Multinationals show lively interest in Irish funerals


THE Irish funeral trade is a service industry long shrouded in tradition, with very little to offer by way of modern innovation other than sombre variations in casket size. Increasingly, however, the industry is being targeted by large multinational retail funeral firms hoping to seize a slice of the country's lucrative £50 million a year market.

In recent months the American based Service Corporation International (SCI), the world's largest funeral firm which own chain stores that retail everything from coffins to headstones and hundreds of other items of funeral products, has carried out feasibility studies with a view to opening up branches in Ireland.

The corporation, which own factories across the United States and manufactures an extensive range of "Home Brand" funeral products, has already established a major foothold in Britain. Since moving into the UK three years ago, it has bought out The Great Southern Group, Britain's second largest funeral firm, and is presently buying up stock in other larger firms in a move to establish itself as a market leader in the British industry which is estimated to be worth £1 billion sterling a year.

Following in the footsteps of SCI is the giant French firm Roe Eclerc which has twenty funeral supermarkets planned for Britain by 1998. The French company recently visited Dublin to assess the market potential here.

According to funeral industry sources, the American and French firms view the Irish market as ripe for a potential takeover because of the perceived expensiveness of funerals on the part of the general public. Presently the average price of a funeral in Ireland costs in the region of £1,600.

Adding to the worries of the Irish funeral industry is the feeling that customer loyalty is not something that can be depended upon if foreign owned companies offering cheaper funeral packages establish in the Irish market.

Unlike in other countries the funeral industry in Ireland is very fragmented. Most of the country's 309 firms are family owned with a huge amount of sub contracting of services being a major feature.

Most of the graveyards are owned by county councils or private charitable trusts which have to be independently paid for new graves or subsequent opening and closings. Headstones are commissioned independently from private, specialist firms and most of the traditional funeral wares, such as coffins and plastic wreaths, are imported, usually from Britain.

In recent months Irish firms have woken up to the danger posed by the multinationals and are determined to keep the estimated 30,700 average burials in Ireland ever year firmly in Irish hands.

Leading the tight back is Rom Massey. Rom, a former member of the Massey funeral homes firm, went into business independently three years ago. Using a combination of marketing strategies such as blanket direct mail leafleting covering 100,000 homes at a time and offering "cardboard" coffins retailing from £240, he has become the country's second largest funeral director's after Fanagans.

The firm offer funerals from £480 and has pioneered the reintroduction of the traditional horse drawn cortege. Initially, the Irish funeral undertaking industry was sceptical of Rom Massey's marketing tactics.

Now however, it is reluctantly conceding that his approach may be the only one that could save Ireland's industry from going the way of Britain's undertakers. There the number of private firms has fallen from over 4,500 in the mid 1970s to less than 900 today because of supermarket style retailing practices.

In recent weeks Fanagans funeral homes have launched a novel funeral arrangement plan with the Bank of Ireland, allowing customers to pre pay for a funeral in advance instalments. Plans are also afoot by Limerick businessman Ger O'Grady to open up a factory manufacturing Irish made coffins and funeral paraphernalia for the Irish industry.