A fight to the death

Which magazine says the British funeral industry can be a rip-off. The French company Roc'Eclerc says it will change all that.
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The Independent Culture
"In France, they do everything from selling flower vases, watering cans and trowels for grave gardening to offering individual coffins and full funeral services. lt's a sort of one-stop shop for everything you need," says Sam Weller. Excitedly, h e picksup a piece of paper and begins to read.

"It's Fr2,095 [£252.40] for a pine coffin, the `Sapin Parisien'. Then there's the `Champagne', at Fr8,165. Pall-bearers cost Fr950 to hire and a hearse comes at Fr990."

Weller practically beams. He reads down a price list of products: silk flowers, vases, potted plants and even dog coffins that are offered for sale by the chain of Roc'Eclerc "Supermarches Funeraires", a French retailing revolution shortly to hit Britishhigh streets. Roc'Eclerc has already taken France by storm, so there are important implications for Britain's 3,500 funeral directors and the industry they oversee, believed to be worth more than £60m last year.

Weller, 57, is a diminutive, jazz-playing public relations professional. He is also the man behind Roc'Eclerc's planned assault on the UK. His Kensington-based company, Marketing Franchise, has the master Roc'Eclerc franchise for new UK and Irish outlets.

"In the second year of trading, the average Roc'Eclerc outlet in France turns over £150,000 a month and employs 16 staff," Weller boasts. "They have become very popular in a short space of time."

The first Roc'Eclerc stores appeared in France in 1991, the brainchild of the entrepreneur Michel L'Ec-lerc, whose brother Eduoard has also established a chain of French food stores. Today, there are 69 funeral supermarkets, four of which are in Paris. Others have been established in Switzerland and Belgium. The UK and Ireland are next;already there have been inquiries from would-be franchisees all over the British Isles (including quarry owners looking at outlets to sell stone).

Weller and Roc'Eclerc are looking for suitable sites for an inaugural store round the "North Circular perimeter" of London, following a delay in plans to open an outlet south of the Thames in Catford. Meanwhile, the UK funeral industry is bracing itself for the challenge. Weller maintains that the main benefit of Roc'Eclerc in the UK will be to take away the "taboos and mystery" of funerals by empowering the consumer.

"At the moment, when a family suffers a bereavement, it has no choice but to hand over the management of the funeral to the funeral director. The customer has to choose a complete package. In the Eclerc experience, they can wander round a display, much as you do in any large supermarket environment.

"This facility is just not available in this country. The consumer movement simply hasn't focused on this aspect of our life. The undertaker's premises is a hushed, sombre, environment. You can't see what goes an in a funeral parlour till you screw up the courage and walk through the door."

Weller's assertion that the UK impact of Roc'Eclerc will be to offer much "greater consumer choice" is backed by Nicholas Alberry, co-director of the Natural Death Centre (NDC), an educational charity based in north London.

Alberry, who faces more than 500 public inquiries a week seeking advice on such ceremonies, says that the centre has already urged DIY chain stores to start stocking flat-packed coffins: "None of them is interested. One even wrote back saying it was a family concern, looking to the future and not concerned with death."

His doubts about Roc'Eclerc centre on the "brash" atmosphere of its stores and the pricing policy. He recalls a recent telephone call to the French chain: "The cheapest coffin they offered was more than £200. But we can advise people where to get coffinsfor £90 mail order, delivered to the door, or £39.95 for a cardboard version. The prices will have to come down."

The availability of coffins in UK stores will be a boon though, Alberry says. He points to a recent NDC survey of 2,000 UK funeral directors, which found that only 29 were prepared to sell a coffin separately. "It means there are whole areas of the country, such as Wales and Scotland, where you can't buy a coffin."

He predicts a "grim future" for undertakers who fail to provide "a la carte" funeral services, and notes an increasing trend towards nature-reserve burial plots, where, for as little as £200, graves marked by a newly planted tree can be acquired from local authorities, including Carlisle, Harrogate and Brighton.

The notion that the undertaking trade could be threatened by Roc'Eclerc or by DIY burials is rejected by Trevor Hunnaball, president of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), which represents 1,600 UK undertakers. Hunnaball agrees that Roc'Ec-lerc's outlets may affect inner-city undertakers, but says that provincial operations would face a struggle in the UK.

"There just isn't the volume," he says, referring to the UK's declining annual death rate, which now stands at about 630,000. He has also visited two Roc'Eclerc outlets in Paris, and believes that the glitz of the stores will only distress be-reaved British families. "I was taken aback by the pop music and the brightly coloured jumpers of the staff. They even had Madonna on the radio."

With the Office of Fair Trade investigating the recent trend of "pre-need" burial schemes in the UK funeral business, Hun-naball points to the NAFD's own code of conduct, which compels undertakers to provide an estimate of charges and offer a basic, budget funeral, which Hunnaball Funeral Services quotes at £625.

The Hunnaball "Basic Fun-eral" includes provision of staff, limousine, hearse and funeral director's fees. But other packages can cost much more. The next cheapest is £725, and the most expensive, at £2,410, is the "Grosvenor", which features a metal casket with hinged lid and "superior external fittings". The "Ecology", however, features a biodegradable cardboard coffin and costs a hefty £725.

Hunnaball says many NAFD members dismiss Roc'Eclerc 's claims as "hot air". He says a funeral must be handled in a "dignified manner".

The advent of Roc'Eclerc, however, is putting the spotlight on the dignity of the UK undertaking profession at a time when the OFT report could prompt moves towards regulation of the industry. Only last year the Cardiff-based Funeral Standards Council (FSC), to which 730 UK funeral businesses are affiliated, appointed a part-time ombudsman, Geoffrey Wood-roffe, a university professor, to examine claims of malpractice. Woodroffe has already upheld one action after an undertaker arrived late at an airportto pick up a body. Other problems such as lost ashes and shoddy flower displays have resulted in a "slow but steady trickle" of complaints which are examined by a full-time FSC inspector, Bob Smith.

The NAFD has its own conciliation service to investigate complaints. A spokeswoman, Mary Stuart, says there were 74 complaints last year, five of which resulted in full hearings and the expulsion of two funeral directors.

She says that "most of the complaints concern costs" butdenies that Roc'Eclerc will be able to capitalise on general allegations of overcharging by UK undertakers.

Weller disagrees. He claims there will be savings of up to 30 per cent on funerals organised by Roc'Eclerc UK. "It's the first time anybody has marketed funerary services and products here," he says. "It's going to be very beneficial to the British public, with better service and competition for the consumer. In fact, it's really surprising that this method of shopping has not been brought here earlier."

He pauses. Then he produces a photograph of a Roc'Eclerc advertising hoarding. The enormous Paris advertisement shows a smiling Michel L'Eclerc beneath the giant words "Adieu L'Enfer Du Monopole". Or, for those UK funeral directors without O-level French: "Goodbye to monopoly hell!"