To pastures new for the funeral trade

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

The funeral industry may be deeply conservative but it is changing to adapt to society’s changing needs, writes CAROL RYAN

‘SHALL WE go up to The Morgue Pub for a chat?” asks David Gribben without a trace of irony. A business consultant, he has been working with Massey Brothers Funeral Directors for the past two years to help them modernise their business and has found working in this little-understood sector a fascinating experience.

“We tend not to tune into the industry until we have to make what you might call a reluctant purchase. My own view of the funeral business before would have been a male-orientated, family-run industry . . . sort of staid and old fashioned but it has surprised me.

“They are open minded and ambitious even though they are in a very traditional business.”

The funeral industry is deeply conservative but it is undergoing changes. Funeral directors are trying to adapt to the decline in religion in Irish society and meet increased demand for cremation, non-religious funerals and eco-burials.

They have had to navigate taking this most personal of services online with the advent of the internet, are under pressure to be more transparent about costs, all the while trying to stay afloat in a fiercely competitive industry where it is considered distasteful to openly tout for business.

Massey Brothers owner Freddie Maguire has worked in this family-run business since the 1970s. He noticed the business changing in recent years and brought David Gribben in to advise them on how to adapt to what families are requesting now.

“We brought him in because the funeral industry is conservative.

“We are in a very unusual business because we are dealing with people at the most sensitive time of their lives and we are all very conscious of that, but we were probably a little slow to change.”

He is surprised that 84 per cent of Irish people called themselves Catholic in the 2012 census.

“That is not our experience, we have seen people of religion and no religion coming forward.”

Masseys are about to open a new facility in Dublin to host non-denominational funerals, which they see as a major growth area in the future.

Even the nature of church funerals has changed with evening removals becoming far less common.

“In the past there was a removal to the church in the evening in 95 per cent of cases, now it is 5 per cent. It is nearly completely gone except for very old families,” says Maguire.

Last summer they launched a motorbike hearse and anyone who has seen it on the city’s roads probably won’t forget it in a hurry.

David Gribben admits there is a certain novelty factor to it.

“If a motorbike hearse drives around town it is a head-turner, frankly. I don’t think it was done for that reason, they bought it to connect with motorbike clubs.

“We reopened one of our branches last year and for the opening the motorbike hearse was out front and you couldn’t get near it because people were so intrigued.

“It was a bit like looking at the first car back in the 1920s.”

Masseys are also currently shooting an online video in their Templeogue branch that will educate customers about different aspects of organising a funeral, an idea that they saw and liked during a recent visit to America.

“Most people arrange one or two funerals in their life so they are not what you would call a discerning customer and they need to be educated very quickly.

“If people don’t already have a relationship with a funeral director, they want to be able to go online and hoover up as much information as possible. That trend is building,” says Gribben.

Although it will always remain a face-to-face business, Gus Nichols, spokesman for the Irish Association of Funeral Directors (IAFD), says use of the internet is increasing.

“Even in a business as innately conservative as the funeral business we need innovation. Most funeral directors have websites now and I arranged a funeral the other day on Skype with someone in New Zealand.”

There are over 600 funeral directors catering for the 28,000 deaths per year in Ireland. Most are part-time businesses and fewer than 200 are members of the IAFD, which was set up to improve standards.

Despite the large sums of money involved, the funeral and cremation industry is entirely unregulated in Ireland, with no formal licensing system, no training requirements and few barriers to entry.

The Forum on End of Life last year called for regulation to crack down on substandard practices.

It heard anecdotal reports that some funeral homes were paying off hospital and hospice staff – “points of influence” as it is delicately put within the industry – to recommend their services.

Gus Nichols says the IAFD is concerned about the issue with most funeral directors agreeing it oversteps an ethical line.

“It is very hard to isolate and name and shame anybody because it is done in a very underhand manner but it definitely does go on.

“Our code of practice in the association strictly forbids that type of activity. Policing of this industry is long overdue.”

The funeral business has become fiercely competitive, which may be one of the reasons why some companies are resorting to unethical practices. According to Freddie Maguire, people in the business keep an eye on each other.

“The reality is that funeral directors watch other funeral directors. Things like ‘Do they have a 12D limousine and hearse?’”

When Dave Gribben began working in the industry he immediately noticed just how much funeral directors are able to keep tabs on the competition.

“I work with around 12 different industries and none is as transparent as this.

“You can go onto rip.ieevery week and see how many funerals were done in Dublin, who did them, where they were done. So the guys will know how many funerals Kirwans have done, Fanagans have done and vice versa. It has heated up considerably in the past five years.

“There are more players and the general price squeeze has happened like in every other business.”

Funeral directors have sometimes been described with actor Michael Caine’s duck analogy: calm on the surface but paddling furiously underneath. They need to be unobtrusive but totally in control, and whatever new trends are emerging in the industry, that aspect of their business will never change, says David Gribben.

“Logistically what they do is phenomenal, one day they could be organising one funeral and the next day they could be organising 10. The behind the scenes intensity of that isn’t seen but they manage it extremely well.

“They are organising funerals at two days’ notice, they don’t know who the client is, what the special requests might be and you can’t get it wrong . . . you just can’t make a mistake at a funeral.”

Are we ready to plan funerals online?

Josh Moonman has just launched Legacy.ie, a new website where a funeral can be planned and booked entirely online.

To use the service, people log on to the website and choose from one of three funeral packages. Then there is a series of questions asking whether you need limousines on the day, what kind of coffin you want, options about putting a death notice in the paper and so on. “That is submitted to us and we promise to email back within four hours with a quote.”

The site is particularly aimed towards people who are arranging non-religious funerals – a trend that is increasing in Ireland – and also for families who want to keep costs down. Its Direct Funeral package (removal straight to the cemetery/crematorium) starts at €890, and its Two Day Service (with an evening removal and morning funeral) starts at €1,990.

“The thinking behind it is to cater for funerals that are cost conscious but still providing an absolute professional service that they would expect from an Irish funeral director,” says Moonman.

Most things can be done via the web now, but are the Irish ready to plan funerals entirely online? “If I said to you 15 years ago ‘would you book your entire holiday online?’, you would have said no. Every aspect of business and life has moved online so why not the funeral industry? . . .Whether I am slightly ahead of the time only time will tell.”

“Even in a business as innately conservative as the funeral business we need innovation. Most funeral directors have websites now and I arranged a funeral the other day on Skype with someone in New Zealand

There are over

600

funeral directors catering for the

28,000

deaths per year in Ireland