Unable to find a mortician who would simply sell a coffin, instead of an overpriced funeral package, Barbara Butler set up Green Undertakings and took on the death industry's Big Three.
Should you find yourselves scratching around for Valentine ideas later this month, allow me to commend to you the range of handsome wicker baskets sold by Ms Barbara Butler of Watchet, Somerset. Typically some six-and-half feet long by about two deep, Butler's baskets are hand-plaited from pollarded willow fronds in a neighbouring Quantock village. Given the rarity of this skill and the degree of labour involved in their manufacture, the baskets' price tag of £300 seems something of a snip. 'And you can use them for all kinds of things,' hazards Butler. 'You could put glass on top and have them as coffee tables, for example.' Then she pauses thoughtfully and adds, 'Until the time comes, of course.'
This last qualification may suggest why Butler's shop has not so far been inundated by hordes of aspirant coffee table buyers. The hour to which Watchet's basketseller refers is not teatime or elevenses. It is, rather, the moment when you finally slump forward over that last home-brewed cappuccino. Whatever their interim incarnations, the use to which Butler's multi-purpose baskets are eventually intended to be put is as coffins. When Butler, founder of Green Undertakings, a firm of funeral directors, refers to willow-plaiting as a dying art, she means rather more than she says.
If undertaking seems a faintly unusual choice of third career for a 67-year-old Jungian psychotherapist-turned-university academic, Butler would disagree. 'What brought me to Jung rather than Freud and that lot was his teleological approach to analysis. It suggests a purpose in the way life evolves, so that it's only natural that one should be thinking of the end when one is over 60.'
It was her mother's end rather than her own that first suggested undertaking as a way of life, however, and for not undilutedly Jungian reasons. 'Two years before my mother actually died we thought she was on the way out. As we wanted to arrange her funeral ourselves, I rang around the local undertakers and said, "What do coffins cost?". No one would tell me. There is a convention that undertakers will not break down costs until you've signed for a whole funeral package. They certainly won't sell you just a coffin.' The more Butler pried, the more evasive the undertakers of West Somerset seemed to become. If they thought the nice little white-haired pensioner from Watchet would take such opacity lying down, however, they had sadly misjudged her. 'I thought, "This just isn't on". So I spent a lot of time finding out where you can buy coffins, how to lay people out, how deep graves have to be and so on. When my mother finally did die, we managed to do the whole funeral ourselves.'
The experience bequeathed Butler more than a handy fund of cocktail party badinage. But it also left her with a profoundly jaundiced view of the British way of death. 'The thing is that our funeral industry is pretty well carved up between three companies. The Co-operative movement has the biggest share, followed by SCI of Texas and UK Funerals. Between them, they've got about 70% of the market. They've gone around buying up independents, but they don't change the name over the door. So when the bereaved man in the street goes to his local undertakers, he doesn't realise that what he may actually be dealing with is a giant firm of (a look of shrivelling disgust) Americans.'
According to Butler, the members of this happy little oligopoly play the death game by rules of their own de-vising. 'They all include an automatic charge for embalming, for example, which adds up to £60 to your basic costs and is completely unnecessary in most cases. And they tot up whatever margins they feel like. We charge £50 for this oak-veneer chipboard coffin. I happen to know that (another group) charges £230 for exactly the same product, and they're by no means the worst.'
Goaded by her own experience, Butler decided to put her newfound expertise at the disposal of the grieving public two years ago. While other shops in the pretty Quantock village of Williton peddled corn dollies and Coleridge memorabilia, Butler was soon doing a nice line in pret-a-porter shrouds, over-the-counter bodybags and do-it-yourself funeral advice. 'People around about called it the mini-mort. I preferred the one-stop coffin shop.'
Two things quickly became clear. The first of these was the scale of demand for the mini-mort's services. 'I was getting a dozen enquiries a day, and that was way out here in Somerset, with no advertising at all,' recalls Butler. The second was the obvious anxiety with which the Big Three viewed Butler's adventurings, a source of undisguised joy to Watchet's funereal upstart. 'I was told by several coffin manufacturers that the big boys had warned them if they supplied me, they would take their business elsewhere. So I just had to look around until I managed to find people who would supply me anyway.'
Just before Christmas 1995, a Welsh undertaker called Steve Nutt rung Butler. 'Steve's firm had just been taken over by (one of the Big Three), and he just couldn't cope with the kind of high-pressure selling techniques he was being asked to use. The sales manuals of (the company in question) certainly make interesting reading. Employees are instructed to start by flogging mid-cost funerals and then to go up in price. Cheaper burials have to be okayed by management. They also list the so-called extras: charges for viewing, for night calls. I mean, it's hardly your fault if you happen to croak it at night.'
Pooling £20,000 worth of capital (including a £500 hearse), Butler and Nutt opened Green Undertakings, in what had been a Watchet doctors' surgery, the following spring. Barely a year later, the firm is turning over the partners' initial investment every two months. 'Our accountant is anxious that we don't over-trade: he's a little ... let's say shrewd. If we hadn't also opened branches in Taunton, Newport and Bristol, we'd be showing a nice profit by now,' says Butler.
This leaves her with an intriguing problem. The selling point of Green Undertakings was that it should provide an ethical foil to what she and Nutt saw as the unpalatable mores of the big death business. 'We want to stir the big firms up because we don't think they are being moral.
We don't give commission on any of the things we sell, so there is no pressure on staff to sell them. We're a service-based business. We want people to take authority, to take the pound back in their own hands.'
As the company's name suggests, environmental concerns form its other ethical USP. 'Our cartonboard coffins and bodybags are genuinely biodegradable. They don't just disintegrate like our competitors'. Nor would we ever use a wood like mahogany for our coffins or anything that hurts the earth. If people want something dark and shiny-looking, they can have paper foil.'
This combination of affordability, political correctness and informality (Nutt eschews wearing tails in favour of a cardigan, and customers are encouraged to decorate their loved ones' cartonboard coffins with poster paints) has proved a heady commercial mix. The pair are constantly inundated with pleas to open branches in other parts of Britain, and will set up their first non-West Country outlet in London (with not entirely apposite timing) this Easter.
Butler has also recently started a women-only undertaking service called Martha's Funerals, and bought a chunk of woodland near Bristol for a pantheistically minded clientele. Meanwhile, Green Undertakings has been awarded sole UK agency for the country's only cartonboard coffin-maker, as well as for the 99% biodegradable starch eye caps, bodybags and other objets de morte couture of a well-known firm of Dutch undertakers.
In other words, Butler may well find herself facing a troubling prospect: commercial success. Lobbing ethical stones at Goliath is all very well if you happen to be David, but what do you do if your ethically based business itself suddenly starts showing signs of giantism? 'It does seem bizarre to us, but it could be the case. I think what we're seeing here, though, is simply a return to the emphasis on death in the community.
I think the local idea was right, that you kept the loved ones at home, laid them out yourselves, put pennies on their eyes, whatever. We want to give death back to the people.'
In Butler's view, this means that ethical undertaking can by definition never become big business. 'When I was at Brunel (University), I worked on a programme aimed at devolving responsibility to the lowest level possible. I think the same idea applies here. There's no place in this business for shareholders or middle management - it has to be run from within a very narrow band. What we're thinking of doing now is recruiting people who will put up, say, £5,000 or £10,000 apiece and act as regional centres for our funeral arrangers, supplying non-toxic hygienic powders, bodybags and so on. With sufficient volume, we may be able to make a comfortable living. But we'll never be rich.'
Nonetheless, the muckle-making potential of Butler's many mickles can scarcely have escaped the attention of Britain's funereal Big Three. What their reaction to it will be is a matter of speculation. 'We're hoping that they'll offer to buy us out. Then we'll offer to buy them out, and shut them down.'.