DFS Caskets Ltd

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by DFS Caskets Ltd's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from DFS Caskets Ltd is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles


Martin Smith, managing director
Engineers begin latest
factory extension
In an industry dominated by larger companies, it seems
beyond unlikely that a small family firm, employing only 21
people, could take on a FTSE-listed powerhouse and win.
DFS CASKETS has achieved just that, through an organisational
culture of uncompromising quality and a dedication to
innovation. They are the UK market leader in the manufacture
and supply of high-quality coffins. Based in Annan, southwest
Scotland, the company produced 18,000 coffins last year in a
variety of sizes and styles.
UK market leader
All wooden items are difficult to make because of the unpredictable nature of
the material. Manufacturing coffins is especially complicated as they are both an
irregular shape, and designed to burn or decay easily with minimal environmental
impact. In layman’s terms: they’re a woodworking nightmare. With determination,
creativity and the adoption of modern techniques, however, DFS CASKETS has
achieved success that is remarkable for its size.
Individuals encounter death very rarely, and their experience with it is therefore
limited and clouded by grief. As consumers, we are familiar with cars, kitchens,
furniture and food – but few of us are familiar with funerals. Bereaved families will
choose a coffin for their loved one, but during the funeral they are generally too
upset to examine its quality. They will remember the professionalism of the staff;
the presentation of the cars; how much the funeral costs; but possibly not the
wooden, wicker or cardboard box containing their loved one.
»Managing director:
»Established in 1983
»Based in Annan, Dumfries and
»Services: Coffin manufacture
»No. of employees: 21
»Distinctions: Quality market
leader, industry pioneer, world
first with Family Assistant
»Restrictions: Price follower,
limited resources and buying
Highlighting best practice
We have found therefore that the
larger funeral groups place their
greatest emphasis on the experience
of the funeral and not necessarily on
the quality of their products. This has
lowered overall industry expectations,
but has helped our company grow.
Our attention to detail and obsession
with quality are the cornerstones of
our reputation. We compete with
huge companies who possess greater
resources and superior economies
of scale. In 2016, for example, Co-
operative Funerals and Dignity plc both
had turnovers exceeding £300 million,
a figure 200 times our own. In order to
prosper, therefore, we have to ensure
that our similarly priced products are
superior in every way.
Engineers in wood
We have customised every machine
to maximise its performance, we have
invented new methods of manufacture
and created new equipment to
minimise the smallest of flaws and
we have written incredibly complex
computer programs to achieve
flexibility of size. We have also lost a
huge amount of money on projects
which have failed; but they have
expanded our knowledge and moved
us closer towards our goals.
We see things differently from the
big groups. A family says their final
goodbye when the coffin is lowered
into the grave or moves behind the
curtain at the crematorium. We believe
the coffin is not just a part of the
funeral: it is the most important part.
Through this philosophy and passion,
we have grown in a shrinking market.
Each year many funeral directors decide
to retire or sell and there is always a
buyer wishing to increase their market
share. As such, each year our customer
base contracts, so we can never become
complacent. To maintain our lead, we
invest 60 to 70 per cent of profit each
year in new machinery and ideas. This
drive for continual improvement has
led us to our most challenging project
yet: automated spraying.
Industry pioneers
Robotic spraying is not new; spraying
wood, however, is not the same
as spraying metal. Metal items are
sprayed electrostatically, with the
charged paint attracted to its target.
Wood does not conduct electricity
and therefore spraying relies on the
accuracy of application. This is our
second attempt at robotic spraying.
Our last attempt ended in failure.
Environmental legislation provides us
with a restricted number of lacquers
and, unfortunately, they are all
extremely difficult to spray. A skilled
human can adapt their technique to
compensate for variations in paint
viscosity and the spraying environment.
A robot will not. It will only follow a pre-
determined path regardless ofresults.
In our first attempt, we discovered that
we need to control 12 different variables
to succeed. If we fail to control any of
them, the robot will fail. This is therefore
an extremely complex and expensive
challenge, so why bother? Why invest
four years’ profits in a building and
equipment when we are already market
leaders? It is to maintain our competitive
advantage; to facilitate future growth
and to overcome skill shortages.
Creation of new
spraying facility
Our attention
to detail and
obsession with
quality are the
cornerstones of
our reputation
Spraying is an art. A highly skilled
employee is a strength but also a
weakness. It takes time to perfect their
skill, but what happens if they leave,
have an illness, get into an accident or
retire? Replacing that skill is difficult, to
say the least.
We’re looking to the future and trying
to achieve total consistency. I regularly
examine every aspect of production,
trying to identify how quality can
be improved further. I delegate,
but employees are encouraged to
report any difficulties they encounter
directly to me. If knowledge isn’t
communicated, it can’t be utilised; this
is why we value feedback so highly.
By listening to our customers, we have
developed a better understanding of
their needs and have improved the
functionality of our products. We have
made our coffins stronger, easier and
safer to carry and better protected, and
we provide features not available from
other manufacturers. We have also
introduced a unique piece of computer
software called Family Assistant.
Family Assistant: a world first
Traditionally, a bereaved family would
leaf through a brochure of very similar
looking coffins and then be asked to
make a decision. Family Assistant is
completely different. A basic coffin
is displayed on screen; this can be
altered by varying the lid, altering the
colour, and adding panels alongside a
number of other choices. This enables
users to examine the options available
and design their own coffin, with the
final selections forwarded to us to be
Although simple to use, the software is
very powerful and capable of creating
billions of different images in seconds.
It is updatable and, thanks to App Store
and Google Play, is instantly available
to almost everyone. We understand
that software of this type is a major
disruptor and admit that it has not been
universally welcomed, but by developing
and introducing Family Assistant, I
believe it places us in an extremely
strong position as technology advances.
We are a forward-thinking company
with traditional values and a hope to
make a difference. We have limited
finances and are a minnow within our
industry, but this has not prevented us
from being leaders in our field.
If knowledge
it can’t be
»5 different materials
»6 moulding styles
»5 lid designs
»11 panel choices
»12 engraved text options
»13 stain colours
»1 antique finish
»22 example paint colours
»91 handle/bar combinations
»4 handle quantity options
»10 lid screw types
»4 screw quantity options
»5 crucifix examples
»9 burial cords
»2 cords position options
»5 box/lid ornaments
»2 nickel or brass fittings


This article was sponsored by DFS Caskets Ltd. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from The Rt Hon Theresa May MP.

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

This foreword from the then Prime Minister appeared in the 2018/19 Parliamentary Review.

British politics provides ample material for analysis in the pages of The Parliamentary Review. For Her Majesty’s Government, our task in the year ahead is clear: to achieve the best Brexit deal for Britain and to carry on our work to build a more prosperous and united country – one that truly works for everyone. 

The right Brexit deal will not be sufficient on its own to secure a more prosperous future for Britain. We also need to ensure that our economy is ready for what tomorrow will bring. Our Modern Industrial Strategy is our plan to do that. It means Government stepping up to secure the foundations of our productivity: providing an education system that delivers the skills our economy needs, improving school standards and transforming technical education; delivering infrastructure for growth; ensuring people have the homes they need in the places they want to live. It is all about taking action for the long-term that will pay dividends in the future.

But it also goes beyond that. Government, the private sector and academia working together as strategic partners achieve far more than we could separately. That is why we have set an ambitious goal of lifting UK public and private research and development investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. It is why we are developing four Grand Challenges, the big drivers of social and economic change in the world today: harnessing artificial intelligence and the data revolution; leading in changes to the future of mobility; meeting the challenges of our ageing society; and driving ahead the revolution in clean growth. By focusing our efforts on making the most of these areas of enormous potential, we can develop new exports, grow new industries and create more good jobs in every part of our country.

Years of hard work and sacrifice from the British people have got our deficit down by over three quarters. We are building on this success by taking a balanced approach to public spending. We are continuing to deal with our debts, so that our economy can remain strong and we can protect people’s jobs, and at the same time we are investing in vital public services, like our NHS. We have set out plans to increase NHS funding annually by an average by 3.4 percent in real terms: that is £394 million a week more. In return, the NHS will produce a ten-year plan, led by doctors and nurses, to eliminate waste and improve patient care.

I believe that Britain can look to the future with confidence. We are leaving the EU and setting a new course for prosperity as a global trading nation. We have a Modern Industrial Strategy that is strengthening the foundations of our economy and helping us to seize the opportunities of the future. We are investing in the public services we all rely on and helping them to grow and improve. Building on our country’s great strengths – our world-class universities and researchers, our excellent services sector, our cutting edge manufacturers, our vibrant creative industries, our dedicated public servants – we can look towards a new decade that is ripe with possibility. The government I lead is doing all it can to make that brighter future a reality for everyone in our country. 

British politics provides ample material for analysis in the pages of The Parliamentary Review 
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Prime Minister