How old school got to be old hat

Charles Cowling

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.

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Richard
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Richard

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… Read more »

Ken West
Guest

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… Read more »

Richard
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Richard

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… Read more »

Simon Lamb
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Simon Lamb

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… Read more »

Mark Shaw
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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?

Lucy
Guest

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… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

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.

vita incerta
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vita incerta

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… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest

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… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

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.