What do Funeral Directors do for the Money?

May 4, 2016
What do Funeral Directors do for the Money? Most people have a pretty good idea of what funeral directors are about: we’re pin-striped, high street social workers for the newly bereaved; guiding people through the blistering initial stages of their loss; listening, advising and helping them to arrange a meaningful funeral. And of course everyone knows our work with the bereaved is inextricably linked with our altogether more mysterious status as temporary custodians of the dead.   

People assume we spend our days wafting around dressed like characters from Dickens, but the hectic reality is that funeral directing represents the Accident & Emergency Department of death & bereavement. The funeral is only the starting point of the grieving process; it’s the psychological equivalent of trauma surgery before the journey to recovery can begin. As funeral directors our role is to be first responders during the emotional emergency of bereavement, supporting the wounded and gathering up the dead before getting the family on the road to arranging the funeral and hopefully thereafter towards eventual healing.   

But unlike hospital casualty departments, where hustle & bustle is an accepted feature, funeral directors feel obliged to maintain an unruffled composure and offer calm, cosy offices where people are made to feel like they’re the only client. Really we’re like swans (or maybe ducks): we appear to glide along serenely whilst our little legs are paddling furiously beneath. The net result is that when it comes to spending time lovingly tending to the dead or holding hands with sobbing relatives, we rarely have the time. There will always be another family waiting.   

However, once they’ve actually begun arranging the funeral most bereaved families rarely want to engage with the process any more than is absolutely necessary anyway. They just want to get the funeral arrangements made and in the meantime have the body looked after. All the while they’re resigned to the assumption it’ll probably cost them an arm and a leg for the privilege.   

And what do they actually get for the aforementioned arm and a leg? I could say I’ll break it down, but that’ll put us back in A & E again…   


You don’t legally have to use a funeral director, but if you choose to do so then he/she becomes your contractor. When you hire a building contractor to build your house extension, loft conversion or divorce annexe (shed), you tell your builder what you want and then you rely on their advice, expertise and resources to make it a reality. It’s the same principal with funeral directors; except we’re more reliable than builders.   

Technical adviser 

Your funeral director will be your technical adviser throughout – advising on everything from how to obtain a death certificate and register the death, right through to things like music options available at your local crematorium. They will also be fully conversant with specialist subjects, such as the regulations & procedures entailed in repatriating Uncle Bert back to the UK after his SAGA holiday to the Austrian Tyrol came to a tragic end following an incident with a chalet maid and a pre-existing heart condition.   


Once you’ve contracted a funeral director, they become your agent and act on your behalf as principal liaison with necessary third parties such as cremation & burial authorities; hospitals; coroners; etc. Less officially they will often also act as goodwill ambassadors and/or UN peacekeepers if there’s a split in your family.  

Custodian of the body 

The days of having Grandma laid out in the front room are long gone. Indeed, who even has a front room nowadays? So the funeral director will act as temporary custodian of your loved one’s body. He or she will not only provide a 24 hour removal service from the place of death, but also provide mortuary facilities for anything between a few days and a few weeks. The funeral director will dress and prepare the body for viewing and provide a suitable, private space where you can spend time with your loved one if you wish.   

Master of ceremonies 

Having made all the arrangements, your funeral director will be there by your side on the day of the funeral itself, acting as event co-ordinator and master of ceremonies. They will oversee everything from ensuring the cortege arrives on time (regardless of distance), through to acting as chief usher, car parking attendant, crowd controller and flower handler when you get there.  


An arm and a leg? 

Let’s look behind the figures: equipping a ‘first call’ vehicle for efficient & dignified body removal costs upwards of £3000. Equipping even the smallest mortuary facility will cost circa £20,000. A used hearse is around £69,000, whilst brand new models will weigh in at anything from £108,000 to £148,000. That’s just the specialist items. Remember we still have to rent/purchase smart, conveniently located premises with vehicle garaging and sufficient ground floor space to accommodate a mortuary facility along with a separate viewing chapel; workshop/storage space; a comfortable visitors’ reception area and an administration office. Then add in utilities; telephone/computers; business rates; insurance, wages and the associated costs of providing a reliable 24hr/365 day service. There’s also the ever present menace of bad debts to be covered.   

Yes, funeral directors are expensive. However, you get a lot for the money and I’d argue that it’s us, not the AA, who represent Britain’s fourth emergency service. We always offer cheaper options, but unfortunately funerals are a privately funded affair.

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos. www.fredstevens.co.uk   

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director” www.amazon.co.uk

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