Is this the industry’s High Noon moment?

Charles Cowling


The funeral industry is in a bad place. Public reaction to last week’s Which? report revealed few friends. It also showed it to be no good at defending itself.

Things are going to get worse. Time is running out. 

At the GFG we’ve lost count of the number of calls we’ve taken in the last year from TV production companies, in particular, wanting, with one honourable exception, to dig dirt and put the boot in. The bully boys are circling. 

Crisis? Yes, crisis.

Consumers are baffled and angry because there’s no way of knowing who’s good (if any) and who’s not. Poor marketing is a contributory cause. But the most brutal truth of the matter is that the codes of conduct of the industry trade bodies, NAFD and SAIF, simply do not, by themselves, offer consumers quality assurance.

So what’s a good undertaker to do? From time to time, here at the GFG, we like to offer suggestions.

First, the good guys need to hang together and keep the bad eggs out. They can do that in one of two ways. They can form yet another trade body, a selective one. Or they can adopt a different business model.

In the past we’ve looked at the viability of rolling out a really good, proud brand – ‘John Lewis’ funerals. That’s the way for the consolidators to go. Presently, the consolidators are adding zero value to consumers’ experience of a funeral, and short-term value only for their shareholders. Their present way of operating is astoundingly dim.

We’ve also looked at the joint venture model used by Specsavers – here

Another model that funeral directors might like to consider is the Best Western model.

It’s a clever and an attractive way of doing things – a collaborative way of doing things. Best Western is an organisation which provides back office roles, marketing, reservations and operational support, to over 4,000 hotels in 80 countries worldwide. Best Western doesn’t own any of these hotels; each one is independent. It’s a chain, but it’s not a chain. You get the best of both worlds: all the warmth and individuality of an independent hotel, and all the assurance of quality standards which all hotels have to meet.

It’s not an orthodox franchise operation where both franchisor and franchisee operate for profit. Best Western is a non-profit membership operation which works, democratically, as near as dammit as a co-op, one member, one vote. Membership is renewed annually.

Re-read the last two paragraphs substituting ‘funeral director’ for ‘hotel’ and you begin see how easily this model could adapt to the funeral industry.

Here at the GFG we do not feel a sense of responsibility to save the funeral industry. Our focus is the best interests of consumers. Good funeral directors collaborating effectively to keep each other up to the mark and get the message out would help a lot. 

It is high time they got their act together. 

13 thoughts on “Is this the industry’s High Noon moment?

  1. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    For the record, Rosie’s figures are not right. The ANBG charges shown on the NDC website are:
    0-5 burials £75
    6-20 £150
    21-50 £295
    51-100 £495
    101-200 £995
    201+ £1495
    As an organisation with six natural burial grounds, the fees Native Woodland Ltd would pay to be members of ANBG are in excess of £2500 per annum, which is high when compared to Corporate Membership of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management for which we pay £395/yr.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Charles, we need to talk..!!! Bring pen & paper (or iPad )

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    If the reaction to my nervous ordeal on the BBC1 breakfast sofa is anything to go by; we got 10,000 hits and our website crashed last Friday, the public are crying out, and I quote one email “at last, someone talking sense about the funeral industry”

    Nearly 100% of the complaints we get about FDs concerns the large groups. Every business man worth his salt knows that as soon as you grow the left and right hands start losing track of each other. So small is beautiful in my opinion, however scruffy and IT illiterate, it is about bespoke, personal service and there are a growing number of really good eggs out there.

    The big boys, as we know, often come across as arrogant, ignorant, lazy, bullies. They don’t listen to families, they don’t listen to constructive criticism and they are big enough to fool themselves that the problems lies within another branch or area.

    As for the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, it continues to grow, 3 new members this week. We seek to improve our level of support to existing members, we now hold free meetings/get togethers with member driven agendas, we have a newsletter exploring problems, issues and what’s new and we have a virtual forum. We give invaluable info’ and advice to new start ups and of course talk, with confidence of performance and standards, to the public enquiring about individual sites. We listen to what the public are seeking and then help guide them to who can help in their area. That includes non members if appropriate.

    Membership is not expensive, it works on a band system with the average member paying £150 for the year. Start up and small sites pay £75 but the bigger sites, selling between one and two hundred burial plots, we ignore ashes, pay £495. This is a similar amount, some sites choose to pay annually for peripheral add-ons like virtual memorial pages – all a question of priorities I suppose!

    Taking the fight to the Southbank this weekend. FYI the two random subjects we are receiving most calls about at the moment are pyres and cremation without ceremony; the latter especially with foreign workers and the pragmatic elderly . £995 all in is increasingly in demand and now available nationwide. For good or bad that should wake a few FDs up!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    David Holmes

    James Leedam makes some excellent points. We smaller FD’s often appear to resist modernising, but is that fair, are we really stick-in-the-muds?

    I would like to invest in I.T., I would like some better quality, more comfortable furniture, a better carpet and lots of additional equipment and sign-age. Sadly it’s a bit chicken and egg. The banks are certainly not lending and my current business income is only sufficient to make a modest living. To offer a better, more comfortable arranging experience for my clients and attract more of them, I am convinced I need investment but cannot yet see where it will come from. To use a TV cliché, we FD’s need to up our game. The world is moving fast, some will be left behind. I don’t want to be one of them!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    Am I alone in feeling that this blows a bit hard – even slightly in the wrong direction? I haven’t seen the Which report in full – but there are clearly differences in service, attitude and pricing amongst fd’s, and not just in Milton Keynes.
    Of course. In some respects this is no different than dentists, specialist doctors, hairdressers, supermarkets or service engineers. Different strokes etc.

    The difficulty is that we do not arrange a funeral on a regular basis, and do not know what to look for in a supplier.

    I feel that an educated public is the best consumer protection.
    Save us from yet more marketing – by any group, no matter how worthy.
    Empowered, knowledgeable folks can then ask the right questions and feel informed enough to walk freely from the ‘arrangement cell’ (even if it does look like a shop version of a living room) without buying.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Simon Ferrar


    Thank you for your feedback and I appreciate and respect what you have to say.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with your vision of the electronic future.

    I also take onboard your summation. I wasn’t declaring that the NDC was a solution but merely a starting point for discussion.

    I do understand that the NDC isn’t out to champion our cause per se but more to promote the virtues of the natural ideal.

    The shortcomings you list may be valid but in my opinion not necessarily negative.

    And I do think it is a tad ingenuous to call the ANBG a ‘project’ – an acorn is not an oak tree but it has to start somewhere.

    You say “It is neither a trade association for burial grounds that are ‘members’…..does not have a constitution and is not… accountable ’”.

    Is that a bad thing? Are large trade associations with formal constitutions better run or less self-serving?

    Not accountable? On the contrary I would suggest they are extremely accountable if they don’t serve their members their ANBG income will disappear. I know from experience that they fight out of the ANBG corner as well because they can see we serve their objectives of the common good.

    “Not an independent consumer advice organisation”. – No, you are right, they are a charity and as you recognise, do a pretty good job.

    I’m not actually sure there is such a thing as an independant consumer advice organisation anyway – everyone has to pay the piper. Which? are generally regarded as a trusted consumer guide and advisory but look at the unbalanced ***t that they have just stirred up.

    I accept that the NDC’s agenda is not the same as the NBG’s or FD’s (and was never meant to be) but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other and perhaps adapt a new model alongside, that will serve and protect all of us on both sides of the Death Fence.

    I am quite willing to drive this challenge but I need more experienced heads than mine to contribute.

    We need to get it right, for come tomorrow…..we are all customers.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Simon Ferrar

    I’m new to this but Which? and the ‘popular’ press splashed this all over the public domain but did/could any of us splash back, bigger and wetter??

    Credit to you Charles for highlighting and getting the discussion going but if the glorifying press beat us, we need a bigger stick than them.

    I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

    Make the public aware. Let the public decide.

    Openness, flexibility and plain good service will always win over.

    We just need to create a loud enough voice for people to hear above the black chatter.

    I don’t know what the answer is but I aim to find out.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    Inspiring stuff Charles. We visit quite a number of funeral directors and have found that most independents and Dignity branches could benefit from looking closely at Co-op Funeralcare’s branding, premises and presentation – yes really… As an example, it is so much better to meet around a table in comfortable chairs so that you can take notes, spread out and share information.

    Though fax machines remain the industry norm, it won’t be long before arrangers will be showing clients coffins, hearses, burial grounds and funeral products from iPads (giving them immediate internet access to investigate and arrange obscure requests). Estimates will be generated and amended to suit budgets on screen; bookings made and purchases completed on-line. We’ll catch up with the rest of the trading world.

    In response to Simon Ferrar, we all agree that the NDC is good for the industry, but the business model for the ANBG should also be reviewed. At present, the NDC runs the ANBG as a ‘project’. It is neither a trade association for burial grounds that are ‘members’ nor an independent consumer advice organisation. It lacks a formal constitution and is neither democratic nor accountable. There is no denying that the work it does is valuable, but membership levels are low and fees are high for established sites who benefit least from ANBG’s most valuable area of advice – starting up. With a new chair at the helm of the NDC, perhaps this will be on the agenda.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    David Holmes

    I agree Charles – the industry does not seem to have reacted well to the Which report. I feel that the Association’s are inevitably dominated by vested interests. Quite how this can be avoided when it’s the Members who fund them I don’t know. What is for sure is that consumers will become increasingly aware that all may not be as it seems with their ‘local’ funeral director. They will become more hostile, less trusting with all of us – which most of (good guys) us will surely regret?

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    The GFG recommendation is, in its own way, a very good ‘trade body’ even though it actually offers no real protection to the consumer. Clients like it, very much in some instances.

    The real test of a trade body is when it is called in to mediate between two parties. If a funeral director works on the principle that he or she never allows a situation to develop where this is necessary, why do we need them?

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Thank you for this, Simon — lots of good cogent points.

    We are always pleased to big up the Natural Death Centre:

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Simon Ferrar

    I like your thinking Charles and I think we can ‘big-up’ the NDC on this one as they have, in their own way, already got the ball rolling.

    In its infancy maybe but their network of Association of Natural Burial Grounds and Friendly Funeral Directors can be viewed as a similar model.

    We are bound by their Code of Conduct but more importantly we are rated by the families that we have provided for.

    This is done with NDC feedback forms that are completed by the families we have served and returned to the NDC for evaluation.

    These are monitored to ensure a continual, quality service provision.

    The NDC then ‘feed-back’ to the ANBG members (twice a year) their findings -good and bad – to all of us, not just the good boys and the transgressors; we find out who is going beyond the call and who should really be doing better.
    So that we can all improve.

    A first offender might just face the wrath of Rosie but ex-communication is
    the final sanction.(Dun-dun-dun-der….. NOT THE COMFY CHAIR!)

    Others might not know but the NDC is a not for profit charity that does what it does for the good of all; to inform and champion our rights to a peaceful death and a value but worthy funeral.

    I believe that the same monitoring procedure is followed to ensure the FDs provide continual high standards.

    In my humble opinion, the general public are starting to wake up to what is possible and what should be provided, for our end of life provision; I feel that the NDC, GFG and others have set that alarm.

    Early days indeed but rather than high-noon, I reckon it’s more like 6am and the day is just dawwning.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    “Dew not forsake me, oh mah darlin….”
    High Noon indeed. Strong, visionary stuff. You’re not forsaking them, but you point ways ahead from an objective, well-informed viewpoint. That’s a great service.

    Charles Cowling

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