Diabolical liberties, that’s what they’re taking

Charles 36 Comments



Cardboard coffin by Greenfield Creations

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” Matthew 23:25

It seems appropriate to wax biblical in the matter of undertakers’ mark-ups for, verily, the people do tremble with ire and their eyeballs do start from their sockets whenever they discover that what they’re buying has got a little bit slapped on top.

These are the same people who readily accept that anything else they buy has been marked up to what the market can stand. Go to a restaurant. Price up the food on your plate. What would it cost you at Tesco? Call for the manager. Demand in a commanding tone to know why you are paying £25 for food you could buy for £4.83. The manager will speak of the cooking and the waitering and the washing up and the manifold overheads of running a high street premises. He may even conclude by saying, “If you don’t like it, cook your own or go to the kebab house on the corner.” He may even say something more direct. 

What’s the markup on anything? Answer: the normal retail markup is 50 per cent — ie, double the cost price. That doesn’t mean that an undertaker pays £100 for a coffin, charges £200 and takes £100 to the pub. Gross profit is what is left when overheads have been taken out. You’re unlikely to get much change from £100. Fashion goods, luxury items and Apple gadgets carry a much greater margin and no one gets into a moralising tizz about them.  

The cost of a coffin is no benchmark of an undertaker’s charges.  Cheap coffin = overhead cost absorbed by professional fee.

The best way to benchmark an undertaker’s charges is to get a quote for the job from your nearest Dignity plc undertaker and compare it with quotes from others. Seriously good value starts at Dignity minus £600. While you’re about it, take http://quotecorner.com/revia.html account of the value of great personal service. There is no reason whatever why an undertaker shouldn’t say “I charge more because I am worth it.” Let the market be the arbiter of that. 

Up in Scotland there’s a hoo-ha about the markup on cardboard coffins. One undertaker is charging £580. Scotmid charges £245. A Scotmid spokesperson said: 

“The cardboard coffins that we retail for £245, we buy in for between £80 and £100. Then we have other costs, VAT, delivery, we have to engrave the plate, line the interior, then we have to mark up the price as well. The cardboard coffins are not popular, we sell very few, and we have to mark the cost up or we wouldn’t be a business.” 

Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont accused funeral homes of “profiteering” at the expense of grieving families. He said: “This seems like a heavily excessive mark-up which would not be tolerated in other industries. Grieving families are probably in the worst possible frame of mind to spot this, and that’s perhaps why it happens. Funerals are not a cheap occurrence and with profiteering like this, it’s easy to see why.”

The use of the word ‘profiteering’ is highly subjective. Bereaved people are uneasy about the commodification of deathcare even though they don’t want to do it themselves. They think the normal commercial rules should be suspended. Well, they can’t be, not if you’re going to create a market for it. Even undertakers have to eat. You can’t have it both ways. 

Instead of berating undertakers for avarice and instilling in funeral shoppers a sense of grievance and entitlement, it would be far better for the likes of Mr Lamont to comment sensibly and urge consumers to shop around. As that Scotmid spokesperson said: “We have to mark the cost up or we wouldn’t be a business.”

Within a mile or two of any undertaker who is out to rip you off is one who isn’t. That’s the good news. Get it out there, Mr Lamont. 

Full story here



  1. Charles

    Speaking as a cook as well as an occasional celebrant, it can also be cheaper to buy your own raw ingredients and bang it out from scratch, rather than pay £4.83 to Tesco for a ready meal. But then you’d have to be willing to do the work, in addition to shopping around. This is the thing. As far as funerals go, if only there were greater access to the range of, er, produce in the first place! I like going to restaurants and I understand why you have to stump up. But with cars and coffins and christ knows, silk flipping toppers, it seems there isn’t really that much actual choice out there. Just a lot of people selling the same old overcooked stuff at an eye watering premium. And more to the point, of course – nobody shopping around.

  2. Charles

    I don’t know that sourcing fresh ingredients is the worst of the problem, Ariadne. Both the GFG and the NDC websites, among others, direct funeral shoppers to coffineers and direct suppliers of other stuff. We even direct people to good cook books — the NDC handbook and the Crossings manual. The ‘kitchen’ is a harder to achieve for empowered funeralists now that that front room or parlour is no longer a feature of today’s houses. As for the chef-ing, that’s a forbidding task for novices – but a lot of funeral directors declare themselves very happy to work on a consultancy basis — they are excited to think that some would want them to do that.

    Where cardboard coffin is priced at £500, I am absolutely with Rosie Inman-Cook. It’s outrageous. Are they priced this way in order to gouge grievers or simply deter them from buying cardboard? I have a feeling it may be the later.

  3. Charles

    The difference between a restaurant and undertakers (in the UK) is that the restaurant is required to display its prices outside the premises. Once you’re inside it’s too late. Dignity would scream at being required to put prices on its websites, but why not?

    1. Charles

      but sadly

      Dignity and three other large Corporates, Funeralcare, LM and Funeral Partners

      all take the same attitude………………………………..

      a total absence of ‘prices’ on their websites

      it’s all fairly arrogant stuff imo


      1. Charles

        in passing, I have to give some credit to:

        Funeral Partners

        who following the debacle(s) that were screened on National TV last year, have drastically overhauled their website and have also come out with a very necessary detail (which i’ve commented on the absence of before) in that they now disclose details for all of their branches:-


        well done to them………………..however (yet) more middle management have been recruited…………………and still no details for their prices…………

        c’mon guys buck the trend amongst the Corporates or is it because of the past relationship with a now wholly owned subsidiary of F’care, perhaps?


    2. Charles

      Why is it too late once your through the door?

      I regularly take funerals from the larger companies when the client realises how much it is going to cost.

      Consumers shopping around is much more prevalent these days than it was.

      Which is good as it makes it much easier to talk to the relatives and tell them why we are different.


  4. Charles

    Charles, am I correct in thinking that some companies supplying coffins directly to the public have both a public price and a trade price, enabling businesses to add a reasonable mark up to be comparative to that paid if someone were to be buying directly? Seems fair to me as a normal business practice, and would look good if transparent pricing were ever to become the norm, but this clearly doesn’t cater for those companies marking up a cardboard coffin to a price higher than their standard stock of MDF veneers – the default and obviously preferred (by the company) choice on offer.

    I suspect your deterrence suspicions could be not too wide of the mark Mr C.

    1. Charles


      As Charles says anyone who marks up a coffin to that price doesn’t really want to sell it or alternatively didn’t want the funeral in the first place. Maybe they’ve got too much work.

      Of course we don’t know what the professional fee is when you add it all up the bottom line may have been cheaper than everyone else.

      This is why it is important for the consumers to shop around and make sure they are comparing like for like. By asking for the same spec and comparing the total cost.


  5. Charles

    The very fact that this issue has to be raised yet again is an indictment of a (sizeable) portion of the funeral trade and their pricing practices. Some eight years ago I was approached by a young widow who had asked an undertaker to supply a cardboard coffin for her deceased husband who had suffered a fatal fall while carrying out DIY at their new marital home. A few weeks beforehand they had seen a piece I had recorded for a regional TV station on eco-friendly coffins and he had said to her that a cardboard coffin would be his wish – not, of course that he could have foreseen its imminence.
    When she received the bill for the funeral the coffin was itemised at £620, and to say that she was shocked is something of an understatement. On her behalf I rang the person with whom she had dealt at the undertakers and he glibly pointed out to me that a good part of their mark-up was attributable to the fact that they had had to source a product which they did not carry in stock. I pointed out that this argument was contrary to simple commercial logic; that by selling an item which had not incurred any of the costs associated with inventory holding they had avoided the necessity to factor in such things which would inevitably be more than the cost of one ‘phone call to arrange overnight delivery from a well-known supplier who was selling cardboard coffins then for about £60.
    Less than twenty minutes later he rang to say that he had spoken to his area manager and that there had been an “administration error”. The young widow was sent an amended invoice which itemised the coffin at £225. We can all draw our own conclusions from this. But…how many people would query an undertaker’s bill? Didn’t the Funerals Ombudsman Service close because it wasn’t receiving enough complaints? Or was the (then) government “got at” by trade pressure groups?

    1. Charles

      Hello Michael,

      The funeral ombudsman was created by the Co Op when they fell out with NAFD they funded it pretty much.

      Dignity also fell out with the NAFD following the TV programme in the 1980’s, I can’t remember what that was called. They used the FOS for a while to reassure it’s clients.

      When both of these companies rejoined the NAFD the funeral ombudsman service was surplus to requirements.


      1. Charles

        Thanks, David. My point about the defunct Funerals Ombudsman Service was really that it had received very few complaints. I seem to remember that Prof. Woodroffe made the case that the cost of running the operation was minute if one divided it by the annual number of funerals. The detractors, of course, chose to divide the cost by the number of cases handled which produced a widely different figure. What always fascinated me was the paucity of matters referred to it. People who would storm into a department store to complain about a faulty electric kettle are seemingly far less likely to query an undertaker’s bill.

  6. Charles

    Funeral directors can ‘sell’ a number of products at trade price but then hide the mark up in ‘professional fees’ swings and roundabouts. We all have overheads they just vary from one FD to another and what profit margins we chooose to make. Clients should shop around but often don’t, its a time of great distress so they will go with recommendation or who they have used previously, here in the NE the Co-op can do no wrong even after cremating the wrong person! I have been critisised for having prices on my website and in my window, from other FD not public, as one client said ‘ I was sitting next to my dad in his hospital bed, I had no idea how much as funeral would cost, but I found your site and could pretty much work out a quote before I picked up the phone’ . Just like a resturant prices should be on display.

  7. Charles

    Although I think £580 is a ridiculous markup for a cardboard coffin. I also think that politicians should think twice before mouthing off about funeral directors.

    Successive governments have ignored the plight of the poorest individuals in our society and have left the cap on the funeral payment from the social fund in place for over 10 years, this means that currently even after the funeral payment has been paid most families have a balance to pay of around £1000 to settle a funeral account.

    The companies that end up looking after families such as this are small independent funeral directors as the larger companies insist on disbursements which these families can’t raise. We then have to hope that the family will be true to their word and pay the rest of the account because we have helped them. A lot of them do but a significant amount don’t pay. What should we do then?

    John Lamont should do something useful if he is concerned about funeral poverty and change the social fund as it is not fit for purpose.

  8. Charles

    Where this post fails to convince is in the definition of “a cardboard coffin’. I can’t see anywhere that it defines it as a basic cardboard coffin.

    It’s somewhat akin to writing about ‘a tomato’ without specifying whether it’s mass produced, genetically modified, grown in 3 days and fed with weedkiller, or lovingly hand-grown, organic and nutured by Manuel from Andalucia for 6 months.

    The coffin shown in the picture, at 6’1″ x 22″, could retail to the public at £245 giving an almost exact 50% mark-up (I think mathematically it’s a 100% mark-up, but for clarity of keeping with the initial post, we’ll call doubling the original price a 50% mark-up).

    However, equally definable as ‘a cardboard coffin’ is one that is bespoke designed, at 6’7″ x 22”, which using the same formula a funeral director would sell for £1112.40.

    Suddenly £580 doesn’t seem such a bad price…

    Has anyone, anywhere checked the facts?

    1. Charles

      Hello Andrew,
      I think the coffin in the picture is a generic photo that Charles has used just to show a cardboard coffin. The article in Deadline http://www.deadlinenews.co.uk/2013/05/10/bereaved-families-are-paying-up-to-580-for-cardboard-coffins/ , shows a different cardboard coffin and the article in the Scottish Record http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/funeral-homes-slammed-charging-580-1881671 uses a wool coffin, which is certainly confusing things.
      Which facts do you think need checking?
      Regards James

      1. Charles

        Exactly my point James. Nowhere can I see it specified that ‘a cardboard coffin’ is defined as anything other than that, so it is impossible to compare prices or mark-ups without more information. You can’t stick up a photo of a Smart Car, call it ‘Car’ and then say ‘Retailers selling cars for £50,000’ without implying that the Smart Car is selling for £50K can you?

  9. Charles

    Stagger down the Blackpool promenade and buy a burger from Greasy Fred’s Grease Bar, and you’ll be lucky to last a couple of blocks before …..

    Buy a burger from M&S, and it’ll probably be one of the best burgers you’ve ever tasted, with no unpredictable effects.

    Maybe that’s overstating the obvious, but there is a very good reason why I do not offer cardboard coffins to clients, unless they absolutely insist. I have nothing against cardboard coffins, as such. As predominently a direct cremation provider, you would think that cardboard coffins would be just the very thing – as they certainly appear to be popular in the US.

    The truth is that they are more expensive than chipboard/foil coffins, they are inherently less predictable in the wet weather we suffer from in the UK, also they are limited to body weight restrictions for obvious reasons.

    Having said that, some are remarkably well engineered, are tastefully plain and simple, and really do look the part at a woodland burial.

    Trouble is, that you have to choose the appropriate coffin for the body it’s going to carry. I’ve had ‘phone calls from clients-to-be asking if they use my service, can they use the cardboard coffin they’ve just bought – which is now carefully stored in their nice damp garage – when the time comes. The answer has to be no!

    I believe that the “failure rate” of these coffins is very low, which is good, but just like having to strike every match in the matchbox, to make certain that they all work and are not damp, it’s that uncertainty, and fearing the worst unspoken outcome that personally puts me off.

    As for mark-up, the last cardboard coffin I used (which was exactly the one in the pic above, and performed perfectly BTW) attracted zero mark-up from me. It cost the family around £130 which included delivery costs.

    – Nick

  10. Charles

    To pick up ideas about comparing prices between funeral directors, and to follow the food analogy, it seems to me like comparing ‘identical’ meals in different restaurants. You might conceivably get the same ingredients, but still not the same meal (unless you go to a chain).

    A funeral is not the sum of its parts.

    1. Charles

      Very good point, Jonathan. Analogies, however seductive, are not true comparisons. So, to keep it going, whether you want confit of salmon with a crab crush and a dill drizzle, or egg and chips, the quality of the chef is paramount — in funeral terms, the compatibility and human quality of the undertaker. Value is mostly a personal and subjective calculation, but may also be informed by budgetary constraints.

      (For me, the only words I ever want to hear from a chef are ‘How do you like your egg done?’. But that is wholly irrelevant.)

  11. Charles

    In our fight for transparent pricing (you can do it, you know you can) there is an additional significance when it comes to cardboard coffins. For the many people who have been told by their soon-to-be-dead family member NOT to make too much fuss and NOT to spend too much on the funeral, requesting a cardboard coffin seems the ideal way to go. It’s much more than a container for transporting the dead body. It’s a symbol of simplicity and understatement. But not if it costs more than the faux-oak/faux brass handled one.

    1. Charles

      “Just get me a cardboard coffin”… there’s a false assumption isn’t there, presumably because of a false comparison with an empty cardboard box, that it’ll be cheap – if it’ll hold a sixteen stone man on a rainy day, why should it be cheap? It’s like comparing a car to a tin can.

      ‘Stuff my corpse in a used crisp packet,
      bury my cremains in an old wine flagon,
      don’t dress me in no fine stiffjacket
      nor haul me in the hoodoo wagon –
      if I looked down, I couldn’t hack it
      to see your overdraft keep your spirits flaggin’;
      this ‘funeral choices’ is just one big racket,
      so keep your hard-earned, son, don’t give it to no dragon.’

    2. Charles

      I’d love to agree with you Kitty, but for some reason I don’t.

      I deliberately sell a basic cardboard coffin (like the one in the photo above) for £5 less than a basic wooden one. I advertise this openly on my website http://stneotsfuneraldirectors.co.uk/estimate-generator/ and frequently have clients say “he just wanted to be put in a cardboard box…”

      And yet, when it comes to it, the take-up on cardboard coffins, despite them being less expensive, and making the statement you express so well, has been … zero.

      I wish I knew why.

  12. Charles

    Gentlemen / Ladies,
    I am in the middle of arranging a funeral for a bereaved lady who has asked for the best for her brother, Including a cardboard coffin all though it is a themed bespoke design, both myself and my client are more than impressed with the finished article.
    My charges start from £180.00 for a cardboard coffin, and from £400.00 to a bespoke themed type.
    After showing my client the options available for both coffins and cremated remains caskets the decission was a little easier to make.
    My client had previoulsy lost her Mum less than 18 months and used a large organisaion for the funeral, my point im getting accross is no mention was made of alternative coffins / cremated caskets, my client insisted her late Mum would of prefered a scatter tube decorated with roses.
    I have my own thoughts on why this large organisation did not explain what was available, im sure you have yours…..

    1. Charles

      yes, quite Greg…………………ahem

      I’ve just had a run through your website and very good luck with your business. East of England Co-op are imo way too strong in the Ipswich area and more indy ‘opposition’ must be very good etc etc

      do you mind if I say that your address was not overly apparent on your site



      1. Charles

        Hi Andrew, comments about my website I welcome both good and bad, I orriginate from up north and say it like it should be said, some agree and some dont, Charles has viewd my website and has made some excellent points. I dont try to upset the big boys but some how it comes very easily.
        Your remarks about the EOE Coop being too big in Ipswich I toatly agree with, with in the last 3 years 3 Independents have opened up and I do have it another is on the cards in the near future. The people in Ipswich deserve to be told they dont have to stay loyal because a nan or grandad they have lost has shoped with the Coop for years, I am distributing flyers with both the Coop, Dignity and my price on for a like for like funeral showing people My price is just over £1,000 less than the Coop, and way over £1,500 less than Dignity for the very same service. yes im expecting fireworks but I have legal advice taken on board, If Asda can mention Tesco, and Morrisons can name Sainsburys in pricewars then so can Independents,

        1. Charles

          thanks Greg, grateful for your post

          as you (rightly) say it’s not difficult to upset “the big boys”

          imo, the trouble with EofE Coop’s (and similar others), who may have the market share in a certain area, is, is that the more funerals that they are seen to do, then the more business that they well get

          if EofE (and also Dignity) continue to display such a flagrant arrogant belief in themselves that their websites are totally absent of their pricing structures, then they just have to accept that they are totally exposed to “the flyer” route

          keep going and good luck



  13. Charles

    I love this article. While there are certainly some out there charging hugely and not being worth it, this is not the case everywhere.
    For some reason, around death, people think you ought not to be making money. There are plenty of other goods and services we pay (and pay handsomely) for.
    A nice restaurant, an excellent hairdresser, a relaxing holiday, a business coach, interior designer, etc, etc , etc. But around death is often the idea that it should be all altruistic and charity-like and either free or at cost. I was once told that my work is my god-given gift…so I ought not to charge for it. I bet he wouldn’t have said that if I was an amazing jewellery designer or personal trainer or something.

    People in business, including the funeral business, deserve to earn not just a meek living but a life if they are good are what they do. They provide an incredible service and can make a huge difference in someone’s life and they ought to be able to live a life that reflects what they give.

    1. Charles

      Quite Kristie,

      Surely it is when you need to make profits for shareholders too, that a problem arises.

      When I opened a natural burial ground back in 2000, it was Interesting that at my open day for local FDs, severeral from the groups came to me and told me that I was too cheap, missing a trick and that I had a premium product to capitalise on.

      They just couldn’t understand that I wanted to be affordable for everyone, competitive and most importantly not part of the negatively perceived industry.

      7 years later I had the busiest and best NBG in the UK on my hands. Fantastic profits but still offered an exemplary service, cheaper than local crem disbursement let alone local cemetery prices. Burial for everyone not just the rich.

      If there were more hours in my week I would take exactly the same approach, open and endeavour to have the busiest and best undertaking service. Too busy with NDC business though.

      Is it a female approach to business thing? Or just sense and empathy.


  14. Charles

    It’s actually a cool and helpful piece of information. I am
    happy that you shared this helpful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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