Dempsey and Forrest Ltd | Innovation spells success for Wanganui funeral business

Dempsey and Forrest Funeral Directors, owned by Jim and James Forrest, has been helping families through difficult times for more than 85 years.

Funeral directing is in the Forrest family’s DNA; Jim’s father was a funeral director in Otago and Jim worked for him, eventually taking over the business. Jim then moved to Wanganui in 1974 and purchased the funeral home from the Dempsey brothers, retaining the name out of respect for the family. Son James joined the business 30 years ago and remembers fondly growing up in and around funeral homes.

“When mum and dad first bought the business, my sister and I were still at school, so we’d spend our holidays in the funeral home office. In those days, before there were cellphones, the business phone would ring through to home, so at age 12, I was answering calls from bereaved families – I learned very early on how to communicate with people who were going through a particularly tough time,” says James.

Dempsey and Forrest has seven full-time staff, a catering crew and two part-time funeral directors handling more than 60 percent of Wanganui’s funerals. The company also has the NZ Police contract for the Wanganui district, taking care of the deceased until a post-mortem has been completed or until a family makes funeral arrangements. While James manages the company, Jim is still very much part of the team.

“People love the fact that Jim is still involved in the business,” says James. “He’s not so hands-on any more but can often be found at a funeral on the door handing out service sheets. He’s very much still the face of the company.”

Within the New Zealand funeral industry, Dempsey and Forrest is considered innovative.

“We are always looking to introduce new things and finding a new way of doing things to personalise the industry more. We offer horse-drawn hearses and were also one of the first in the country to offer a vintage hearse, which has been huge for our business. It’s a 1935 Austin we call Agna. She’s quite famous, having appeared in TV shows including ‘The Last of the Summer Wine’, and ‘The Bill’.

“There is a more personalisation going on too – we have caskets that people can write on, paint and decorate, and recently we produced a chalk-board casket for family and friends to adorn with chalk drawings and messages.”

James has been working with team member Sarah Gowan for a number of years, initially through Richard Millward and now through Moore Stephens Markhams Wanganui.

“Sarah is amazing,” says James. “She’s always available and if there’s something she’s not sure about, she’ll find out and get back to me promptly. She’s so professional and friendly – it’s a really good working relationship.”

As well as taking care of Dempsey and Forrest’s annual accounts, Sarah looks after the payroll and PAYE. She is also considered a business advisor by the team. “We’ll always run things by her. After working with us for some time now, Sarah has a solid understanding of our business. She’s met with us and seen us in action. She’s got a good feel for the place.”