It might seem weird, but the funeral industry has always been of interest to me. This interest dates back to my teenage days: one year our English teacher had to take extended leave and in his place we had a young supply teacher who made no secret of his anti-American views – in fairness, this was at the height of the Vietnam war. The class readers he provided included Jessica Mitford’s ‘The American Way of Death’ and Evelyn Waugh’s satire, ‘The Loved One’.
Several decades ago I read a book (title forgotten) which observed, “no one loves undertakers, except, we hope, their wives and children. But when we need them, we’re glad they’re there.” Indeed, and a shout-out to all the good decent caring people in the funeral industry who provide the guidance and reassurance needed when called on. As part of the same church community for 49 years I attended dozens of funerals as older members passed away and saw what ‘good’ funerals can be like.
Funeral directing has changed significantly over time. Pre-Covid I went to a talk by a local FD who said he defined his job as being an event manager. 100+ years ago it was all about making coffins, and particularly in smaller communities the local carpenter or builder would also be the local undertaker. A local woman, very often the midwife, would do the laying out and the hearse and carriages, where required, would be hired from a carriage master (they still exist), with suitably attired labourers seconded for ‘lifting in’ and as pallbearers. Robert Tressell’s Edwardian novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists‘ gives us this picture: “Crass took a lively interest in the undertaking department of Rushton & Co.’s business. He always had the job of polishing or varnishing the coffin and assisting to take it home and to ‘lift in’ the corpse, besides acting as one of the bearers at the funeral. This work was more highly paid for than painting.”
In larger communities undertaking became a standalone business. Many firms operated from one or two sites, others grew their businesses to a significant size. In SW London and Surrey Frederick Paine took over the family business at 24 and by the time he died aged 75 his Kingston HQ serviced 14 branches. Jessica Mitford’s book is generally seen as an attack on the funeral industry, but her early 1960s visit to Mr Ashton whose family firm operated in South London left her with a very positive picture of UK funeral practice. When she visited him their typical funeral cost £50, about £1,100 at 2021 prices – today’s actual price is £1,995. Later the firm fell into corporate ownership.
From the second half of the 20C the funeral industry began to consolidate. The Great Southern Group took over numerous firms, Paine included. Then there was ‘yuppie undertaker’ Howard Hodgson. In 1988 the Spectator reported^: “In 1976 Howard Hodgson, aged 26, bought his father’s funeral business for £14,000. It was undertaking 400 funerals a year … Since then Hodgson’s has acquired over 40 other funeral directors… [and] now undertakes 35,000 funerals a year … The company is now worth £70 million“. After more consolidation it became the PFG Hodgson Kenyon group – J.H.Kenyon had been the royal undertakers, an appointment they lost once no longer independent. Then in 1994 the American Service Corporation International swept in, taking over both groups. Their strategy was clear: they would continue the policy of acquired businesses trading under their old names, whilst looking to jack up prices substantially. You might go to ‘Josiah Smith and Sons’ because you’d used them ten years earlier and not be aware that everything behind the shopfront had changed. It was licence to print money. What could go wrong?
For a detailed account of UK funeral industry practice check out Brian Parsons’ excellent books.