Mourning Business

The funeral business is changing – and that doesn’t mean it’s getting any cheaper


“Chambers coffins are just fine
Made of sandalwood and pine
If your loved ones have to go
Call Columbus 690.

If your loved ones pass away
Have them pass the Chambers way
Chambers customers all sing
Death, O Death, where is thy sting?”


That advertisement comes from America where funerals, like nearly everything else, are big business. In the United States, funerals cost an average of £500. In a year this adds up to a total of £750 million – big business indeed.

The unashamed commercialization of death in the United States might shock and even horrify many people in Britain. Here people prefer to think that the British Way of Death is more dignified, more respectful – and less commercial. But there are signs that, like the American Way of Life, the American Way of Death is crossing the Atlantic. In one of its editions, prepared by James Hill and Mike Hodges, World in Action examined the Business of Death.

Not so long ago in Britain the local undertaker was the man who, perhaps, usually drove a taxi or made furniture. He fashioned the coffin himself and polished it. He hired a hearse, chaulfeured the mourners, and so provided a simple funeral at moderate cost.

Today there are still a few such part-time undertakers. But in Britain, as in America, undertaking is becoming increasingly big business. The average spending on a British funeral is £150. The average number of deaths each year for British undertakers to cope with is 600,000. So, at £150 each, the annual gross income of the British funeral industry is £90,000,000.

The cost of £150 per funeral is an estimate generally agreed by the undertakers themselves. Our researchers give this general breakdown of where the money goes:

  • £55 is the average undertaker’s bill for providing the coffin and carrying out the funeral arrangements.
  • Another £20 goes to the cemetery for the grave.
  • Another £40 is usually spent at the monumental mason’s – on the gravestone.
  • And the remaining £35 is spent at the florists, by family and friends buying wreaths and cut flowers.
  • Cremation generally costs the same as burial when a manorial stone or urn for the ashes is bought.

The paraphernalia of death is clearly expensive. The question is: is it too expensive? Examine the costs more closely to see exactly where the money goes.

First, cremation. Mr. Horace Carter is managing director of a London Crematorium. He explained the costs.

“The average cost of a cremation is nine guineas. This provides for the use of the chapel, attendants, and also provision of an organist to play for the service. There are, of course, other extra charges, one being that the ashes can be dispersed on the Garden of Rest for a fee of two guineas.

Then there is the Book of Remembrance, in which names are recorded under the date of death. The average cost of an inscription is three guineas. In the Chapel of Memory at Golders Green, and so far exclusive to this crematorium, is an alternative type of commemoration vase – a slim long vase to hold a small posy of flowers with its own name plate. For a fee of four guineas a year a vase can be used at will.”

But cremation can and often does involve other and more expensive extras. For example: If relatives wish to keep the ashes, they must buy an urn. These cost anything from nine pounds to ninety guineas. If the urn is kept in crematorium it will cost still more – anything up to £200 to rent a niche for 20 years.

Some relatives like to remember their dead by having, say, a rose tree planted. This costs anything from twenty-five pounds to fifty pounds. And a garden seat memorial can cost another sixty pounds – with a further charge for the nameplate.

Cremation in Britain, introduced in the face of intense public opposition, is still less than 80 years old. The first crematorium – at Woking, in Surrey – was opened in 1885. The idea of cremation was not popularly accepted until after the Second World War. In 1945, fewer than one in ten funerals went to a crematorium. Today in Britain it is four in every ten – and increasing steadily. But the growth is still held in check by certain personal and religious convictions.

Next, examine the costs of burial. The charge for a communal grave can be as little as two pounds. Private graves normally start at sixteen pounds, but can go as high as £100 for, say, a quiet corner with a good view. But it costs time – and more money – to keep graves neat and tidy; and relatives complain that this is often not done by cemetery authorities. This, in fact, is another reason for the declining popularity of cemetery burial.

Twenty years ago, 500 acres of land were taken over every year for graves. Today this has fallen to 300 acres a year – a trend welcomed by local authorities desperately short of building land for houses for the living. It is estimated that all the graveyards in the land would cover an area roughly as big as the City of Birmingham.

Further, gravestones and memorials are expensive. The director of a firm of monumental masons told us about prices:

“The average, I suppose, is about £40 to £50. Of course you can have any price – you can give three or four hundred pounds if you wish. But the general run is about the fifty pound mark. There are still quite a number of people who want carved figures of various sorts and sizes. We do, in fact, what anybody wants us to do.”

A gravestone from Middlesmoor cemetery

So much for the last resting places. What of the funeral itself ? Although the direct costs are generally paid by the dead person’s family aided by a £25 National Insurance Grant, mourners at most funerals also spend large sums at the florists. One florist listed the prices for us:

“A wreath costs from thirty-five shillings to £2 – and that is a small wreath made of small flowers with no spray at all. Then they rise up to about seven or eight guineas according to the choice of flowers. We have made a horse recently of all small flowers, and then we made a Gates of Heaven which had a spray of roses and carnations in it.

“We find that the poorer people spend much more on wreath work because they think that’s their way of giving respect to the person that’s dead. They can spend anything up to thirty and forty pounds. But I always think that they should give it to the people remaining – not to the people that have gone,” the florist concluded.

Beyond doubt, the biggest single expense remains the undertaker’s bill. So look now at how the undertakers of Britain operate; how much they charge, and how they draw up their bills.

There are some 4,300 undertaking firms, large and small, in the country today. Most of them belong to their own trade association, the National Association of Funeral Directors. Every year the N.A.F.D. holds a get-together. In 1963 it was at the Hotel Majestic in Harrogate. It publishes a handbook – giving vital information about such things as cemeteries, coroners, hospitals and institutions, public mortuaries, and Registrars of Deaths. The Association also has its monthly trade magazine, full of items of peculiar interest to undertakers. Further, the Association trains undertakers and holds examinations and tests. For instance, customer relations are regarded as a highly important part of the undertaking business. So the Association takes particular care to teach its members how to deal with relatives. World in Action attended one of these training sessions.

A gravestone from Middlesmoor cemetery

The Association is deeply concerned with raising the status of the British undertaker to that of funeral director. The President of the National Association of Funeral Directors is Mr. Stanley Gilman.

“Very many years ago,” he said, “the undertaker was almost invariably a tradesman employed in some other business and he could do little more than perhaps just provide the coffin and arrange for its conveyance to the cemetery or churchyard. The modern funeral director assumes the whole responsibility for the funeral service. He will make arrangements with the church, the cemetery, press notices and the hundred and one other things that the family requires.”

Despite their efforts to create a new image, undertakers have always had their critics. In 1938 Sir Arnold Wilson, M.P., and Professor Herman Levy had this to say in their book Burial Reform and Funeral Costs:

“The manufacturer or seller is in a far stronger position than in any other trade. The buyer does not and cannot know the true value of what he buys. He can seldom compare prices.” They went on to say, “The instinct of the masses for a ‘respectable’ funeral is pampered to by the industry. Those who can least afford to spend money in this way are encouraged to do so. There is little evidence of profiteering, but none of any attempt to reduce expenditure.”

Today, 25 years after those words were written, World in Action found that there is still little attempt to reduce spending.

Obviously the next-of-kin, grief-stricken and distressed, want the best funeral possible. Said one relative, asked by World in Action how much a recent funeral in the family had cost.

“I suppose it was somewhere about £130 to £140 – that was with the stone and the surround, and the ground we had to pay for, and the funeral expenses. But the undertaker done us well.”

Said another, “Well, my father got this stone from Italy, you see; he ordered it from Kensal Rise and it came from Italy. It cost £300, the headstone and border. And then the statue of St. Patrick came from Italy – that cost £78; and then under the wreath is a holy bible costing £78.”

A third epitomized the common attitude, “We could only ask the undertakers for the best they could give us. We said ‘The money’s no object, it’s the last thing we can do for her’ – so we said ‘Give her the best.’”

And a fourth summed it up for the majority of those bereaved, “I mean, when you love them and that, you just want them to have the best of everything.”

Clearly, money is often of secondary importance to relatives at the time of a funeral. Canon Thomas Fitzgerald works in a poor London parish. We asked him if undertakers do, in fact, encourage over-spending.

“To some extent they have to,” he replied, “by which I mean that many of them are the employees of big combines and they get commission on these extras. If, for example, you put a rug under the coffin in the church – well, that’s an extra. The widow says ‘I think I’d like my poor husband to have a carpet under his corpse’ – well, that’s 30/-, at any rate it used to be; it’s probably gone up now. But those and many other accessories – a walnut coffin rather than an oak coffin, bound with brass or aluminium as the case may be; I don’t see how you can avoid a good salesman from trying to persuade people to have them, because he gets commission on it all – it’s part of his livelihood.”

But Mr. Lawrence Ashton, head of a chain of undertakers, sees it differently:

“Well, experience tells me that people are so widely different that I have to decide what particular class of funeral, what particular charge to make to them, and I have the greatest difficulty in doing so. Consequently never would I arrange any form of funeral service, and never do I, without finally mentioning an approximate cost of the entire service before they leave my office, or before I have finished the interview. I make the going and they don’t.”

A gravestone from Middlesmoor cemetery

Can all undertakers be trusted to make the going? Some people seem to think not. In 1944 Dr. Edith Summerskill, M.P., asked for government control of funeral charges because families of air-raid victims were, she said, being overcharged. In 1947 Mr. Garry Allighan, M.P., demanded that the whole undertaking business should be taken away from private concerns and nationalized. In 1949 the Labour Government agreed with the National Association of Funeral Directors that a simple, minimum-priced funeral – £20 was the cost at the time – must be available to everyone. But this agreement lasted only four years, for in 1953, after repeated petitions by the undertakers, the fixed minimum charge was scrapped. The undertakers maintain, however, that despite the ending of the agreement, cheap funerals are still available. Their President Stanley Gilman, explained:

“Our Association plays no part in price-fixing but our members do voluntarily agree to provide a basic simple funeral service for not more than £35. I must add, of course, that this amount can’t include grave fees and other amounts that the funeral director actually pays out on behalf of the family.”

The minimum £35 funeral is simple. It is also completely adequate. It includes a straightforward but dignified elm coffin, generally with brass handles and fittings, a hearse, four bearers, and one car to take the mourners to the cemetery and back home again. It also includes the undertaker’s services in preparing the body for the funeral and arranging all details. More elaborate coffins obviously cost more. And it seems that the cost of services goes up hand-in-hand with the price of coffins.

Few people ever buy the cheapest funeral. Most are even unaware that the £35 one exists. On average people spend more than twice as much. And the undertakers fight fiercely among themselves for this money. Already there are indications that the American pattern of big funeral business has crossed the Atlantic. Consider these two examples of the finance of the British undertaking world:

The London Necropolis Company, recently taken over by the massive Alliance Property Company, owns Brookwood Cemetery covering 500 acres of Surrey. Brookwood’s net profit in 1962 was £18,309. But the Company’s accounts also show a further £36,060 received in dividends from seven subsidiary companies also in the funeral business. Some of these dividends were contributed by Frederick Paine & Company, an undertaking firm with fifteen branches. Their net profit in 1962 was £36,617.

Next, the case of Golders Green Crematorium, one of the best known in the country. Together with the Woking Crematorium it was taken over in 1937. The buyers: a tobacco company. Five years later the tobacco company sold its holding to the Cremation Society. That year the cremation profits were £36,412.

The American Way of Death is coming to Britain in another form – in the trappings and equipment used for funerals. American undertakers complain that “England is fifty years behind us”, and they want radical changes in the British Way of Death. An official of the American National Selected Morticians, one of the big undertakers’ associations, even made this suggestion: “I think we should send some missionaries over there – we would do them a world of good.”

The main aims of these American undertaking ‘missionaries’ would be to encourage us to use more embalming; to use caskets instead of coffins: Chapels of Rest instead of having the body lying at home – all highly profitable sidelines. Mr. Colin Cocks, of one London undertaking firm, agrees with his American colleagues.

A gravestone from Middlesmoor cemetery

“We are trying to break away from the old-fashioned idea of the gloomy undertakers.” he said. “In fact this firm once had as its telegraphic address, ‘Gloomy, London’. We are trying to break away from this; indeed, we have broken away from it. The emphasis is more on service to the relatives and those who need help at this particular time, which has not been given by many firms in the past, and in effect isn’t being given today.

“Our service is typified by the fact that we have light, cheerful, bright premises always supplied with fresh flowers. Relatives coming here can have coffee in the morning if they like. Our bearers are dressed in normal dark grey suits – we don’t use mourning coats, top hats and high wing collars any longer – and generally the whole atmosphere is one of a business-like presentation. We also have a white ambulance, which goes to hospitals or nursing homes. This we feel is a lot less distressing to to relatives or passers-by, or observers from windows of the particular premises.

“We do, of course, offer a conventional coffin, but we would sooner use the casket shape. It has, we think, a nicer line and it is again less harrowing to look at as against the shoulder tapering to the foot. The caskets are purchased in America; we buy them in America and have them shipped over; they are really for export only. They are hermetically sealed, with an interior-sprung mattress.”

Mr. Cocks also showed a casket of Bermudan mahogany with a metal liner, produced in England. “It has a glass lid, full length glass lid inside, with hermetic sealing once again, and is used for vaults in this country. Another facet of the service that we offer,” he went on, “is a private chapel with fresh flowers on the altar, and candlesticks. We find that many people today prefer to use this method of having the deceased available to be seen at any time of the day or night, as against having them retained in their own homes. I must, of course, add that embalming is a normal part of our service.”

Indeed embalming is becoming more and more popular as part of the British Way of Death. An expert embalmer talked about his job to World in Action.

“In this country,” he said, “embalming entails quite a simple injection of preserving and disinfecting fluid. The features are composed and set to a restful condition. Cosmetics are not used unless they are requested by the relatives – apart from a little powder to take the shine from the features, perhaps. The relatives should be left with a pleasant memory for the rest of their lives, and not an unpleasant one.”

It is clear that British undertakers will stress more and more their service to the living as well as to the dead. It is clear too, they are likely to find an increasing number customers who believe that even in death it is important to keep up with the Joneses.

The last word, as always, was with the undertaker.

“No one,” said Stanley Gilman of the N.A.F.D., “would expect a funeral director to say that he found his work enjoyable; but nevertheless it can be, and is, immensely satisfying.”

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