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The business of death

Mourners with wreaths

By Philippa Busby and Sarah Treanor
BBC Business Unit

Screening an advert for funeral services on television would, ten years ago, have been unthinkable for a business model defined by discretion. But the funeral sector, it seems, doesn't want to hide any more.

From television advertising campaigns from Cooperative Funeral Care, to so called "eco coffin" makers marketing themselves in local newspapers, this is an industry on the move. All be it in a slow, dignified sort of a way.

It's worth around £2bn annually to the UK economy and, despite falls in the death rate in recent years, it's an expanding sector.


Dominic McGuire, from the Funeral Directors Association, explains that while in the past, most people wouldn't even spot the funeral director's shop front on their local high street, the relationship between the sector and the public is changing due in part to the introduction of pre-paid funeral plans.

He estimates that that these plans, which mean the funeral can be paid for and planned down to the detail of hymns and transport in one go or in instalments, will account for much of the industry's future market share, and change the make up of the sector itself.

He explains: "I think it's fair to say that the major players in the funeral planning business will increase their market share in due course, as a result of vigorous selling of that product."

One of Greenfield Creations' coffins
Colourful send-off: One of Greenfield Creations' coffins

It's big business. The Co-operative is the country's largest funeral care provider, with 800 branches operating across Britain. Its UK Operations Manager, David Collingwood, believes that more and more people are thinking about planning their funeral in advance.

"With a funeral plan you get to decide on what you want rather than get what your relatives think you want after the time."

He says that 10% of the funerals that Cooperative Funeral Care carries out are pre-paid. But that it will increase in the coming years.

And he adds, "You also get to pay for that at today's prices... We find funeral planning and prepayment are now becoming a significant part of the market place."

In addition to Cooperative Funeral Care, the make-up of the industry is moving away from small independently-owned family run funeral parlours. Though they still account for a large percentage.

Dominic McGuire form the Funeral Directors Association

"You have a publicly-traded company, Dignity PLC, who over the years have acquired a number of formerly family owned businesses," explains Dominic McGuire.

"Dignity still trade under the goodwill which they purchased when they took these businesses on board. You then have a whole raft of family owned independent businesses which carry out approximately 62-63% of funerals in the United Kingdom."

So, with two companies accounting for a large part of the market, and the industry itself reliant on a falling death rate, where is expansion taking place?

How would a department store sell these types of services?
Neil Saunders, retail expert at Verdict Research

The answer may lie in the kind of start-ups seen in recent years which thrive on alternative types of funeral. An increase in the popularity of woodland burials, non-religious, and environmentally-friendly funerals has opened a new business opportunity.

An extension of this is found in Greenfield Creations' cardboard "eco coffins".

William Honeybell, who runs the family firm and workshop in the countryside near Halstead in Essex, says that these coffins, which start at £81, appeal to many types of people.

Some are looking for economy, while others wish to personalise the coffins of their loved ones, and there are also those who are concerned about the environmental impact of traditional burials.

How do funeral directors who sell traditional coffins for significantly more respond to Mr Honeybell's alternative offering?

"There is some mixed opinion out there about that," he explains. "Some don't mind at all. Nowadays they are either reselling my stuff and they realise they can make a set margin and they take up on the opportunity or they don't and they're a little bit umbraged!"

And, in a move which echoes that of the Cooperative, he says that he's bringing his coffins directly to the public.

"This year I'm cutting down on my advertising for the funeral trade. I'm going to start spending it doing some more public information ones in local newspapers because that's what I really want to do."

Julia Luxton, Greenfield Creations' sales manager, agrees that the public is ready, in general for a more direct, de-mystified approach to coffins. "It's a touchy subject for some people," she says. "I mean we do advertise in funeral director literature, but we sometimes advertise in Woman's World and things like that. It's a softer approach to the public."

A country churchyard
The churchyard may be traditional but many modern funerals are not

The Cooperative says that the decision to run a television advert, the first-ever for funeral care, was one which was done with trepidation.

David Collingwood says their first attempt, featuring a traditional sombre scene, proved unsuccessful, For the second advert, which ran in 2010, there was a radical re-think. It was lively and showed people discussing how they wanted "no tears, but the party of a lifetime".

And, according to the Cooperative, it works. The company will run its third television campaign later in January 2011.

But, Neil Saunders, a retail expert from Verdict Research, says that there's still a reluctance from many mainstream companies to enter into the changing world of funerals.

"It's a marketing opportunity that I think is so sensitive that a lot of the traditional players that would tackle a big potential value market like funerals won't touch it.

"How would a supermarket do it? How would a department store sell these types of services? It just somehow doesn't fit and it seems a bit inappropriate."

But for William Honeybell at least, there's a down-to-earth approach to the product he makes and sells.

"How do people feel about cardboard coffins?" He asks..."Well, it's only a half-hour journey..."

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