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Monday, 9 November 2009

There’s an interesting letter in this month’s Funeral Service Times from a funeral director, Brian Howard. Actually, it’s more of a suicide note, but we’ll come to that. He’s fed up with people ordering funerals they can’t pay for, or for which their dead people did not make any provision. “In our experience,” he says, “nearly every unpaid funeral is a claim from the social funeral fund DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], but unfortunately because of the data protection act the DWP will not discuss a claim or inform the funeral directors of a problem even though the cheques are made payable to us and we have paid for the funeral on behalf of the claimant.”

When someone who’s skint comes to buy a funeral, the funeral director advises them to apply to the social fund. You’ve got to be completely skint to qualify for a funeral payment from the social fund. You have to fill out a long form. It takes them several weeks to decide if you’re worth it. The sum it pays out is likely to be less than the cost of even a basic funeral. Some funeral directors will not arrange the funeral until they can be sure the funding is in place. Most go ahead and keep their fingers crossed.

Until the last few years, funeral directors displayed low aggression in pursuing bad payers, thinking it would damage their image if they did. They’re now going after them with a vengeance. They have to. There’s a cashflow-threatening amount of money at stake.

Gone are the days of two months’ free credit at the expense of the funeral director. Almost all now demand payment of disbursements upfront. Disbursements are the bills from service and merchandise providers the funeral director pays on your behalf.

Something that really bugs Mr Howard is this: “At present any member of the public can walk into [their local authority] bereavement services and purchase a burial plot, cremation, or cremation plot at the same price as a funeral director. And yet if we are not paid for the funeral we still have to pay the local authority, and the applicant receives the deeds in their name … It appears that we are actually retailing burial plots and cremation service/plots for the local authority, and if this is the case then we should have a mark-up price – at least this would give us a margin of profit to offset non-payment.”

Here is his radical remedy: “I propose that the local authority invoice the applicant for burial plots, cremation plots and cremations, or alternatively stay with the present system, but if we do not receive payment by the time the fees are due we obtain credit from the local authority. They have the machinery in place for debt recovery.”

We can sympathise with Mr Howard—up to a point. But we reflect that funeral directors have worked very hard to be indispensable: to be the sole gateway to all funereal merchandise and service providers. Their business model and their prestige require them to be a one-stop shop for everything a bereaved person needs. They pride themselves on doing everything for their clients, lifting the weight and worry of arranging the funeral off their shoulders. Their message to clients is that of Bob Marley: Don’t worry about a thing / Cos ev’ry little thing gonna be all right. And while this may seem to be very helpful, it is also very controlling and disempowering, both of their clients and their service providers. The Good Funeral Guide believes that the bereaved need to engage with funeral arrangements in a much more hands-on way; that, to paraphrase Beth Knox, once a person is dead the worst thing possible has happened: everything you can do from then on can only make things better. The more you do the better you’ll grieve at the best time for grieving.

Funeral directors have established a stranglehold over funeral arrangements, and this has come back and bitten them on the bum. Local authorities have become lazily dependent on funeral directors to collect their fees. There is no good reason why they shouldn’t collect their own fees from purchasers of graves and cremations. Why on earth don’t they? Because the funeral directors fall over themselves to do it for them. Mr Howard claims that “It appears that we are actually retailing burial plots and cremation service/plots for the local authority, and if this is the case then we should have a mark-up price – at least this would give us a margin of profit to offset non-payment.” No, Mr Howard. You are not a retailer, you are an agent. You make a charge for this in your professional fee.

Local authorities have also become lazily dependent on indispensable funeral directors to arrange for the disposal of dead bodies. The option which is never presented to people is that of refusing to accept responsibility. Citizens Advice gives wrong advice in this matter: “Some people do not leave enough money to pay for even a simple funeral. If this happens, the person arranging the funeral will have to pay for it.” No! Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the responsibility for the disposal of dead bodies lies with the local authority. Anyone is perfectly entitled to walk away from the whole business. It was, therefore, perfectly logical for the government in the 1950s to consider nationalising the funeral industry, and for the same reason it is arguable that it was wrong to abolish the death grant. If more skint people walked away from arranging funerals, or more funeral directors refused to have anything to do with them, the government would very adroitly speed up social fund payments.

Mr Howard concludes by sounding a warning to his fellow funeral directors: “As the wording on the burial purchase forms and application for cremation forms suggests that it is the applicant’s purchase and not the funeral director’s, unless we demand a change in the future the DIY service will be commonplace.” In other words, people will become their own funeral directors. We’re all doomed!

Here Mr Howard betrays a misunderstanding of his role—a misunderstanding possibly brought about by his job title. Were he to revert to the time-honoured title of undertaker he’d be able to see his role more clearly. When people take upon themselves the responsibility for disposing of their dead they make themselves accountable in law to their local authority and they cannot shift that legal responsibility to anyone else. They can, though, depute the care of their dead person to someone who will undertake to do that—someone who will also undertake to make funeral arrangements on their behalf as instructed. The local authority is in charge. The executor or administrator is the possessor of the body, the funeral director. The undertaker is custodian and agent, merely.

If funeral directors have become victims of their own self-inflicted indispensability, that is their fault. There are a great many coffin makers, florists, caterers, printers and secular celebrants who will greet this with a smirk. They’d be very happy to deal with the public direct. Coffin makers in particular would be happy to see their coffins sold at a far less exorbitant markup.

Mr Howard, I think you are going to have to bite the bullet on this one. It is industrious indispensability that maintains your pre-eminence. The price you pay is the odd unpaid bill. It’s worth it. If all providers of services and merchandise start to invoice funeral consumers direct, you unravel; you fall apart. Shh. Your letter exposes the extreme fragility of the funeral director’s business model.

To JH: if you will give me a good email address I want to reply to you.

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