GRAEME COUSINS talks to two men who are involved in the funeral business about changes to the industry in recent times
Desy Stevenson from Scarva is a former bricklayer who saw an opportunity in the funeral market while carrying out some building work on a coffin factory.
The 47-year-old entrepreneur has a number of business interests, one of which is selling environmentally friendly coffins which can be finished off with an all-over printed image relating to the deceased.
Desy, who started the business in 2014, explained: “When the recession hit the building trade work as a bricklayer was hard to come by.
“One of the last jobs I was working on was an extension at a coffin factory. I’d never pictured coffins being produced at this rate, it was like a conveyor belt. It give me the idea to get involved with coffins, but in a different way.”
Wanting to explore the area of environmentally friendly production, Desy started off with willow coffins before getting involved with coffins made from recycled, sustainable materials.
This helped his business – Eco Coffins Direct – to branch out and introduce printed coffins, using a range of set designs as well as allowing individuals to create their own image for their casket.
Desy said: “At the minute we’re seeing a greater demand for bespoke designs more than anything, whether it be country and western, bingo, football, pictures of happier times. We draw a line at printing anything that might be offensive.
“We had one done recently for a family’s grandmother – she loved bingo.
“They chose numbers on the actual coffin of family members’ ages, so that’s one example of how a design can be individualised to suit the individual who has passed away or their family.
“Another Northern Ireland woman designed her coffin to a garden theme. She’s going to have a shed door on the top and welly boots with tulips coming out of them at the side.
“She’s a woman who doesn’t have any family and wants to have everything set in place before she passes away.”
Desy, who is a father-of-six, added: “The most popular stock design has been a sweet blossom – floral designs are what most people have gone for.
“Northern Ireland football is one of the designs we have in stock. With football teams you have to be careful with copyrights.
“We work with a local graphic designer to ensure not only the quality of the print, but it allows families to have any graphic of their choice. The can provide the graphic themselves to be upscaled.
“Because we can design it and print it and deliver it within 24 hours, that suits the funeral industry here.
“It’s a very quick turnaround. Sometimes people are buried and cremated within three days in Northern Ireland.”
Rather than allow loved ones to organise a funeral after death, some people are setting up a funeral plan themselves in preparation for their passing.
Desy said: “What has become more popular at the minute is people setting up a funeral plan – that doesn’t necessarily include designing their own coffin, because the funeral homes will not store the coffin.
“But what we can do is allow them to design their coffin and we store the print which we then apply to the coffin whenever a funeral director would phone us and tell us the person has passed away.
“We then apply the print and deliver it the same day.”
He said the discussion over coffin designs could be of assistance in the grieving process: “Choosing a print for a coffin, what it does, it means the family can sit down at a time of grief and it starts a conversation, it evokes memories. Of course it doesn’t take away from the grieving aspect but it helps celebrate a life of a loved one lived.”
While they may not be to everyone’s taste Desy explained his aim is to give people a wider choice, while at the same time promoting a more eco-friendly option.
Desy said: “I wouldn’t describe it as a large scale business, but I think it’s important that the choice is there if people are environmentally conscious or have a special design on their coffin.
“People normally get in touch through Facebook and we often gets referred by word of mouth.”
Asked how much a printed eco coffin would cost, Desy said: “A bespoke design is around £800.
“The eco coffin comes with a design already on it, which can be changed depending on whether you want to have your own graphic printed.
“It’s an enviroboard coffin which can be used for burial or cremation. It’s made up of 97% recycled wood fibres, therefore you’re not burning MDF and having all these gases coming out of the crematorium.
“It’s reducing emissions by maybe up to 60% and if buried they’re 100% biodegradable.”
Ian Milne, a man with 30 years experience in the funeral industry, said he has noticed big changes to funerals over the years but the traditional model has remained the blueprint in NI.
The funeral director who is based in Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge believes the usual three-day period from death to burial in the Province is the optimum arrangement for the grieving process.
He said: “I think on the island of Ireland the tradition of viewing the loved one and having some form of a wake is still very much in place – whether the body comes home or remains in the funeral parlour.
“The majority of funerals will entail a traditional style coffin, and some form of service – whether religious or unreligious – with certainly a eulogy.”
Mr Milne said he would get asked as regularly as once a week to participate as the celebrant, an indication of a move away from church-led services.
He commented: “There would be a number of funerals now where people attending are asked to wear bright colours rather than black.
“We would wear a variety of tie colours as a gesture of solidarity with the family.
“It’s a very interesting aspect of the funeral ritual nowadays. It’s almost a binding together of the mourners, not unlike a wedding where a colour is picked by the family for the occasion.”
Given the changing population in Northern Ireland, funerals have taken on a multi-cultural context.
Ian said: “We would do Vietnamese funerals, Polish, Lithuanian, you name it, every race that’s here.
“One of the most moving funerals was the death of a two-year-old boy from Italy whose family had been living in Portadown. He died after getting caught in the cord of a blind. His mother and father got up halfway through the service and no one knew what was happening. They asked could they sing a negro spiritual (Christian song created by African Americans).
“I can tell you there wasn’t one person including myself or the gravedigger who wasn’t in tears in that church.
“It’s those little expressions that are changing what you might expect at a funeral in Northern Ireland.
“People are letting doves off, letting balloons off, just wee things like that that make it more intimate.”
Ian said society was becoming a much more open place which meant people’s lifestyle choices were being celebrated at funerals rather than being shied away from.
Commenting particularly on same-sex relationships he said: “There is an abundance of love at funerals from friends and family for people in all different sorts of relationships. The type of relationship might be against a person’s beliefs but that doesn’t stop them paying their respects to their friend or family member.”
Ian is the founding member of the National Association of Funeral Directors’ Committee on Funerals & Bereavement in the NI Assembly. He is also former chair of The British Institute of Funeral Directors NI.
He commented: “While there have been subtle changes here and there in emphasis, the funeral tradition here has remained largely unchanged. In some places in the rest of the UK you might be waiting for two weeks or more for a funeral. It’s different in Northern Ireland.
“The first reason is religiosity where it would say Christ rose on the third day and that’s where the three day ritual comes from.
“The second thing is – and it’s here already – is that you have to make an appointment to register the death. Here currently we don’t need to register the death before the burial but it will change just like in England. That’s why you get into a two and three weeks waiting timeframe there for the funeral.”
He commented: “My concern with that is the grieving process isn’t the same. Your brain is getting mixed messages from your heart. You’re back at work before the wake and funeral which is a big part of the process.”
In terms of the cost of a funeral Ian said there were some disparities in the Province: “A funeral now in my part of the world is around £3,500, £4,000. Our traditional panel sided coffin, from man made wood, starts at around £850.
“However when you look at locations that’s when prices vary. Some of the graves in Belfast are £3,000 to buy and £800 to open, in Craigavon it’s £230 to buy and £250 to open.
“One thing that really upsets me is a cremation in Belfast is £328 and in the same crematorium if I have a postcode outside Belfast it’s £626.
“People complain about the price of funerals but they don’t take into account that the cost of a hearse is around £120,000.”