We invited Matthew Uden, director of W. Uden & Sons, (one of) South London’s largest funeral company (ies) to share with us his thoughts on the state of the funeral industry post-pandemic. His views may be considered controversial by some but it is hoped they will generate a healthy debate within the trade as to the future of our profession.
How did your company, as an independent firm, deal with the sudden and dramatic impact of Covid?
First, let me congratulate all the family-run and independent funeral directors who worked tirelessly and with dedicated professionalism throughout the pandemic in delivering a caring and compassionate service to all bereaved families.
Unlike some of the Big Boys who would have you believe only they had the resources and facilities to deal with those who have died from Covid, I am aware that throughout the country small independent funeral companies continued to collect, care for, and finally bury or cremate infected bodies whilst still continuing to demonstrate all those characteristics that are the keystones of our profession.
Do you feel that funeral workers, like their counterparts in the NHS, received sufficient appreciation for their work during the pandemic?
None of us are in this work for plaudits or glory. Independent family firms have so much to be proud of, even if others seek to take the credit on behalf of the industry for all our hard work. We all know individuals who “talk a good job” as opposed to those who we can rely upon to go out and actually deliver on a daily basis. I believe job satisfaction is reward enough for what we do.
How did you deal with all the restrictions imposed by the government?
Throughout the months of continually changing rules imposed both by central government, local authorities and individual crematoria, we, along with other individual firms, challenged those restrictions where we considered it necessary and appropriate, for the purpose of providing a fitting and dignified funeral to all deceased persons, not just those who were infected with Covid. I am also aware that many independent firms and individuals went above and beyond the expectations of our profession to fulfil their role and vocation as funeral directors.
What has been the greatest challenge to your business in recent years?
Am I alone in my concern for the proliferation of all these new “Poundshop” companies who have entered the funeral industry in the last few years offering funerals starting at £999?
Many of these online companies are run from industrial premises or home offices by people who have little or no experience as funeral directors but have latched on to an opportunity to make a quick profit.
As independent funeral directors, we are able to exercise our own personal discretion when providing a funeral for any family in difficult financial circumstances. Whilst we may cut back on a limousine or the type of coffin supplied, we never compromise the quality of our service. I appreciate that in order to compete we must all be able to offer a similarly priced service, but it is obvious that our businesses would quickly become unsustainable if this was the only service we were to provide.
What do you think their impact will be upon the industry?
It is of course recognised that some families really cannot afford even the cost of a traditional funeral and are therefore obliged to opt for this cheap alternative. At the same time, there are those whose final wishes are that there should be no ceremony or attendees at their funeral. We must therefore honour these requests. However, I am genuinely concerned that families who believe they are purchasing a simple funeral are in fact paying a substantial sum for the routine and undignified disposal of their loved one.
I believe these online companies seriously undermine public confidence in our profession by leading bereaved families to believe that they are dealing with a reputable funeral company who will care for the deceased throughout their final journey. In fact what they are getting is a box, and a man with a van.
Do you have any other concerns regarding new competition?
Why do we suddenly need specialist businesses purporting to serve only minority communities when we and hundreds of well established funeral companies have been catering for such needs for over a century? Having served the “Windrush” generation and their successors since their arrival in this country I feel better qualified to appreciate their expectations than someone who identifies solely by colour or creed.
I am truly passionate about my profession and extremely proud of my company, but above all, I believe in the importance of providing the highest quality of service to those who seek our assistance from whatever background. Our achievements throughout the years are testament to the hard work undertaken by this and previous generations of the Uden family and it grieves me when I witness sub-standard service and lack of care or compassion from others within the industry.
My mission in life is not to denigrate other funeral companies, but to ensure every bereaved family receives the highest possible standards of care and compassion from whichever company they engage with.
What do you see as the way forward for independent, family-run businesses?
Throughout the country there are hundreds of well run, independent firms, all with
their own premises, their own vehicles and staff, each catering for a specific geographic area and traditional client base. I do not consider that we are in competition with each other, but rather that we are all facing the same threats and worries as to the direction of the funeral industry, with each of us proposing their own solutions and means of dealing with them.
My suggestion is that, through the auspices of our trade organisations, we should all continue to trade independently but share good practice and management ideas that will benefit all. We should unite to be a “Grand Alliance”, not have a raft of mergers or takeovers, simply an agreement to work together for the benefit of the industry to overcome the current threats to our business.
I see this as including the sharing of best practice as well as mutual aid in the form of use of vehicles and staff and the involvement of our fellow workers in unusual or high profile funerals so that we may all benefit from such experience.
We as a company have nothing to hide and so much to be proud of. We would be delighted to work in unison with other firms, not only for the benefit of all bereaved families but also to enhance the reputation of our honourable profession.