Treating bereaved people well is the key to longevity in the funeral business
Robert Thompson Funeral Directors has seen a downturn in spending in the recession but the 225-year-old company is growing
The staff of Robert Thompson Funeral Directors in Waterford. Staff of Thompsons with Mickie McGuinness pictured third from left.
As Robert Thompson Funeral Directors has been going for more than 225 years and is looking to expand, you would be forgiven for believing the old line that funeral homes are a recession-proof business.
But while people continue to die whether it’s boom or bust, Andre Thompson, a director at the Waterford-based funeral parlour, says the business has had to adapt since the downturn.
“People say it is a recession- proof business all right but people’s ability to pay for funerals has changed greatly over the past few years. During the boom, most families found the money to bury their loved ones, but times have changed and some find it difficult to do so.
“While some still want expensive funerals, more people are raising the issue of money at an earlier stage and we’ve also noticed that the decision to do away with the €850 bereavement grant in the last budget is making things difficult for some families,” he adds.
“We do our best to make sure that people get value for money but there’s no getting away from the fact that funerals are expensive.”
Robert Thompson Funeral Directors has been in business at 19 Barrack Street in Waterford city since 1786. The business came into the Thompson name when Margaret Harrington, daughter of then-proprietor Patrick Harrington, married into the family.
Mr Harrington, the great-great- grandfather of the present proprietor John, established a good reputation for the family business, aided by his decision to cover the costs of the funeral of Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, in 1844.
While the business has seen plenty of changes over the years, Andre who, with his brother Michael and father John, now holds the reins, believes that a great understanding of how a loved one’s death affects a family has been a constant.
“If you look at the history of Waterford, there have been so many funeral directors come and go but we’re always been there. We’re right in the middle of all the main churches in the city, which has obviously helped our business, but it takes more than that to keep going for so long.
“Personality is everything in this business and I can only assume it was the same 200 years ago. There’s no real distinguishing characteristics when it comes to actual facilities. All funeral directors use the same equipment that comes from the same suppliers. Ultimately, the way we engage with families is what has helped us survive,” he adds.
The team must be able to empathise with grieving families and provide both practical information and compassion.
“This is not the kind of business in which you can take a workman-like approach,” Andre says. “It’s definitely not just about making the arrangements. You need to be able to have an emotional connection and there’s an element of bereavement counselling in there as well.
“Families come in to us and they may not know what happens next. They are looking for us to advise them and help them through the early stages of grief.”
The business also plays a key role in the community by letting people know when someone has died and sharing the funeral arrangements. The funeral directors have been particularly inventive around this, introducing a smartphone app.
The app provides routes to churches and graveyards and includes an email tab that allows users to forward messages of sympathy directly from their phones.
“The app was a logical progression for the business. Back in the day people used to call us to find out about arrangements so we introduced a pre-recorded message. We then added the information onto our website when we set up that and so with everyone now using smartphones, it made sense to build an app.
“It’s not meant as a glossy extra. It is there to meet the need for information and, given its success, I think it’s doing that well.”
Recently, the business became the first funeral directors in Ireland to achieve ISO 9001 certification (for good management). Andre says this will give additional comfort to families by showing how seriously they take quality of service.
The business has plans to establish a second premises on the outskirts of Waterford. It is also keeping a quiet eye on developments in the sector, such as the rising numbers of cremations.
“We’ve acquired a site for a new funeral home that will service west Waterford and we have planning permission for that,” Andre says.
“We’re also looking at how funeral directors in the US are UK are beginning to buy cremation machines now they’re getting smaller and cheaper. It’s something we’d possibly look at in the future at a third site.
“In the near term, the burial process will remain important, particularly in Ireland, because we’ve yet to embrace cremation and our focus is on keeping the business passing through the generations.
“My brother and I are now part of it. We hope our children and their children will join and keep the Thompson name in business for a couple of hundred years more.”