Fall-off in funerals

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The Independent Online
GREAT Southern is set to close some of its 46 funeral branches in London because of a sharp fall in the mortality rate. One outlet, in Lewisham, south London, has already been closed, writes John Shepherd.

'The objective is to have slightly fewer branches but more funerals,' Eric Spencer, chief executive, said. The company trades under two names in London - Francis Chapel & Sons and Frederick W Paine.

Redundancies will be marginal compared with last year's 4 per cent reduction in the total headcount to 940. Great Southern has 106 other branches in the UK, from the North-west to the south coast.

The UK's overall mortality rate - reckoned in deaths per 100,000 of population per month - fell by 4 percentage points in 1992 and has fallen a further 6 points since the New Year. Given Great Southern's 5 per cent market share, last year's fall equates to a theoretical loss of 800 funerals and 600 cremations - profits of about pounds 600,000.

Despite the lower mortality rate, the company yesterday announced an increase in annual pre-tax profits from pounds 4.7m to a record pounds 5.3m. Dividends are being boosted by 10 per cent to 11p, via a 7.4p final payment.

Profits growth was contained by a 'noticeable' drop in customer spending in the final quarter of 1992. Customers cut back on the number of funeral cars, while some delayed purchases of pounds 250-plus headstones.

But despite a reduction in the volume of sales, the funeral services division lifted operating profits from pounds 4.4m to pounds 4.5m. Crematoria and cemeteries, however, returned a slightly lower pounds 1.35m against pounds 1.39m in 1991, while only five of its 11 crematoria increased volumes.

Chosen Heritage, the 'pay now, die later' scheme endorsed by Age Concern, pushed profits up from pounds 474,000 to pounds 796,000. Some 11,000 plans, with a face value of pounds 10m, were sold last year.

Away from the problems in London, the company is still looking to make acquisitions and will soon start work on building a crematorium in Aberystwyth, part-funded by a grant from the Welsh Office.