Who cares what you think?

Charles 2 Comments

I was rung up last year by a newbie undertaker who wanted the GFG to endorse his business. He had opened up in a small market town which already has a respected and established undertaker. Was he aiming to do anything different? No. Had he worked out the size of the market? No. It wouldn’t have taken him more than the few moments it took me. His town has a population of 13,000. The death rate is presently 9.34 per 1,000. So that’s 121.42 funerals a year. Throw in some local villages and you might get that up to 150. Divided between 2 undertakers, one with a big competitive advantage. I asked him why he had set up on his own. Usual story: he’d worked for an undertaker and always dreamed of being his own boss. He hoped it would work out. Why should it?

A little bit of market research goes a long way. We see very little of it in the funerals business, which is why there is such an oversupply of undertakers. The undertaker above is no one-off.

You can possibly help me here because I’ve been AWOL for months and I’m playing catch-up. Has there been any survey by, say, the NAFD or Saif in response to the social trends which account for the ongoing slow death of the traditional funeral as consumers increasingly opt for private funerals or direct cremation followed by a corpseless commemorative event – a celebration of life, a FD-less memorial service? Has anyone conducted a survey to find out what consumers are thinking and why? Considering that the business model of a full-service funeral home depends on people buying the complete suite of services, you’d think a little bit of existential angst might have prompted some market research.

Can any funeral director point to any market research, ever, which shows that bereaved people will beat a path to your door if you buy a new fleet of cars? That they think the marque and newness of your cars is a signifier of excellent personal service? That they give a toss about your cars?

We have regular surveys that tell us what consumers are doing – for example, what music they are choosing to play at a funerals. But precious few asking what they want. None that I can think of.

Progressive funeral people are no better. They think they know what’s best for bereaved people.  They work from preconceptions. They like to say things like “Those trad FDs are the reason why funerals are so bad.” Where’s the evidence that these businesses are not giving people exactly what they ask for? “Funerals have been stolen from the people.” Is this what’s happened or did the people willingly hand over the whole shooting match to the undertakers? “I want to help families reclaim the care of their dead from the undertakers.” Is this what families actually want to do?  How any of them? “People should be able to arrange a funeral that works for them.” Oh nice, what does that look like? “I want to open a funeral home that does things completely differently.” What’s the market need for that? How big is that market? “I want to help disadvantaged people arrange funerals they can afford.” Is there a living in that?

An element of hit-and-hope is always going to characterise any enterprise that seeks to break new ground. But you can only calculate risk if you have taken the trouble to get to know your market first and estimated the likelihood of being able to bring round waverers to the merits of what you’re offering. You leave as little to chance as possible, so you do the hard yards first.

More surveys, that’s what we need. More focus groups. A lot more marketing savvy. Above all, a lot more humility. Funerals are not the preserve of those who know best (and have nothing to learn) whether they’re old-school types with nothing to learn or middle-class so-called progressives.

A lot of people have set the world to rights on this blog, very cogently and persuasively. But it’s amounted to no more than preaching to the choir. The people we need to reach are the people who don’t take a continuous interest in death and funerals — the ones who check in to this website when someone dies and they need to act faster than they can think. Normal people. We need to ask them what they think.  


  1. Charles

    With respect, you sound a little like someone who feels as if they put in all the work, and have now realised they will not get the promised reward? Is this not what we tell children, just do the work and success is certain to follow?

    I think I know where you’re coming from. A dear friend died suddenly this week. I’ve struggled emotionally to do my normal work, I was at the scene, and saw the shock and horror of the close family and then watched as the ‘process’ swung in to action. I have been very unimpressed.

    The police and neighbours were kind, the undertakers, sent by the coroner’s office – a freebie – were pleasant enough, and they did a reasonable job – with my assistance and guidance. They did give us a leaflet explaining what was happening and telling us we had a choice of FD. I did feel they were not emotionally equipped to deal with the family, they were pretty quiet, although I suspect they were fairly experienced funeral men. I have to say the equipment they used looked well used, tired and shabby, I am grateful the family didn’t see it.

    Since then the local coroner’s office have been pretty useless, it’s been 7 days now, and we’ve heard nothing, despite chasing them several times. Apparently the PM room has been unavailable from MON-WEDS, so there’s a PM backlog. We were initially promised THU or FRI for PM, a call when that didn’t happen would have been nice? In my view the family has already had a bad death experience, but inevitably, they have started to think about the funeral and that mostly revolves around music.

    I have seen first hand that the driver for them all is DOING THE RIGHT THING. Every family member feels the same way. This is to be a cremation, with traditional coffin and hearse, we will wear less formal clothes. I am officiating, although that makes it sound a bit grand. I have never done this before, wish me luck. All I will do is introduce other people and say the final goodbye.

    They want to do it this way because they all think this IS the way it should be done. There has been time for me to gently suggest alternatives, and frankly, their emotional state made me hesitant to suggest much at all as an alternative. When I have, they have usually closed me down, refer to above.

    I have learned much this week, and frankly I think Dignity, funeralcare and the rest of Britain’s traditional funeral director’s have little to fear. The great British public are very wedded to traditional undertaking service and packages. It looks to me like it’ll be ‘business as usual’ for them for the foreseeable future.

    Engaging people in advance of death is a massive task, I’m not sure how it could be done other than the niche drip drip we’ve already seen? Well done Charles, you have made a difference, to some of us at least.

    1. Charles

      I was being a little challenging, David, I confess it, in the interest of not being bland. And I think you are quite right. Perhaps that marks us out as defeatists? I hope not, though I do find myself repeating myself rather a lot these days and, worst of all, developing fixed views. Fatal.

      Yes, doing the right thing. Or doing the thing right. I spoke to an elderly gentleman this afternoon about direct cremation, which he very much wants. He was good fun and enjoyed learning about how people are cremated. I told him that direct cremation is increasingly the choice of independent-minded, liberally educated people like him – precisely the profile of the early adopters of cremation back in the day. He told me that it is the duty of people like him to ‘give permission’ to others who don’t have his intellectual and social confidence to do as he intends to do. Who knows, he may be right.

      Quite an experience for you, the last few days. Very interesting what you say about the ability to process alternatives. I hope it all goes off well and they receive some comfort from the funeral.

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