Coventry co-operative focuses on community in time of need

Community leaders in Coventry have welcomed an initiative offering funerals customised for Asian families. The Heart of England Co-operative now plans over 100 funerals a year for the...

Community leaders in Coventry have welcomed an initiative offering funerals customised for Asian families.

The Heart of England Co-operative now plans over 100 funerals a year for the Sikh and Hindu population – and is ensuring its services are increasingly geared towards its communities. Its Co-operative Funeralcare branch in Foleshill has a team of specialist Asian staff who speak a range of languages, including Hindi and Punjabi, and are familiar with unique cultural and religious traditions.

Funerals general manager Darryl Smith, who joined the society seven years ago, was asked by the chief executive, Ali Kurji, to prioritise the project once the society recognised the need for a specialist funeral home in an area of Coventry which has one of the highest Asian populations in the Midlands outside Leicester and Birmingham.

He said: “We had noticed over time that the demography of the area had changed so we responded to that change. Initially we tried to compete with the local Asian food stores but found it was impossible. I looked through our funeral data and saw the number of Asian funerals we were conducting was very limited despite the size of the population.

“So we decided to develop the idea of a funeral home and got specialist help with planning. We did a lot of research talking to locals in the area and we made the decision that to attract customers we needed to be more Asian-friendly, really saying to people that we can do something that is specific to the Asian culture.

“We also made a conscious decision to brand it as Co-operative Funeralcare, incorporating Asian Funeral Services. We knew there was a risk of alienating others but we wanted to make it clear to Asian families that this was a business they could really have confidence in and trust.”

Five years after opening the funeral home, it now caters for 70 per cent Sikh and Hindu funerals, as well as Christian and other religions. Its unique service for the Asian community includes allowing families to carry out traditions in line with their religious beliefs, large chapels of rest where family and friends can pay their respects or hold a service, and then after the cremation the ashes are retained until families are ready to take them back to India as tradition demands.

Mr Smith says the initiative is one which has really been appreciated by the local Asian community. “We’ve been very well-received from day one. We spent quite a bit of time working in the community making it clear we were not just here to make a quick buck. We keep the standards high and make sure as many families hear about our service as possible.”

He believes it would be a really positive step forward for bigger organisations, such as the Co-operative Group’s Funeralcare, to look into similar initiatives, but warns there are challenges. “It’s been very successful for us, but we are very local and hands-on and they are a much larger organisation. For us, it’s good that local Asian families can have their cultures recognised and have someone knowledgeable to help them at a difficult time.”

In 2013, the Funeralcare arm of the Heart Of England Society had its best year ever in terms of the number of families served and achieved a £7.2 m turnover. It acquired a funeral branch in Hinckley and is re-locating its Nuneaton branch, as well as looking at sustainable expansion plans for the future.

There is even a new iPhone app to guide clients through a process which can often be traumatic to come to terms with. The society is also proud of its wider links with the community and has recently embarked on a series of outreach projects.

Mr Smith added: “We have spent quite a bit of time working with the Warwickshire Race Equality Partnership putting together an end-of life guide handbook in several different languages ranging from Punjabi to Polish and that is now being circulated to local nursing homes, doctors and other agencies who deal with the ill and the bereaved.” 

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