Robbing the dead while they’re still alive

Charles Cowling

Consumers are best served by people whose interests are their interests – people who want what their customers want. Ethics-driven natural burial ground operators are a good example. This is an equation, so it works the other way around.

There’s not much understanding of this in the funeral industry. There are shining exceptions, but their example is seldom spotlighted. I’m thinking here of a big business like AW Lymn which goes out of its way to trade transparently and join up arranging a funeral to conducting it. I am thinking of AB Walker, a business old enough and sufficiently well thought of not to give a stuff when this blog criticises it, but which extended the hand of friendship and listened to what I said with astonishing good cheer and magnanimity. I am thinking, too, of businesses like Bristol South Funeral Services whom I visited yesterday. They’re minnows, a new start-up. If people knew just how lovely they are, let me tell you, they’d be swamped.

Perhaps it is because the funeral industry has been subjected to so little consumer scrutiny that honour, ethics and excellence, unsung, have gone unrewarded. Result? Too many funeral directors have lost their consumer focus. They seem to be more interested in each other, actually. In the absence of healthy competition there is, often, morbid, rabid mutual loathing of an intensity which would surprise and revolt you. Where the best are not singled out for praise and reward by consumer advocates (I hope I’ll soon be joined by many others), open, healthy competition for market share can turn into a very nasty, underhand turf war in which the interests of consumers are confounded. Funeral directors are united by nothing so much as a perceived threat to their business. Here’s an example. The prospect of people conducting home funerals, if reckoned realistic, will, I’ll put my house on it, bring some local groups together like a bag of rats for just long enough to agree to deny these people any help. I shall highlight the first case as soon as I hear of it. Perhaps I just have.

The most egregious example of turf war at its most clamorous, ugly, bloody, nasty, underhand and atrocious is that of the marketing of funeral plans. The consumer hears nothing of the clamour, only the sweet siren songs of helpful plan providers playing both to the finer feelings of decent, thoughtful folk who want to die with everything in order, and to their terror of steeply rising costs (32.8 per cent in the last five years). There’s a big, big question mark over this latter claim. In the words of one of my correspondents, “If we look at the elements of a cremation, typically costing £2500 now, around 28-30% (£700) goes in cremation and doctors fees. So if the rest of the charges (due to the funeral director) go up by 3% pa (about the rate of inflation), for five years, that £1800 will rise to £2086. So for the Dignity prediction to be true, that funerals will cost £4,000 by 2015, that means the price of the cremation and doctors fees will have to rise to nearly £2000! This is clearly nonsense (or the reason why Dignity is buying crematoria!)”

The opening shots in this war were fired, I think, by the disgraced Service Corporation International (now, as the result of a management buyout, Dignity, and no longer scandal ridden). So effectively have Dignity and The Co-operative Group sold their plans and cornered future market share that consumer choice in the future is under the gravest threat. The independents are fighting back, but they can’t risk taking hits and already some are complaining that they are having to honour plans made 15 years ago for no profit. The winners will be the The Co-op and Dignity, whose prices are currently higher than most independents, who do not, generally, offer the same level of personal service and, in the case of The Co-operative, is gravely susceptible to negligence and malpractice.

Do these plans offer anything like value for money? In the words of my correspondent: “If you buy the Co-op plan over 5 years, the total cost of their mid plan rises from £2825 (already nearly £300 above the cost of an average funeral – the Golden Charter mid plan is £2549) to £3825 (another 6% + pa), so the customer is actually paying for the projected price rise themselves!”

Does an insurance scheme offer better value? We now hear of insurance companies who will pay out only to funeral directors who will bung them £250 first. There’s no shortage of scavengers picking the pockets of the dead.

Every funeral plan sold denies those responsible for arranging a funeral their choice of funeral director; every plan sold is a nail in the coffin of breadth of choice. What seems to be the consumer’s friend is in fact the consumer’s enemy.

If independent funeral directors were governed by the best interests of their clients they would call this war off – because there’s an equation at stake here. Instead, they are drumming up their own destruction. And they won’t stop, it’s too desperate and way beyond the reach of reason, neither will charities like Age Concern (Age Concern, for heavens’ sake!!) stop promoting the Dignity plan, until we can blow a whistle loud enough and show the world a better way to pay for a funeral.

My correspondent thinks this is a case for the OFT. I suspect that this is a cause better served by consumer education. You think?

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