Unmasking the wolves

Charles Cowling

Over in the US, Service Corporation International (SCI) the multinational deathcare conglomerate which, here in the UK, begat Dignity, is in hot water. Again. One of its funeral homes, trading under the name of Stanetsky Memorial Chapels, mixed up two bodies. When they realised what they’d done, it seems that they illegally exhumed the one they’d already buried (it had enjoyed a good Jewish funeral first), and reburied it in the right place. Read the story here.

Were we to generalise from this in the light of our experience in Britain we might easily reach the conclusion that big chains of funeral directors are especially susceptible to Wrong Body Syndrome. Not all, mind. I’ve never heard of our Dignity making that mistake.

Yet I think we might agree, nonetheless, that even when they don’t make egregious mistakes, big chains are systemically incapable of giving the grieving public what they want. They know this, of course. It’s why they trade under the names of the families they’ve bought up. It’s the vital point the financial journalists always miss when writing about the trading position of Dignity, talking up the attractiveness of its shares. The market, they say, as if it were an unravished bride, is ripe for consolidation. Orthodox economics teaches us that consolidation’s what’s best for markets. But funeral consumers want small, intimate, private and personal. They want boutique. If they can have that at a lower price than the big beasts charge, they who enjoy economies of scale which they do not then pass on to consumers, it’s win-win for consumers all the way. Dignity shareholders urgently need to know this.

Again over in the US, “At least seven funeral homes say Robert Christiansen, director of Christiansen Funeral Home in Greenville and a cremation service in Wyoming, engaged in “cybersquatting” by registering variations of their Internet sites.” He then had all traffic to these sites redirected to him. Darkly devious. Read it all here.

If we are to generalise from this, those of us who know the funeral industry would probably agree that over here in the UK we, too, are aware of some pretty dark arts in the matter of marketing. And I use two examples of US malpractice simply to show that there’s nothing peculiarly British about the British way of undertaking.

Let’s come home, now, focus on the matter of transparency of ownership and celebrate the victory on 22 September 2010 of Daniel Robinson and Sons over LM Funerals trading in Epping as DC Poulton and Sons. Daniel Robinson complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about three press ads:

The first press ad stated “SERVING THE LOCAL COMMUNITY SINCE 1888 … DC Poulton & Sons is one of the area’s longest established funeral directors, proudly serving the community for over 120 years”. The ad also featured an image of Howard Poulton.

The second press ad stated “Serving the local community since 1888 … DC Poulton & Sons is one of the area’s longest established funeral directors, proudly serving the community for over 120 years!”.

The third press ad also featured an image of Howard Poulton and stated “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888 …With over 70 years combined experience, Mr Howard Poulton, his Funeral Director Peter Wright and their team of funeral professionals are available to assist you”.

Daniel Robinson & Sons Ltd challenged whether:

1. the claims “Serving the local community since 1888” in ads (a) and (b), and the claim “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888” in ad (c) were misleading because they understood that the company that owned Poulton & Sons was established in 2003; and

2. the image of Howard Poulton gave the misleading impression that the business was still family run because they believed that Howard Poulton had retired.

The ASA upheld 1 (above). “The ASA noted that the certificate sent by DC Poulton showed they had provided services to the residents of Epping since 1890, but noted it did not state the type of services being offered. We considered, therefore, that it did not constitute evidence to demonstrate that they had been in business as funeral directors since 1888 as claimed. We also noted that the company had been acquired by LM Funerals in 1997 and that they had continued to operate under the name DC Poulton since that time. We considered that the claims “DC Poulton & Sons is one of the areas longest established funeral directors” and “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888” implied that the company was still owned by the Poulton family, that ownership was “original” and unchanged, which was not the case. In the absence of a prominent statement making clear that the business was owned by LM Funerals, we concluded that the ads were likely to mislead.”

The ASA did not uphold 2 (above): “We noted that Howard Poulton was still employed by DC Poulton and involved in the business and had not retired. We therefore concluded that the ads were not misleading.”

The ASA directed: The ads must not appear again in their current form. [Source]

For all that, DC Poulton continues to make this claim on its website: “D. C. Poulton & Sons was founded in 1888 as a builders and undertakers”.

Transparency of ownership is a hugely sensitive issue in the funeral industry. Independents rage about it, the big beasts chuckle at their impotence, and all the while funeral consumers are, basically, conned. They find out too late, if at all.

Some local authorities, bless them, try to warn consumers with this no-holds-barred text on their websites: “There has been a decline in recent years of the local family operated funeral director. Few people notice that large firms now own many family funeral directors throughout the country. The new owners may not be disclosed on shop signs or Letterheads. These firms may continue trading upon the inference of the caring qualities and local connection of the old family firm. Similarly, older people tend to reflect upon the past socialist principles of the “Co-op” funeral services, which may no longer apply.” [Source] I especially approve of the way they consign the Co-op’s socialist principles to history.

On 14 August 2008 Birmingham Trading Standards officer Derek Hoskins, in a letter to SAIF, detailed the laws concerning transparency of ownership:

“from 26th May 2008, the true ownership of a business must be conveyed to a consumer before he makes a transactional decision. I.e. if a company is trading as “I’M A SOLE TRADER FUNERALS LTD.”, is owned by “NATIONAL FUNERALS UK LTD”. The customer has the right to know whom they are really dealing with BEFORE they make their choice.” [Full text here]

It’s only fair and right that they should, of course. But is the law working as Mr Hoskins thinks it ought? No. The wolves continue to parade themselves in sheep’s clothing.

How do the big funeral chains get away with camouflaging themselves as they do? I hope a reader with a good legal brain will enlighten us.

At the same time, I very much hope that the ASA judgement above will renew the determination of independent funeral directors to look very closely at the ads of their wolf competitors and take them on with renewed zeal. You don’t just owe this yourselves, you owe it to consumers, too.

And should you need any more impetus to do that, consider this: Marks and Spencer are thinking about entering the market. Read and despair here.

14 thoughts on “Unmasking the wolves

  1. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    Good on yer, Charles, we need you on the bridge.
    Jonathan, spot on, thanks, maybe I should ask you to edit scripts for me! I merely intended to point out that the FD concerned was very traditional in aspect, but had all or many of the virtues that radicals rightly champion (empathy, open-mindedness) and none of the disadvantages that seem to accrue to at least some of the more conventional FDs I’ve worked with (inhibition, a sort of freezing formality where it’s not wanted, a lack of imagination, a deep conservatism about what a funeral should be.)
    Bit late picking this up, sorry.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Ah-ha! You’re right, Kingfisher. Not that Dignity had the manners to reply to my email, of course. I have grown used to Dignity’s majestic silence. They think I’ll go away. I won’t.


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Kingfisher

    It’s great to see a post like this from Charles. I’m sure most of us true Independents battle against the use of words like “family” and “established” on a regular basis – and only with the input of people like Charles will this ever change. If the trade associations that represent the independents cave in at the merest threat, we need to do something about this ourselves, and only as a group can we really do this to any effect.

    My ex-boss, for whom I have a huge deal of respect, used to say “If these big firms are so great, why don’t they trade under their own names? What have they got to be embarrased about? Why do they have to find sly ways to advertise?”

    If anyone has tried the link in David’s first post on this trail, it doesn’t work any more. Round one to Charles, I think.


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    A full stop after ‘meticulous’, getting rid of ‘- and’ and beginning a new sentence there, and putting a semi-colon after ‘approach’, Rupert, would have given Gloriamundi’s paragraph a different implication. Interestingly, that’s the one I inferred from his/her piece, and your own surprised me.


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Gloria, it may not even be that your indy friend is particularly cheap, it’s just that the Co-op are so astonishingly expensive.
    Also, I worry about what professional behaviour you think defines a radical. I hope we are efficient, empathetic and meticulous and talk well to family and friends, that’s not where we part company with the traditional mainstream.


    Charles Cowling
  6. Continuing Series : Dark Clouds Over Funeral Industry « James Patton Funeral Directors

    […] turned to one of my favorite sites, The Good Funeral Guide, out of the UK. In a recent post, Unmasking The Wolves, Charles Cowling […]


  7. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    A local indy I know, respect and like was discussing this area with me recently. I asked him if he thought it odd that his competitors looked like indies but were in fact in the Co-op. “How would anyone know?” I asked. “When they get the bill,” was his response…so if he is a little cheaper and a lot better, then maybe that’s why he is very busy indeed.

    He opened a second branch in a town nearby where there is a long-established local family business which is in fact in the Co-op. He expected to do fewer than ten funerals in his first year, just as a start-up, and has done 40.

    Interestingly, he is very efficient, talks well to families and friends, is empathetic and meticulous – and very old-fashioned indeed, in his general approach. No radical he. He says he is almost busier than he can manage.


    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    charles

    People are price shopping much more than they were, XP. It’s an encouraging start, perhaps?


    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    X.Piry

    All interesting stuff, as usual, but is it part of the bigger problem?

    People go to “Mr Smith, the undertaker”, because that’s who they used when Grandma died. If the same people are employed there, the family won’t mind too much if Mr Smith’s is now owned by “large conglomerate plc”. If different people are there, the family are unlikely to shop around, because families don’t. They will just shrug their shoulders and, as long as nobody really messes up the funeral, just write it off as a sign of the times.

    That’s why your place in this world is so vital, Charles, at encouraging people to think about funerals before they need to arrange one. Only when people do that, will they start being interested in who owns the FD.

    Am I cynical or realistic? Time will tell.


    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    I would add to the above that I was unable to report the matter to Liverpool Trading Standards because the department deals only with complaints from citizens of Liverpool. Any Liverpudlian reader may like to follow this link: http://www.liverpool.gov.uk/Business/Trading_standards/Contact_Us/index.asp


    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    I have this morning (11/11) contacted Hardacre’s by phone. A member of staff confirms they are owned by Dignity and disclaimed responsibility for the text on the website. This, he gave me to understand, was Dignity’s responsibility.

    I have written the following to Dignity and await a reply:

    Hardacre’s Funeral Director’s in Liverpool claims on its website to be an independent business “Run by a family for the family”. I have ascertained from Hardacre’s that the business is owned by yourselves, Dignity Caring Funerals.

    I question whether this contravenes the Business Names Act (1985). If it does, what steps do you intend to take to rectify matters?


    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    charles

    Well I can’t see any mention of Dignity, even in the tiniest print. Are we missing something? I’ll contact Dignity and ask for a statement. They aren’t famous for those.

    Thanks, David.


    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    David

    Here is a prime example of this, Hardacres Funeral Service in Liverpool where taken over by Dignity earlier this year yet their website still shows them as independent.

    http://www.liverpoolfuneraldirectors.co.uk


    Charles Cowling

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