Photo Credit: Roger Fowle

Eco products are big business but many small producers find it difficult to get their product onto the Undertaker’s shop floor.

Roger Fowle, of Weaverman Baskets in Cambridgeshire, weaves coffins from Somerset willow. He has run into resistance when trying to get his product onto the shop floor. Fowle thinks, ‘a lot of it is to do with profit, the undertaker’s profit, they make a huge amount from selling a coffin’. When trying to get his coffins stocked he was told to cut prices, but Fowle argues that doing this would affect his bottom line.

In order to keep afloat he sells direct to the public but has found even that comes with issues. ‘It’s well known that that if you sell to the public then lots of undertakers won’t buy from you. They refuse because you’re selling to the public and you’re missing out the middle man and they’re the middle man and they’re losing four, five, six hundred pounds each time that happens’.

Photo Credit: Roger Fowle

It’s not just him that has been affected. Fowle says his customers and reputation have been put on the line. He recounts a story about a man who purchased a coffin for his deceased wife but days later the son accused Fowle of over charging them because he bought one off the internet much cheaper. ‘A week later the husband came back and said he couldn’t put his wife in this thing, it was so shabbily made and very cheap and nasty’. He says he struggles with the idea that Undertakers sell products labelled as eco-coffins that have been shipped halfway across the world. He admits his aren’t as cheap as some, ‘but the quality of them is 100% better’.

A spokesman for the Natural Death Centre says that sadly this type of thing happens more than you might think, ‘Some funeral directors will say “well actually you can only use one of our coffins”, they might give you all the reasons like the crematorium won’t accept it’ and so on but this shouldn’t be the case. There are also, ‘a lot of myths within the funeral industry itself about, oh you can’t use a cardboard coffin, it will get soggy when it’s wet’ they add and this keeps funeral directors skeptical of eco-products.

Carla Valentine, a former Anatomical Pathology Technician says, ‘We’re funny about our dead and how we treat them. We think that if we put someone in a cardboard box is treating them like a toaster.  We don’t have our head around natural burials quite yet, but I think that’s coming.’

Paul Barnett, owner of Feet First Coffins, thinks the public is slowly catching on but, ‘the majority of undertakers and funeral homes have seriously missed the point of these choices, they scoff at the Green field burial sites as just another fad, the eco coffin that has a small carbon foot print produced locally by local craftsmen (and craftswomen) and a reasonable price tag, so as not to leave those you have been left behind wondering how on earth they are going to pay for it.’ Barnett makes a valid point, since 2010 the rates of funeral poverty in the UK have gone up by 50 percent with the national funeral debt at £117 million pounds.

The NDC advocates that the only way to promote consumer choice is by arming them with knowledge that they have one. Something the NDC suggests that artisan coffin producers can do by getting out into their community, becoming  visible and creating a brand. They say the best way for small producers to get a foot on the shop floor is to bring their pricing in-line with the funeral directors; giving the public a choice and small producers the best chance of getting a place in the brochure.

But Barnett is frustrated and feels bringing his pricing in-line defeats the purpose of being an artisan producer who is already actively involved in his community. ‘As an independent Coffin maker, I know where my wood comes from, I know the guy that cuts it and where he gets it from as it’s usually from his woodland at the bottom of his garden ( I also know his kids and his wife).

I know that our cutting to size is eco friendly as most of it is done by the old handsaw that belonged to my dad, the holes in which I wooden dowel the joints together are done by a hand drill that is older than me.

Photo credit: Feet First Coffins

I know where the Beeswax that I use to wax my coffins comes from because I make it in my kitchen from local Hive keepers, I know where the colourings we use to stain the wood are from as again they are made in my kitchen using techniques that go back 100′s if not 1000′s of years, as I have done the research to find out how to do it.

I know that the meadow hay that we use to stuff the “fair-trade” 100% Natural non-bleached cotton fibre lining comes from just down the road at the local forestry centre who cut it from their fields and sells it to the public to help fund the forestry centre and the wildlife parks that they manage.

I know that the paints we use to paint a coffin if required are eco-friendly chalk based paints, which have been used for 100′s of years.

But funeral directors can’t buy my truly Green eco-friendly coffins as a pack of 5 for £150 and sell them to the public for between £450 and £650 each, as I can’t even buy the materials for that.

I charge a fair and reasonable price for the amount of care and work that I actually put into making each of these beautifully finished units which is usually specifically constructed for the person who is going to be resting in it.In doing so I also support many other local small business and crafts people in the process of running my business, I also donate 10% of my profits to the local Hospice so they can offer support and comfort for those who need their services.’

While the NDC  understands small producers frustration, they stress that small coffin manufactures biggest champion could be their customers. They have started where customers can rate Funeral Directors and comment on the service they’ve received. They also advise coffin makers to deal directly with independent firms as this will give them a fighting chance to get their product stocked and on the shop floor.

Barnett concedes, ‘I know there are a few independent funeral homes out there that are trying to make the change and embrace the green alternative revolution, but they are few and far between and have no wish to hold stock as this is money tied up which no small business can really afford, so understandable.’

All the funeral directors listed on the NDC website have signed a pledge to allow customers to supply their own coffin as long as they conform to industry standards.

The NAFD declined to comment on this story.


Roger Fowle on weaving, dying and the deceased: