The Good Funeral Guide Blog

It’s time to get rid of this professional fee

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

I’m off to buy a telly. I’ve done my comparison shopping on the internet (it’s what we do, isn’t it?) and (since you ask) tracked the cheapest to Makro. Good deals on just now. Get down there.

Would that I could do the same if I were shopping for a funeral—with some honourable exceptions. AW Lymn is one (their brochure is simply outstanding). Allcock’s is another.

It is useful here to compare the situation in the UK with that in the US. Over there, where funeral directors are far more rapacious than ours, they have, since 1984, been regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Funeral Rule. They must give you a General Price List (GPL) with itemised prices for goods and services. You can pick and choose.

It’s a good thing—up to a point. But there is one charge which is non-declinable: the basic services fee. This covers those funeral directors’ professional services which are common to most arrangements. It includes looking after the body, arranging the funeral, doing the paperwork, and it bundles a charge for overheads – heat, light, maintenance of premises, etc.

The Funeral Rule has made it possible for people in the US to comparison shop and decline goods and services they don’t want. Americans can buy a bargain price casket at Costco and evade the funeral director’s markup. You can’t do that in the UK.

Have funerals got cheaper in the US as a result? No, they have climbed steadily. How so? Because funeral directors have upped their basic services fee (cue: Doh!)

This penalises those people who care for their own after death and are their own funeral director. Whatever minimal services they may require from a funeral director, they must pay the full basic services fee. You may like to read this post by the excellent Holly Stevens on the matter.

Here in the UK funeral directors charge what they call a professional fee for providing essentially the same services covered by the US basic services fee. As in the US, it is fixed. If, therefore, you want to arrange a complex funeral which will involve the funeral director in hours of extra work, the likelihood is that he or she has no means of charging you for those extra hours. You will pay a not a penny more than the undemanding client who makes all their funeral arrangements in twenty minutes and isn’t seen again until the day of the funeral.

Just in case that sounds like good value, consider this: your funeral director has no financial incentive whatever to give you any extra time you need.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the undemanding client who takes up very little time inevitably subsidises those who take up lots. That client could be you.

Most funeral directors ‘bury’ some of their professional fee in the goods and services they sell you—hence the absurd mark-ups on coffins. Most of them, therefore, cannot afford not to charge you for any services you don’t want. If you want to reduce your costs and, say, tell your funeral director that you will not need his or her bearers to carry the coffin , and ask how much that will be off the bill, the likely reply will be that bearers are not charged separately, they are included in the professional fee.

In the days when all funerals were pretty much the same, a fixed professional fee was regarded as unobjectionable. What’s more, our UK funeral directors have not bigged themselves up into a secular priesthood as they have in the US, neither are they as greedy or objectionable.

But on the one hand the increasing personalisation of funerals is causing the funeral director’s role as event organiser to grow—as is the role of professional funeral event organisers like Sentiment. On the other hand, the growth of the home funeral movement is causing the funeral director’s role, both as event organiser and custodian of the body, to shrink. The one-size-fits-all professional fee is incapable of covering the demands of such a wide variety of funeral clients. As funerals evolve, the professional fee looks increasingly inexact and lacking in transparency. It certainly discriminates against those who would, for whatever reason, unpick the funeral director’s job description and carry out some of those tasks themselves. 

Greater flexibility is called for. It’s time to do away with the professional fee.

How do funeral directors achieve this and still remain profitable? If they’re any good they deserve to be. And let us never make the silly mistake of equating low cost with good value. So, what on earth can they possibly put in its place?

The solution is, actually, perfectly simple. Funeral directors must do what everybody else does, from jobbing gardeners to swanky lawyers.

Charge an hourly rate. 

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