Channel 4’s Dispatches film Undercover Undertaker (Monday 25 June) has shocked viewers with its undercover revelations at Co-operative Funeralcare, the obvious and most deserving target of such treatment*.
The production line nature of the ‘hub’ depicted in the programme is the corollary of consolidation and rationalisation in the funeral industry. Its acceptability to consumers has never been tested by market research, but it is a standard feature of consolidated businesses in the industry. Many Funeralcare customers who now realise their loved one was taken to a hub will be devastated. Bereaved people can in future make sure this does not happen to them. There are plenty of boutique funeral directors who can meet their needs and wishes.
What the film failed to offer viewers was a balanced survey of the industry as a whole. As a consequence, the good name of all funeral homes stands in jeopardy. This is unfair. Standards of practice in the funeral industry generally mirror those in any other industry. Co-operative Funeralcare offers a typical example of egregious corporate cynicism where the pursuit of profit has betrayed the trust of consumers and the hard work and decency of many of its employees. The majority of funeral homes in the UK are independent businesses ranging from the indifferent to the excellent and which care for their dead on their premises. Wickedness is rare, scandals few. The very best abide by standards which are as startlingly high as Funeralcare’s are low.
In the UK it is illegal to operate an unlicensed cattery, so it is no surprise that there have been renewed calls for regulation. The codes of conduct and compliance regimes of the two industry bodies, the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF), have, justly, been called into question. Co-operative Funeralcare is a member of the NAFD, a body which supports self-regulation.
However, if the experience of children in care and the elderly in nursing homes is anything to go by, funeral consumers are mistaken if they suppose that licensing funeral directors and subjecting their funeral homes to an independent inspection regime will be a silver bullet. In the USA the professionalisation of funeral directors has driven up prices, while the inspection regime of the Federal Trade Commission has failed to root out malpractice.
The best hope for funeral shoppers remains vigorous consumer scrutiny. We only buy an average of two funerals in a lifetime, so it’s no surprise we’re not very good at it. Worse, it’s a distress purchase – one we make when our mind is overcast by grief. But even at such a time it is possible to make an informed choice, and there is every incentive to do so. First, we owe it to the person who has died. Second, the experience of a good funeral can be transformative of grief. Third, everyone in Britain can find, within ten miles of their home, a decent, dedicated caring funeral director who will look after them well.
*Co-operative Funeralcare lays claim to ethical standards that set it apart from its commercial rivals, but it conducts itself like any corporate predator. Founded by the people for the people, Funeralcare is in dispute with the GMB union, which it has de-recognised, setting it in clear breach of its founding principles. Created in order to enable working people to buy what they would not otherwise be able to afford, Co-operative Funeralcare enjoys economies of scale which enable it to sell funerals at lower cost than its independent competitors. Funeralcare does not pass these benefits on to funeral shoppers but, instead, charges, on average, several hundred pounds more than most independent businesses [source: http://bit.ly/nCZGJT], rendering it commercially incoherent.
For all those who watched Undercover Undertaker and despaired, the Good Funeral Guide offers the following simple five-point guide to finding a good funeral director.
5 Things to know before you arrange a Funeral
If you saw the recent Dispatches programme on Channel 4 and are concerned about making the right choices when organising a funeral, we hope this information will empower you.
1. Take your time
Unless you have religious reasons for doing otherwise, take your time. If someone dies at home by all means call a funeral director and ask them to collect the body but know that you can have them transferred to another funeral director for a nominal charge before any paperwork is signed and this also applies if the person has already been collected because they died in a nursing home. If the person died in a hospital there may be no rush – they can stay in the mortuary until you’ve chosen a funeral director you’re happy with. If the hospital does not have a mortuary, a nominated funeral director will look after them until you arrange for a transfer. By all means call family and friends to tell them that death has occurred, but don’t feel that you need to tell them the place and time of the funeral in the same call. Unless the coroner is involved you must register the death within 5 days.
2. Ask a friend to help
The chances are you’ve never organised a funeral before. There’s lots to learn, just at a time when you may feel least able to cope, so enlist the help of a friend. Try to choose someone who is level-headed, organised, not afraid to ask questions of you, and the funeral director, and in whom you can confide about any financial constraints.
3. Know your options
The main choices are between burial and cremation – unless your religion prescribes one or the other. Cremation is almost always cheaper. You could can costs to a minimum by having no ceremony and opting for direct cremation, holding a funeral/memorial and/or ash scattering event a few days, weeks or months later at a place and time that’s right for you and the person who died.
4. Know and stick to your budget
Your budget should determine what sort of funeral you choose, not the other way around. Because we want to ‘do them proud’ it’s very easy to overspend. Remember that, ultimately, a good send-off is determined by what you say and do, not what you spend. Ask your friend to help you stick to your budget and think about how people can play their part in the preparations and ceremony. Remember that many funeral directors will ask for all of the 3rd-party fees up front (this could be up to £1000 for cremation in some parts of the country, even more for burial), with the balance to be paid soon after the funeral, so you will need to have the funds available. It’s perfectly OK to ask friends and family to help with the cost, and much more practical than buying flowers which will usually only be seen briefly. Finally, be sure to claim any benefit you might be entitled to.
5. Shop around
The cost of funerals varies hugely. Call and ask for quotes from all your local funeral directors. Evaluate how your request is dealt with and give each one stars out of five. Don’t worry about qualifications. Rather, go and interview three funeral directors and take your friend with you for support and to keep you on track. Consider asking to go behind the scenes so that you can see where the person who has died will stay. Finally, balance cost against quality of service and go with the nicest funeral director you can afford.
Note: this advice applies to those who wish to employ a funeral director. There is no law saying you have to. If you think you would like to care for your own at home, please click the link here.