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Changing times for Britain's funeral businesses
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Financial Times, 2005
The summer foliage is out in beautiful Colney Wood near Norwich, but holiday-makers are unlikely to be found strolling through this twelve-acre mature woodland. For the past few years Colney Wood has been a burial ground, one of over 200 such sites dedicated to offering an alternative to traditional cemeteries and crematoria.
Interest in alternative, more ‘green', funerals has been growing rapidly, according to Rachel Hucknall, acting director of the charity the Natural Death Centre. “More and more people find the funeral packages they're offered aren't what they want,” she says. Her organisation has been instrumental in encouraging the remarkable increase in woodland burial sites in Britain, from the solitary example which existed in 1993.
More than half of today's sites have opened in the past five years. Some are operated by local authorities as an extension of what is familiarly known as ‘cems and crems', whilst others have been created by farmers looking for new use for set-aside agricultural land. Colney Wood, which is equipped with car park, pathways and toilet block, is a more directly commercial operation than many. Nick Taylor chief executive of the parent company Colney Memorial Parks Ltd, who came to the business after 28 years in traditional funeral direction, talks of the company's plans to open a second site near Beaconsfield, in an innovative arrangement with the Forestry Commission who own a wood there. “The long-term strategy is to have sites around the country,” he says.
Green Woodland Burial Services Ltd is another company planning national coverage. The firm currently runs three woodland burial sites, in Wrabness, Essex, and near Guildford and Worcester, with a further site near Bury St Edmonds opening shortly. The planning application for a fifth site, in Cumbria, is at present attracting local opposition, however.
For its Essex and Surrey sites, Green Woodland Burial Services has struck deals with local wildlife trusts which will take over the long-term management of the woodland when the burial grounds are full. As Peter Kincaid, the company's director, points out, running a burial ground demands a long-term commitment. “It's not a get-rich-quick job,” he says. To date, his company has sold about 1600 plots, of which about a half are already occupied.
Woodland burial, together with other unconventional alternatives such as wicker coffins and linen shrouds, remain nevertheless a tiny feature of what is a very conservative industry. “Nothing happens fast in this business. We're steeped in tradition and custom,” says Peter Hindley, chief executive of Dignity Plc, the largest private operator in the sector. This traditionalism is reflected in the way that the industry is structured, with about 55% of the market still in the hands of locally-run independents, some family-owned for as many as six or seven generations. Of the national chains, the Co-operative Group has the largest market share at about 14%, with autonomous regional co-operative societies taking a further 10% or so. Dignity, with about 12%, was originally the UK arm of controversial US giant SCI before being the subject of an MBO in 2002. The company floated last year.
Gradually, however, the industry is changing. Dignity, which made eight acquisitions last year (primarily of single branch funeral directors), is continuing to look for other suitable independents to acquire. It also runs twenty-two crematoria, and has built up a strong market in pre-paid funeral plans, where it has an affinity arrangement with Age Concern. “We have 170,000 people with pre-paid and pre-planned funerals. The pre-paid business underpins out future market share,” Peter Hindley says. The Co-operative Group (owner of the Co-operative Bank and CIS) is also in acquisition mode.
The challenge facing these companies, and the several thousand independents, is that the death rate is currently falling, by about three-quarters of one per cent a year. The fall is expected to continue for about eight years, after which demographics should ensure a rise again. Ultimately, the baby boomer bulge will start to make its presence felt in the statistics.
Partly in response to the declining market, companies are looking at ways to make cost savings. Dignity centralises its coffin manufacture operation at a factory in East Yorkshire and, like the industry generally, is exploring the sourcing of materials from the Far East (many of Britain 's tombstones now come from China , for instance). Nevertheless, overall prices for funerals have generally increased recently at well above inflation, a trend which funeral directors blame primarily on rising burial and cremation fees. It is perhaps helpful that bereaved families may not be as cost conscious when buying funerals as they are for other major items of expenditure.
This may change, however. Interest in woodland burials is, it seems, coming primarily from those in the 50-70 age generation, who may also be looking for more secular alternatives to traditional funeral ceremonies. According to Green Woodland Burial Services Ltd ‘s Peter Kincaid, there is a financial incentive too. “The average cost of a funeral is well over £2000. Our average cost, including funeral director services, is between £1400 and £1600”, he says. Simple woodland burials at other sites surveyed by the Natural Death Centre are cheaper still, in some places as low as a few hundred pounds. Go green and save money seems to be the message.
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