The Observer Death and dying
Social enterprise undertakers who save grieving families hundreds of pounds have ‘never been busier’
‘Because they can’t have what they normally would, people have lost the will to plan anything’: Symeon Waller of Doncaster Municipal Funerals. Photograph: Yorkshire Post/SWNS
In the nine years he worked as a funeral director for a big chain of funeral homes, 45-year-old Symeon Waller saw hundreds of grieving families turned away because they could not afford a funeral.
“There was no alternative for them, other than go to the council,” he says.
Rising costs are pushing funerals out of reach for poorer families, with even a basic send-off now coming to an average of £4,184, up 128% since 2004. The figures led him to set up Doncaster Municipal Funerals, a social enterprise that provides the same funerals as a high street provider but for about half the cost. He sells coffins at cost price, saving families hundreds of pounds, while he and his two staff take a salary and invest any profits back into the organisation.
It’s been a successful model. In the first year the company carried out 100 funerals, which doubled to 200 in the second. Now in its third year, the huge number of pandemic deaths mean it’s never been busier. Waller says: “Speaking frankly, when lots of people die, businesses is good for funeral directors. It’s just a shame with how it affects us as part of the community. We find ourselves doing funerals for friends, family, people we know.”
About 40% of the funerals Waller is arranging at the moment are for people who died of Covid, he estimates. Due to government restrictions on numbers, he says lots of families are resigned to more understated funerals, and are choosing pop music instead of hymns. “Because they can’t have what they normally would, people have lost the will to plan anything,” he says.
“They’re saying they would want a hymn and they don’t think they can have it because they’re not allowed to sing. I might say, ‘You can have it sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society?’ ‘No, no, no, we’ll have Madonna.’”
Fred Berry was in the unfortunate position of organising two funerals in 2020, for his ex-wife and for an elderly neighbour. He was recommended Doncaster Municipal Funerals and has since become the closest thing to a fan that is possible for a funeral service.
He said: “They’re not a big conglomerate pretending to be independent and they don’t try to exploit you at a vulnerable time of life. For my ex-wife’s funeral, Symeon set up a video so my son who lives abroad could watch it, which was that extra touch. It’s a bloody good service for a bloody good price.”
The team is close-knit. Waller works with his brother-in-law Darren Roughton and family friend Amy Jolly. They work close together, a worry when handling the bodies of Covid patients without being offered the vaccine yet. “If one of us was to get it, that’s it,” he says. “Business would shut because there’s no time when we wouldn’t have been in contact with each other.” They have full PPE for going into care homes and for dealing directly with bodies, adds Waller, and wear masks at all times – even during funerals.
He says: “It sounds daft but generally we put a face mask on the deceased. We wear one, they wear one.”
In March, Doncaster Municipal Funerals is opening a second location nearby in the Lincolnshire town of Gainsborough, which will be co-run by 23-year-old Jolly.
The idea could catch on more widely. Waller has been contacted by a number of funeral directors across the UK who are thinking about setting up under the same structure, as a Community Interest Company (CIC).
But Doncaster Municipal Funerals is not universally popular. He says: “It’s just the big corporates – they’ll have taken a hit as they’re the main culprits for the high prices.
“They don’t care if you’re a CIC or not. They just see a funeral directors opening up and undercutting them.
“They sort of hate me, but I quite like that.”