How old school got to be old hat

Charles 16 Comments

supermarket checkout


I don’t know what undertakers think about while they’re queueing for the supermarket checkout, but if they have anything in common with 84% of the rest of the population they may be reflecting on how their shopping habits have changed since the recession.

Just how many of them go on to make a connection with the changing habits of funeral shoppers is unclear.

The big four supermarkets are getting on with the job of remodelling themselves in order to adapt to altered trading conditions. We’ve heard them yelp, we’ve watched their share price tumble, but they’ve not cried Unfair! They’re buckling down to hard task of winning back custom.

The budget stores Aldi and Lidl have done well out of the downturn. Today’s grocery shoppers are avid deal-seekers.

People now buy from an average of 4 different supermarkets a week. They want value. Brand loyalty has gone out of the window.

They’re using the internet a lot more, too.

They like to top up with artisan products from small suppliers at farmers’ markets. There’s closer identification with the little guy and a rejection of Big Corp. Tesco is shunned not just because it’s too expensive but also because it’s perceived to be antisocial. Today’s shoppers want values, as well as value.

For the very poor, there are food banks to tide them over.

Trading conditions in Funeralworld are far, far worse. The cost of funerals has risen faster than that of groceries. For the very poor, the Funeral Payment is a dwindling and inadequate contribution to the price of a funeral. There is presently no volunteer-led community initiative on a par with food banks to help them.

A nation of born-again deal-seekers has stimulated the rapid growth of new startups offering budget funerals. These Aldi undertakers have been able to build volume to compensate for smaller margins by undercutting the old-school undertakers by some distance. Their competitiveness has been enhanced by the strong vocational values of many of them, some of whom work for next to nothing.

On top of that there’s been the inexorable rise of direct cremation, the grocery equivalent of the food pill. A great many of those who opt for this cheapest-of-them-all alternative are those who could easily afford a high-end funeral. Whoops, there goes a tranche of big payers.

Funeral shoppers no longer want to buy a whole funeral in one shop. They want to assemble it from several suppliers and they use the internet to find them. If they can afford a coffin from an artisan maker, that’s the one they’ll buy.

There’s been no rejection of Big Corp yet because consumer awareness has not identified Dignity, Funeral Partners and Laurel Funerals for what they are, nor have they sussed Co-operative Funeralcare for what it manifestly isn’t. Such is the growth rate of consumer vigilance, it won’t be long.

It’s not all about price. It’s also about service culture — too big a topic to be more than alluded to here, but an important factor.

Above all, though, there’s a widespread and growing rejection of the ceremonial, processional funeral in favour of simpler and therefore cheaper funerals. Bereaved people increasingly want to create ‘meaningful experiences’ rather than put on a good show.

That a nation famed for the quality of its ceremonial events should be falling out of love with ceremonial funerals is curious, something we talk about here from time to time. Whether this is an evolutionary phenomenon or down to a failure to adapt to modern needs is open to debate. The upshot is that there are lots of ‘traditional’ undertakers out there with high overheads and a dwindling customer base.

The pressure on traditional funeral homes is very great just now, varying in intensity from area to area. The best are buckling down to adapting to altered trading conditions. Some now offer a budget range, just like Waitrose. Others are lashing out with impotent fury at the unfairness of it all. The GFG has been a target of some of these recently. It won’t do. The GFG doesn’t have the clout to start trends. All it can do is hold up a pitiless mirror to what’s going on.

The undertakers  who survive will be the ones with the intelligence and humanity to meet the needs, values and budgets of their clients. The rest will go to the wall, and, sorry, you’ll only have yourselves to blame. Even in the good times we had hundreds more funeral directors than we needed.


  1. Charles

    The arcane funeral director stamping his foot with impotent rage whilst exclaiming, ‘ so shall it be forever more, same as it ever was, without end…’ will not long remain in funeralworld now the boomers are clocking off. The boomers are the missing link in making the ritual less expensive. Why a limousine to take you to such a difficult event ? Why a man in a frock coat with a top hat and a cane used like a swagger stick ? Who says a posy isn’t so much an expression of love as a name picked out in Grand Prix roses? Sometimes the funeral procession can be little short of a grotesque pantomime and without doubt, not to benefit the bereaved, only for them to put their hands deeper into their pockets.

    There are still those families who see the value (!) in this; it’s heartbreaking to find that so many are families with shallow pockets. What sotte voce nonsense have they swallowed to put themselves in debt to give a ‘good’ send off ?

    If only some of these swaggering FDs could step out of the drama they seek to create and see things from the perspective of their bereaved families, and just for once, stopped to think, ‘Hang on, am I really the star of this show ?’ how much more sincere and genuine things could be. The old school will die hard and yet it’s preposterous that little has changed in funeralworld for over a century. The smart supper set put Lidl and Aldi on their table to entertain their guests and feed them royally… it is a wonder to me that they don’t move into funeralworld; what a shake up that would be !

    There are alternatives. Direct cremation is just one. Here in my dormitory county there are still a few good men and women who will ensure a fitting service, without some of the more arcane nonsense, at a decent price.

    1. Charles

      It seems a delicate matter to be critical of the ” grotesque” funeral cortège. If this is how some families wish to make their last journey with their loved ones then show some sensitivity. I would be surprised to hear of many such processions which are pushed by the funeral director rather than requested by the client. Those of you who have been in the cars with the clients at this time know that it is much appreciated by many. Tell the families they are wrong if you wish.

      And I agree, it is not a matter of alternative v traditional. It is a matter of being client led. I fear that some of the alternative fd’s dislike the traditional cortège as the have not invested in the resources to provide such things and so discourage it. This is not forward thinking, it’s just trying to get clients settle for a reduced service

      1. Charles

        You make a very valid point, Mark. Having spent years championing freedom of choice one simply has to accept that when the public at large are properly aware of their range of options then very many of them will make choices which one wouldn’t necessarily make for oneself. Sadly, some (and I do stress some) of the so-called alternative providers imagine that they resemble Moses on Mount Nebo whereas in reality they are not seeing the promised land, rather an addition, a welcome extension of the possibilities on offer.

        1. Charles

          I don’t know that I can think of a so-called ‘alternative’ undertaker who takes such a view, Michael. They recognise that their demographic is not everybody, simply people like themselves who don’t want what they reckon to be palaver and folderol. It’s a demographic that’s growing as bereaved people eschew the traditional ceremonial funeral. This is a fact, and it’s the reason why traditional undertakers are feeling the squeeze.

          My own somewhat reactionary position is that I worry that people are giving up on the ceremonial funeral because it doesn’t work for them any more. If this is the case, there is much to be done to make it fit for purpose once more. I don’t see the ‘industry’ making a vocal, persuasive public case for a formal, processional, ceremonial event but I am working hard on constructing one. One person’s low-key, after all, is another’s banal.

          If there are new-wave undertakers out there who are sceptical of the value of a ‘traditional’ funeral, a) they’re not the only ones and b) they didn’t start it.

          As you say, there should be a range of choices available to bereaved people — good, strong choices. Long live folderol!

          1. Charles

            Excellent article Charles, and having just shopped at Lidl, I am primed to reply. But what nobody has mentioned is fear. I am not sure that people have given up on traditional funerals rather than they fear the cost. They are not stupid and realise that all that palaver, the posh hearse and flashy coffin, come at a price. Where they simply don’t have the money then they must consider simpler alternatives.

            By the way, the tea and porridge are not good at Lidl, so called at Sainsburys for those. Hate going there because 60% of their staff claim tax credits because their wages are so poor.

  2. Charles

    One of the things that feels increasingly out of date is the way that funeral providers classify themselves – or each other – as ‘traditional’ or ‘alternative’, as though the words meant anything at all.
    In the end there is only a commitment to making sure people have the best, most meaningful experience at the worst of times – all the rest is nonsense.
    There’s meat in those comments about ceremonial Charles. They deserve more picking over.

  3. Charles

    Smashing article and couldn’t agree more. While some may perceive my company as “alternative” I am a pretty traditional girl at heart.
    However, since opening I have only arranged and conducted one completely “traditional” funeral.

    Times are changing indeed. Like you say, cheap doesn’t automatically mean a family will choose that funeral director and they may want to pick and mix different services from different sources.

    While it can be difficult for a funeral director to keep track of all the services coming from outside sources, it really is fabulous that so many people are now finding things out for themselves so even before they see a funeral director, they have a good idea of what they want and also have a good idea of what it will cost.

    I will bang the same drum I have been banging since I opened… is for the family to tell us what they want and not for us to tell them what they are going to have.
    Yes, we give a professional opinion to choices they make, but it is up to us to give advice on an alternative is what they want isn’t going to work.

    The days of the “revolving door” funeral director are nearly up. People want bespoke and it shouldn’t cost them the earth.

  4. Charles

    It strikes me that the retailers referred to in this example are hard nosed, cut throat, aggressive marketers (in a family friendly kind of way) (and a relevant point about cutting prices and relying on tax payers to make staff wages up with tax credits rather than recognise the full cost of supporting their employees families in their prices!)

    Is this the way we want to see the funeral profession (continue) to go?

    Or do we prefer the slightly dated, a little secret, a little inefficient old style service delivered with pride?

  5. Charles

    Last Christmas The Economist ran a long feature on Cribbs in East London reflecting on how London has changed in the last 40 years and any savvy funeral director has had to adapt to demographic change. “Funeral directors make money from the loss of their clients, not the loss of their client base” was a particularly good phrase.
    Funeral directors have to be able to offer a wide range of products and services and have the sense to know who wants what. The bereaved have to be able to trust the FD to use their experience and expertise to provide an appropriate funeral service, whether that is a direct cremation or a hearse and 6 limousines. Generalisations are needed to stimulate debate, but the real world is much more nuanced than that.

  6. Charles

    The three Cs: choice, cost, ceremonial

    Choice is good, but not just choice between low cost and high cost, but between values that add value regardless of cost.

    Ceremonial, far from being folderol, can add values, and ceremonial can be simple or exuberant, minimalist or baroque.

    A church funeral’s ceremonial transcends nonsensical fuss to those who choose it: liturgy, music, architecture, robes, bells and smells can come together to form a sum greater than their parts. In fact, many religious people embrace the limited choice of the set liturgy (requiem mass, for example) that seems to them more poignant than the bespoke innovations of celebration of life services.

    It may be that some people have not so much fallen out of love with ceremonial as with religion. Religion may rise again and seem relevant to more people or it may continue its decline, meaning less ceremonial unless non-religious ceremonial is developed further.

    Is ceremonial deemed folderal by large numbers of non-religious people? T. Cribb & Sons’ horse-drawn processions are not trivial show to the Cockneys who choose them, many of whom are not religious.

    We could perhaps add a fourth c to the mix, and that’s class—the middle class rejection of the extraneous, whether flash consumption or the brain clutter of faith.

    Back to cost. Although there remain too many cash-strapped people, both in and out of work, the UK has come out of recession quicker than most countries. The grey pound is particularly strong, the people planning funerals. The young have it tougher than in previous generations, especially when it comes to getting on the property ladder.

    I’d be interested to know if handing down as much wealth as possible to hard-up offspring is a factor in reduced funeral spending, along with living longer and the rejection of ceremonial, religion and folderol.

    Back to choice. I’ve never had much truck with those who talk about the tyranny of choice. I remember when cafes served coffee as black or white, before we could choose between skinny cappuccino, iced latte, toffee-flavoured espresso etc.

    I’m afraid I do get my morning flat white from a chain rather than a small independent (I’ve tried but, in this case, the taste wasn’t as good as at Costa). I also use a one-stop supermarket to save time, if not money.

    The fifth c to consider is, therefore, convenience. Give me a good independent undertaker who offers the full service at the right cost, and who doesn’t have pretensions about being alternative.

    1. Charles

      A good chain is often better than an independent — more competently run + better product + good value. Harder to achieve in the funerals business, which is highly dependent on quality personnel.

      I hadn’t intended folderol to come across as pejorative, which was pretty silly of me. Even allowing for the minimalist tendencies of the middle classes, I believe there is a place for a modern ceremonial funeral, stripped down, yes, but capable of creating a much better sense of occasion than Victorian-lite. What’s more, I shall design such a ceremonial funeral.

      1. Charles

        Hi Charles, I didn’t think your use of the word folderol was pejorative. Your post and the ensuing comments were thought-provoking, so thank you! There is a place for different styles of ceremonial and I look forward to your proposal. Designing something like this cannot be easy but if anyone’s equipped for the task it’s you.

        1. Charles

          I am going to some lengths, Richard, from studying masonic funeral liturgy (not half bad, some of it) to (long shot) contacting the College of Heralds seeking an expert ceremonialist with an interest in funerals (nowt back yet – if ever). Someone has to create a reactionary manifesto!

          1. Charles

            Go for it!

            A cut and paste from something I wrote here a fews years ago:

            One significant obstacle seems to be reconciling both diversity and individuality. How can a prescribed ritual or standardised wording resonate with an eclectic, perhaps multi-faith, audience and one unique person? Perhaps the answer is any secular ritual must avoid atheistic and theistic specifics to form universal statements about death and bereavement. We all love, we all die, we’re all affected when those we love die.


  7. Charles

    Hold on, some of these comments are rather meaningless Just what does ‘client lead’ mean? When I was arranging DIY funerals prior to my retirement, the client did not have a clue, and owned up to such. They expected me to outline the options and only then could they make a decision. Because I was not selling, I would swear that I was a disinterested party, but when is that ever true. I have no doubt that they could read those atheistic green lights in my brown eyes. The conventional funeral directors referred to me as the ‘atheist’, thinking it might deter the good people of Cumbria, and it probably did.

    And let’s be a little more fair to the alternative providers. If, to reduce costs, they do not provide a flashy hearse and limo’s then we can hardly blame them for selling vehicle free funerals. To be realistic, low cost funerals means low input funerals. There is no other way. I saw many bodies transferred to the crematorium in a van out of hours, where they were stored prior to the funeral service. This delivery had no impact whatsoever on the ceremony but was damn cheap. Nobody knew that they could do this until I told them. For certain, no funeral director was willing to do this at that time (1990’s).

  8. Charles

    Hi Charles

    There’s some interesting writing about heraldic funerals declining after the Reformation. Puritanism began to take hold of our colourful nation, and the tradition of the old faith for praying for immortal souls in purgatory was denied.

    The expense of heraldic funerals is the main factor for decline but, when their religious symbolism was lost, the set choreography and displays of coats of arms on the coffin’s pall ceased to have theological significance and became mere political show, secular social distinctions of wealth and status.

    Mervyn James writes: ‘The offering of the dead peer’s helm, sword, target and coat had fitted naturally into the structure of the requiem mass of the old religious regime. Presented at the altar at the same time as the priest’s offertory of the elements, they were a means whereby the deceased was associated symbolically with the sacrifice of the mass, which made available to him benefits which might shorten the pains of purgatory. That some thought had been given to the theological aspects of the matter is suggested by the distinction made in funerary rites between the personal emblems of the dead man (his sword, helm and target [the shield bearing his coat of arms] and the standard, banner procession, which were family emblems, and could have no religious significance. It was only after “the masse fynished, at verbum caro factum” that those were to be offered to the priests”.

    The change is striking. When Henry VII went to his grave, the banners around his chariot were the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, St George, and St Mary Magdalene. When his Protestant grandson, Edward VI was buried, these banners were instead the Garter, the Cross of St George, the arms of Queen Jane Seymour and those of the Queen Dowager.

    By far the most brilliant read about the painful transition is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580.

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