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Funeral Directors

Published: 16th July 2008

We all end up in a box eventually. But, as a business, is undertaking really a dead end? EN looks at the real bottom line.

The Office of Fair Trading once listed the funeral business as one of the seven most vilified industries, alongside estate agents and second hand car dealers. But despite this image, most of the 600,000 funerals that take place in the UK this year will be arranged by a professional funeral director for an average cost of £2,300.

The £1bn industry is split between independents, with 60 per cent of the market, a number of cooperative funeral operators, with around 30 per cent, and Dignity, the first publicly-listed undertaker, with around 10 per cent.

The funeral business in Britain is covered by three trade bodies, but membership is not compulsory and, because the business is unregulated, basically anyone can set up as a funeral director. But without the knowledge or inclination to do so, cowboys aren’t often attracted to the trade.

Funeral directors, or undertakers as they were known until the 1960s, can arrange every aspect of a funeral other than the initial registering of the death, which the family must do.

Once hired by a family, and depending on the type and cost of the funeral package chosen, a funeral arranger or director (depending on the size of the firm one person may take on both roles) will instruct ministers or non religious officials, cemetery or crematorium staff, an embalmer, drivers and bearers. They will also make contact with hospitals, registrars, charities and newspapers, as well as suppliers.

“In our operation, the arranger is the person who sits in a funeral hall and attends to clients who visit the hall,” says Kevin McAlister, general manager for the North Eastern and Cumbrian Co-operative Funeral Service, which organises around 13,000 of the group’s 100,000 funerals each year.

“The arrangers keep the chapel of rest open during the day when the funeral directors will be coming and going. The funeral directors are the multi-taskers who deal with the deceased on the day of death and conduct the funeral on the day.”

McAlister began his career at the bottom of the ladder as a school leaver washing vehicles. When he passed his driving test at 18 he was allowed to drive the funeral limousines and hearses before he became a qualified funeral director and embalmer in 1982.

He says his route into the industry was typical of entrants 25 years ago but a more formal approach to training funeral directors has been introduced in recent years.

He says, “I pushed for it in school although the careers teacher said sarcastically ‘good luck’. People come at it from all sorts of different angles – nursing, pastoral care and the ministry – but it’s harder as a trainee nowadays because we don’t take people on who can’t drive.”

The Co-operative Group employs a mixture of full-time, part-time, permanent and casual staff across its 800 funeral arranging branches. Wages in the industry vary but starting salaries for trainees, funeral service operatives, drivers and receptionists are between £12,000 and £16,000. Fullyfledged funeral directors and arrangers will make a salary of up to £23,000 from a large group like the Co-operative and less, around £21,000, from an independent.

Andrew Gillman is the fourth generation of his family to join the funeral business. Now 25, he started working for the family firm, JE Gillman & Sons, as a Saturday boy when he was 13. Having studied business computing at university, he is now training to become a fully qualified funeral director through a scheme the family firm pays for. He works a typical five-day week from 9am to 5.30pm on a “not very high salary” but says he is attracted to the variety of the role and the satisfaction of arranging a service.

“There’s not really an average funeral these days,” he says. “The rules can change from day to day. I could be a funeral director today and a hearse driver tomorrow.

“We have to be flexible. If someone wants to be buried at sea, or comes to me and tells me that they are going to kill themselves in two months’ time and they want to plan their funeral in advance, it’s our job to find out if it’s legal and how it can be done.”

Gillman says profit margins vary dramatically and are sometimes very little. His family’s business offers a standard funeral for £1,645. That price includes the removal from hospital, embalming if requested, the washing and dressing of the body, and the use of the chapel as well as the funeral service on the day.

“£1,645 covers our fees,” he says. “Then there are the disbursements. Church fees are generally £100, the cost of a minister is about £115 and an organist is £85 plus the grave costs that are set by the council.”

Burial fees are much more expensive than cremations, with the national average somewhere between £2,000 and £3,000. The basic £1,645 funeral then quickly becomes £4,500 when disbursements are included.

A funeral director’s cut will depend on the services it has inhouse. Gillman & Sons owns three hearses, five limousines and two ambulances. Smaller firms have to hire from other firms to cater for larger funerals whereas the Co-operative Group and Dignity, will offer all services in-house. Many operate their own chapels and
crematoria.

Gillman & Sons, like the Co-op, employs its own embalmers although many independents will subcontract this. Qualified independent embalmers can charge between £150 and £200 per body and specialists in HIV and tuberculosis embalming can charge much more.

Gillman says the changing trends in what people want from their ceremonies and the rise of more personalised and costly send-offs can add value to the market through ancillary costs.

Rev Paul Sinclair, who founded Motorcycle Funerals in 2002 after being frustrated by the lack of transport options, charges around £700 for the use of a motorcycleand- sidecar hearse driven by a qualified driver.

“On the surface, it seems more expensive. A normal automobile will cost between £180 and £270. But to get the funeral director’s normal hearse you have to pay the professional charges first,” he says.

While the majority of the bereaved choose to hand funeral arrangements over to a professional to deal with the numerous tasks to be performed after a death, there’s no legal reason to do so and a small but growing number of DIY funerals are held every year in Britain. DIY funerals can be less expensive, by up to £800, and can allow friends and family to create a personal farewell ceremony for a loved one.

Sinclair, as a supplier both to funeral directors and families, shouldn’t be concerned – but he prefers to deal directly with funeral directors.

“We do a lot more DIY funerals than we should. At DIY funerals the timing can be wrong or they might bring the wrong size coffin for the deceased so the body doesn’t fit.”

Winter is the busiest time of year. Gillman says, “We try to ask staff not to go on holiday during winter and over Christmas. Hospitals and cemeteries can be closed at certain times so you can get a backlog of work. Come January, you are playing catch-up by two or three weeks.”

All of the funeral directors agree that repeat business is crucial to the survival of a funeral hall. Gillman says, “Predominantly people use us because they have used us before, we have been recommended or we are the local funeral director. That means we have to get the job right.

“Some of our branches have been there over 100 years, and now they barely pay for themselves, but those branches are about a presence in the community. They don’t really make you any money.”

Some proprietors are opting to sell out to major corporations to free themselves of the burden of trying to maintain a viable business.

While the larger corporations say they only to target goodquality family businesses, and in many cases allow the owner to stay on as a consultant, Gillman believes this is rarely the case.

“It’s happening a lot these days. People are selling out to the bigger organisations. The business bears the same family name but everything else changes. All the staff will be sacked for a start,” he claims.

Colin Liddell, an independent funeral director and editor of the British Institute of Funeral Directors Journal, disagrees: “Quite simply a value is placed on the goodwill and turnover. It is an accepted norm that successful small businesses may end up in bigger hands.

“It is a free market economy and I think the gearing towards market share typically may not be as aggressive as in other usinesses. Both enjoy customer loyalty and repeat business. That is why, upon acquisition, not much changes at the front end.”

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