Belfast Telegraph

How the funeral sector copes in tough times

By Clare Weir

We all must die - meaning someone has to pick up the bill for the expensive funeral arrangements. But in times of recession, how does the undertaking business perform? Business Telegraph investigates

It's a fact, albeit a macabre one, that people will never stop dying.

The industry which helps pick up the pieces is never one likely to go out of business, but in these straightened times, how do those involved in laying the deceased to rest offer succour to the bereaved whilst battling to survive themselves?

In 2009 there were ructions after it was reported that some funeral directors were threatening to ask for payment in advance because of the effects of the recession.

Senior figures from the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) had to get involved after a flood of part-payments and non-payments.

But that hasn't been the case for Ian Milne, who says he has never had a non-payment in a decade of operation.

Ian employs four full-time staff including his two sons, three full- time admin staff and five part-time staff.

Many funeral directors span generations of families, and while his children are deeply involved in the business, Ian came into the industry late after running a bar and restaurant in Cookstown.

Just over two decades ago he was asked to help out one night by a funeral director in the town who was left short-staffed and from then on, he says he "was hooked".

In 1989 he went on to attain the National Association of Funeral Directors Diploma in Funeral Directing and in 2001 he opened a premises at Seagoe Road in Portadown, the first purpose-built funeral home in the area.

Later he opened a second home at Tandragee Road in Lurgan.

Eldest son Stuart was the youngest ever person to complete the foundation exam in funeral directing from the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Sixteen-year-old Andrew is a part-time funeral operative, and is planning to attend Bath University to study a degree in funeral directing.

Daughter Rebecca is also hoping to become part of the family business.

Despite the difficult financial climate, Ian says that his business is not suffering.

"We all have to die," he says, only half-joking.

"To be honest, despite all the talk of a downturn and people being unable to pay for their funerals, I haven't seen any of it. I have never been left short of a penny, however long it takes, people have always been true to their word.

"Of course funerals are expensive and you cannot put a round figure on it, especially when grave prices vary so much, between £150 and £3000 depending on council area or graveyard.

"We do ask for grave payments up front because most councils do. The DHSS often take care of funerals where people are on very low incomes, and in the past we have even had anonymous benefactors pay for funeral costs, especially if the deceased was a local character, well-known in the area, or on their own at the end.

"But it is not our job to hassle people for money, our job is to be caring, empathetic, understanding and to give the customer what they want, it's not for me to judge.

"We need to be caring, considerate and compassionate.

"We do tend to do things differently and that has not always made us popular with other more long-standing firms, we like to break the mould, I won't apologise for that, but we still have a family, community feel.

"I don't think bigger, commercial operations will ever do very well in Northern Ireland in this market. People always want to know the person who lays their granny to rest.

"Equally, I don't want this just to be a place where people only come when someone dies, we want to be part of the community.

"I don't want to do a burial or a cremation and that's it, I want to stay in touch with people, especially older people who may be on their own for the first time in many years."

By "doing things differently" Ian means a number of things.

He runs 'open days' where people can have a look around the funeral home and meet the people involved in arranging and carrying out funerals, from embalmers to florists.

He publishes a magazine called Funeral Times and wife Valerie does in-house catering for services.

He's carried out funerals for pagans, sponsors sports events and encourages local people to call in for a cup of tea.

He goes out to give talks to community and church groups.

Ian says that the industry is full of contradictions.

"While it is still a very traditional business in some respects, the rise of secularism is becoming very apparent.

"We are doing many more cremations, more and more pre-arranged funerals, people in their 40s and 50s are now planning their funerals.

"Even the strictest of ministers or priests are now allowing the deceased's favourite song to be played as their coffin leaves the church instead of a hymn."

Hugh Dougal Junior of O'Kanes Funeral Directors in Belfast is the fourth generation of a firm founded in 1865. He said that the downturn is having a knock-on effect on the funeral industry.

"We used to face a wait of weeks or at the most, months, after billing people, for payment," he said.

"Now it is taking longer.

"There are issues like when someone dies and they leave a house, but the solicitor cannot get the house sold, that sort of thing.

"When people die unexpectedly, money isn't always readily available. When you tell people that to bury someone in Milltown cemetery, it costs £3000 for the grave and £800 to open it and stage the burial, before you put our costs on top, people are shocked.

"However we do give people leeway and we do draw up payment plans.

"For us, we try to save the customer as much as possible, we have had to spend more on fuel and coffins, and as we are a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors, our prices are regulated.

"We've seen a big rise in cremations. There are still more burials than cremations, but it is catching up, for financial as well as spiritual reasons, there just isn't the space or availability that there used to be, we are seeing one or two cremations a week."

Like others, Hugh has seen a rise in pre-paid funerals.

"I think it's a case of people having peace of mind, knowing they are getting the funeral they want and not placing the responsibility on family members once they have gone."

Customers give green light to natural burials

Colin McAteer is company director of Green Coffins Ireland, based just across the border from Londonderry in Donegal, and also runs Ireland's only natural burial ground on the Cavan-Wexford border. The firm's coffins are made from sustainable, recycled or waste materials, using no varnishes, plastics or metals. Popular ranges include willow and bamboo while other options are banana leaf and cardboard. Three years ago, Colin was a builder and part-time funeral director. When the credit crunch and the collapse of the housing market began to bite, Colin used his observations of the trend towards more environmentally friendly burials to seize on a new business opportunity. He sells up to 5 coffins annually to funeral directors across Ireland and says that Northern Ireland makes up to 5% of his market. Last year, Colin took a further step and opened the burial site in October 21, so far holding 12 funerals. "As well as the environmental aspect, people see natural burials as a cheaper option," he said.

Firm's pride at keeping ahead of recession

Haslett Monumental Sculptors was established in 1745 and now operates out of two premises, one on the outskirts of Londonderry and one near Ballymoney. Unlike competitors who sell container loads of headstones from China for £5 each, Basil Haslett prides himself on offering an individual service to clients and says that this attention to detail - along with severe cost-cutting ahead of the impact of the credit crunch - has kept the firm afloat and orders rolling in. "Most of my jobs are all 'expensive', the average cost any job out of here takes 12 weeks and costs £2, but if I know a customer is struggling and they are telling me what they want and it sounds like it is getting expensive, we look at alternatives," he said. "Last year was quite dire, we were badly affected by the winter, but things are picking up this year," he added.