Breathing new life into the funeral business

Death of the salesmen. Shutterstock

A funeral, the ceremonial disposal of a body, has two key elements – the body and the ceremony. And each of these has its own associated merchants selling goods or services in the important business of dealing with death.

“Hardware merchants” – funeral directors, cemeteries and crematoria – provide goods such as coffins, hearses, graves and cremators. These provide for the body’s storage, viewing, transport and ultimate disposal through burial or fire. “Software merchants” on the other hand provide a service – the ceremony – and comprise ministers and priests of various religions, and a fast increasing number of celebrants representing no faith community.

When a death occurs, the grieving family usually deal initially with a hardware merchant, the funeral director. They then subcontract out the body’s burial or cremation to other hardware merchants, and the ceremony to a software merchant.

This structure, with the funeral director as the family’s first contact, was developed in Britain in the 19th century when it was eminently fit for purpose. The millions of people moving from the countryside to industrial towns needed to find their place in society. They used housing and funerals to demonstrate their social and economic respectability.

The religious service at the time required little thought. Anglicans had the Anglican rite, Methodists the Methodist service, Catholics the Catholic mass, and within each, there was little variation. Instead, the major choices concerned hardware. As the funeral was a display of economic status, the key questions revolved around things like the appearance of the coffin and the number of horses. The undertaker, who advised on these elements and provided much of them himself, was therefore the appropriate person to make the arrangements.

Today, however, this kind of status insecurity and adherence to religion, are in marked decline. Many families know where they fit socially and do not need funerals to demonstrate this. And far fewer people are committed to any religion.

As a result, many funerals are now designed to display not the family’s respectability but the deceased’s individuality. They focus not on looking forward to the next life, but on looking back to celebrate the unique life that was lived. For such occasions then, the main choices concern not hardware but software. These families don’t care about fancy coffins and black cars. They care about the ceremony being meaningful and personal.

Yet for most of them, the first task when organising a funeral is still to approach a funeral director, who advises not only on hardware but also on software - on which they may have little expertise. Choices on the service are often made before the family even gets to meet the minister or celebrant.

And of the average £3,700 cost of a “basic funeral”, only about £200 goes to this celebrant, together with perhaps £400 for hire of the ceremony venue and printing the ceremony programme. Where does the rest go? Predominantly on hardware and its overheads, and care of the body.

So organisationally and economically, the British funeral retains its Victorian material-based structure, even though increasing numbers today value ceremony more.

It’s your funeral

Since the 1990s, however, the funeral industry has witnessed significant new products and services. Natural burial grounds, companies providing personalised coffins and freelance celebrants have all succeeded as businesses. But that is mainly because these entrepreneurs have accepted their role as subcontractors to the funeral director, who gains by having more services to offer the family.

Life and death. Shutterstock

The innovations which have struggled are those that challenge the funeral director’s position as contractor-in-chief. More recently, however, some new start-up funeral businesses discuss both ceremony and hardware with their clients from the beginning, aiming to offer a seamless service. Likewise, some established funeral firms now provide their own in-house celebrant, in order to provide a similar all-in-one service.

A celebrant could also arrange for the body to be transferred from the place of death direct to the crematorium. This allows a ceremony in the presence of the coffin, but without the expense of hearses and cars or an intermediate place to store the body.

Another innovation gaining popularity is direct cremation, in which the body is cremated without any ceremony and with no mourners attending. David Bowie’s direct cremation cost a reported US$700 and in the UK, costs can fall to around £1,000. With body disposal separated from ceremony in this way, some families hold a separate memorial service weeks or months later.

Yet, still, for many families the traditional cortege and associated hardware continue to signify respect for the deceased.

This increasingly complex market adds up to a big test for the funeral industry as it evolves to accommodate those wanting a fully personal ceremony and those unable to afford escalating funeral prices.

In time, it could mean the death of the industry’s Victorian structure. If so, what new structure might rise from the ashes is anyone’s guess.