ensure that we can continue to mark up the price of an article people can buy for themselves – unless we can turn the tap off.

    There, I have risen to it. I look forward to FDs writing in to tell me I’m wrong, and I should mind my own business.

    But if I croak in Chelsea, please tell my dearest to lug me out of the borough forthwith and find someone a little less Victorian.

    Charles Cowling

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