A strange undertaking
Posted on 14 August 2010, 15:25
I ask my companion why he is buying two cars that cost £105,000 each; it seems a lot of money. His reply is quick and simple: ‘It’s all about perception,’ he says.
I’m spending longer than usual in the front of a hearse and the undertaker seems eager to talk. As one car tries to cut us up, I ask whether a funeral cortege is generally respected by other drivers. ‘Less and less. We have drivers trying it on about four times a week,’ he said. ‘But we have our methods. There are certain junctions where it’s more likely, so we get closer together at those points, nose to tail. If anyone does get in between us, we slow right down and box them in. We try and make them regret it.’
He mentions the expensive limousines they’re about to buy, and explains the reasons. ‘It’s all about perception in this business,’ he says. ‘Close family may be grieving at the funeral, thinking of the deceased, but most of the people there are looking around at what’s happening. Is the undertaker’s tie straight? Are his shoes clean? And what are the cars like?’ This matters because four out of five of his clients are return customers; mourners who’ve seen them handle a funeral before. ‘The big corporate undertakers can afford the new cars, so we have to play that game as well. You have to look good in this business.’
I remember being told that family undertakers were being driven out of the business by ‘corporates’ but he says this isn’t true at all. ‘We charge less and still make a good living. And of course our staff have roots in the area. The corporate operations employ fly-by-nights, with different attitudes.’ I discover that new family firms are starting up, and that people are often prepared to pay huge sums for their funerals. ‘The most expensive coffin we offer is £26,000. That’s for burials obviously. The flash metal work wouldn’t work in a crematorium.’
I also discover some tricks of the trade. ‘When an undertaker hands the client the coffin brochure, they always open it in the middle and say ‘You can either go up or you can go down.’ Of course, no one dares goes down. And you don’t offer anyone a ‘basic’ coffin; never use that word, customers don’t like it. You call it a ‘normal’ coffin, and that’s OK.’ And it’s clear he has his share of odd requests. ‘Undertakers are middle men really, that’s all we are; we fix things. I had someone asking for a pink hearse recently. I said that was fine and that it would cost £5000. They queried the expense, and so I explained: we’d first need to spray a black hearse pink, and then after the burial, spray it black again. They were surprised there wasn’t a pink hearse out there already.’
So never ask for whom the bell tolls; but do check out the quality of service. One day, you too might be knocking on their door.