The Good Funeral Guide Blog

FFMA reports positive start to the coffin certification scheme at AGM  

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

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(all pictures copyright © 2016FFMA)

Press release from the FFMA with an update on the latest on the coffin testing protocol.

 

‘The funeral industry body, The Funeral Furnishing Manufacturer’s Association (FFMA) has reported a very positive start to its coffin and casket certification scheme at their Annual General Meeting on the 2nd November 2016.

David Crampton – President, in his opening remarks gave thanks to everyone who has been involved in its development and to all of the FFMA members for their patience whilst waiting to submit their coffins for testing. David said “The FFMA scheme has been developed to meet concerns raised by the cremation sector organisations, namely, health and safety issues. Our scheme has been fully endorsed by the cremation sector associations who have worked in partnership with us since requesting our support 4 years ago. The scheme is fully transparent and most importantly, anyone can visit the FFMA website and view the growing number of coffins which have been issued with a unique certification stamp”.

To date 56 FFMA members have uploaded their company profiles to the new and improved FFMA website. 136 coffin, casket and shroud products have been uploaded, 41 of which have already passed the testing protocol. Another 26 having been received by Intertek and are awaiting testing. The vast majority of UK coffin manufacturers have committed to the FFMA scheme. An estimated investment of over £250,000 will be made by those members to certify their products fit for purpose and allay any concerns of the cremation industry.

Julian Atkinson gave a presentation aptly illustrating (with light hearted humour) the key points of the tests. The aim of the presentation is for the FFMA to communicate the basic principles of this highly detailed testing protocol in an easy to understand manner.  The scheme ensures “coffins” are safe to carry and load, are fully combustible, render a compliant amount of ash volume and can therefore be deemed as fit for purpose.  

For more information, please visit the FFMA website: www.FFMA.co.uk or contact: Sue Bullock  (FFMA Secretary), bullocksuee@gmail.com

-Ends-

Local SEO for funeral directors

Friday, 4 November 2016

seo

 

Posted by Mark Sharron

This is the fourth part in the “SEO for Funeral Directors” series.  Previous posts can be found here:

Quick Introduction

I am the founder/director of Sussex SEO Ltd.  I have been building websites for clients and optimising them to be found in Google and other search engines since 2006. 

This post will focus on “local SEO” and should build nicely on my previous entries.  It’s always a little difficult to know where to begin so I’ll start with a quick explanation of Google’s first page of results for and build on each concepts/techniques as the article progresses.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below.

What is meant by local SEO

Discounting PPC you have two opportunities to rank for any location based keyword e.g. Brighton Funerals / Brighton Funeral Director.

  1. The local 3 pack, commonly referred to as Google maps.
  2. The traditional 10 organic spots on the home page.

Both the local pack and organic results share a number of common ranking factors; however there are some unique differences required to secure a position in the coveted local pack.  

Creating a local signal for your website can be distilled into three core areas:

Key Concepts

  • Google Maps/My Business
    • Location of Your Business
    • Google My Business/Google Plus
    • NAP Consistency
  • Onsite SEO
    • Business Name / Domain
    • Entities vs Keywords
    • Entity Relationships / Knowedge Graph / Entity Databases (less scary than its sounds)
    • Understanding Semantic Search
    • Maps
    • Youtube Part 1
    • Linking Out
    • Structured Data (this one is a bit scary)
  • Offiste SEO
    • Links
    • Citations
    • Youtube Part 2

Assuming I haven’t lost 90% of the GFG’s readers already, to get things started I’ll explain each of the key concepts, what they are and how they fit into the larger puzzle.

Google Maps / My Business:

Location of Your Business

The first thing to check is the physical location of your business.   Google your keyword, in this case Funeral Directors + Location and look at where the map pins for where your competitors appear.

Google’s objective is to return local results.   If your physical business address is located outside the area you will not be able to get a placement in the local pack.  The same rule holds true if your business is on the perifphory of a locale.   The further you are away from Google’s map centrum the harder it is to rank (not impossible, just harder).

Google My Business

Google My Business (formerly Google Plus, Google Local, Google Places) is the lynchpin that holds everything together. 

A Google business listing is an online profile, it is free to sign up and requires you enter your business name, a link to your website, phone number, opening times, logo, images, email address and business classification.

The key is to fill out your profile 100%.  Until recently it was possible to upload a description however ability has been rescinded giving increased weight to your business name, website URL and website copy.

Google will insist on verifying your business listing with a postcard.  These usually take 1-2 weeks to arrive and will contain a PIN number that must be submitted before your listing will go live.

Ensuring your business listing / associated Google plus page are active / updated regularly, joining local / related communities and acquiring high scoring reviews are also essential ranking ingredients.

NAP Consistency

NAP is short for “Name, Address, Phone Number.”  Google checks to ensure these details are aligned between your Google Plus page and your website.   There are a few important factors to consider.

  1. Ensure your NAP data matches Google Maps.
  • Correct: Brighton, The City of Brighton and Hove
  • Incorrect: Brighton, East Sussex
  1. Place your NAP in your website’s footer.
  2. Ensure your NAP data in your website matches your Google Business listing 100%.

Onsite SEO:

Business Name / Domain:

SEO is a labelling exercise.  Its easier to rank if your business name / domain is a partial match or exact match.   At the very least include “Funerals” or “Funeral Director” in your domain.  It will make your life a LOT easier.

That’s the east stuff out of the way…

Entities vs Keywords

This next section will explore onsite SEO starting with the use of language on your website.  To give you a quick grounding in local SEO it helps to understand the difference between an entity and a keyword.

A keyword is something a user types into the search engine to find something. E.g. Brighton Funeral Director or Sussex Funeral Director

An entity is person, a place an object or a thing.

For example:

  • Brighton (entity) a place
  • Sussex (entity) a place
  • Funeral (entity) a thing/ceremony
  • Funeral director (entity) a thing/profession

Entities are usually associated/related to other entities.  If we review the “onsite SEO” article I posted last year, you can create a ranking signal using placement of keyword throughout your website. 

Avoid Over Optimisation

Placement of too many of the same keyword within page content (more than 4% density) may result into Google penalising your site for over optimisation. 

One of the work arounds is use of related language within the text on your site e.g. coffin, death, cremation, burial to build relevance around the funerary theme.

This technique can be used to boost your website’s “local” relevance by understanding which entities are associated with your “business area” and working these into the fabric of your website.

The easiest way to examine these is via Google’s knowledge graph.   I’ll use Brighton as the example. Click to make it bigger. 

mark1

 

The important points to pick up on are the entities (locations) that fall within the greater Brighton area, these include Portslade, Falmer, Peacehaven.   If you zoom in on the map you will also find Rottingdean, Whitehawk, Hove, Saltdean, Roedean and a lot more.

In addition, you will notice points of interest located within Brighton and Hove (these are also entities).

Drill down deeper and you will find references to people (check Wikipedia).

Semantic Search

It is these associations of entities and related language that forms the basis of semantic search which is an un-necessarily complicated way of explaining that the search engine is able to understand that concepts are related to one another other.   To cite the above example if I reference “Rottingdean, Whitehawk and Fatboy Slim” the search engine will understand I’m talking about Brighton and Hove.

Local Signals:

To further boost the relevance of your site you can add “local signals.”  Placement of related entities within the text goes a long way but there’s more to it. 

Google Maps:

Add an embedded Google map with your business listing and add a link back to your Google maps/business listing.

YouTube:

Commission a video with a “local” focus (more on this later).  Embed it on your website.

Embed Reviews:

Embed reviews from Google into your site.  This can be done with Google’s API.  You’ll need to ask your web developer to do this.

Link Out:

Reference points of interest / official local government offices (entities) within you text and link to them (make sure Google links to them from its knowledge graph).

Structured Data:

Structured data is a means of adding an invisible layer of code to a website to a enhance ranking signal or control how a website is displayed within Google’s index.

There are multiple forms of structured data, the one most commonly used is referenced at http://schema.org/

The idea behind structured data is to allow a web master to clarify content to the search engine by marking it up with schema.

https://schema.org/LocalBusiness provides a number of actionable examples e.g.
Without Schema:

 <h1>Sussex Funerals Ltd</h1>
Independent Brighton funeral directors for caring, compassion & choice. Providing excellent 24 hour personal service.
185 Portland Road
Hove, The City of Brighton and Hove
Phone: 01273 736469

With Schema:

  1. <div itemscope itemtype=http://schema.org/LocalBusiness”>
  2. <h1><span itemprop=“name”> Sussex Funerals Ltd</span></h1>
  3. <span itemprop=“description Independent Brighton funeral directors for caring, compassion & choice. Providing excellent 24 hour personal service.</span>
  4. <div itemprop=“address” itemscope itemtype=“http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
  5.   <span itemprop=“streetAddress”>185 Portland Road</span>
  6.   <span itemprop=“addressLocality”> Hove</span>,
  7.   <span itemprop=“addressRegion”> The City of Brighton and Hove</span></div>
  8. Phone: <span itemprop=“telephone”>01273 736469</span></div>

This is just scratching the surface with schema.  You can mark up almost every entity imaginable and create associations using the “sameAs” attribute.   Of all the steps I have listed so far this is without a doubt the least accessible to most and I would recommend speaking with your web developer a preferred digital marketing professional to help implement this step.

Offsite SEO:

Links

Link building is an important part of any SEO campaign; in fact, it is essential to ranking well on

Google other search engines. Google places a heavy emphasis on quality and quantity of inbound links as a measurement of how authoritative/trusted a site is for its subject matter.

 

Counting how many 3rd party websites to your website is a means for Google to the reputation/trust/authority if your website.

 

The more competitive a key phrase being targeted; the more links will be needed to achieve a desired search engine rank for a given keyword.

 

Relevant links will rank your site.  Irrelevant links will either be less effective or cause Google to perceive your site as being less relevant.  To give you some examples:

 

  • Funeral focused site e.g. this one = relevant(good link).
  • Brighton / Sussex focused site = relevant to area (good).
  • Site about Death = indirectly relevant (still good).
  • Site about piano’s = irrelevant (bad)

As mentioned above, links are essential to ranking your website.

 

Citations

 

A citation is an implied link and affects your websites prominence in Google’s local pack.

A citation is simply your business name, address and phone number (NAP) placed on a 3rd party site such as a business directory. The trick is to ensure the NAP matches that placed on your Google Business profile and website.

In addition is important to ensure data such as business opening times are aligned.

YouTube:

Google owns YouTube.  It therefore comes as no surprised that Youtube video’s can help influence local SEO prominence.  Creating a video which references your business details and focuses on one of your primary keywords creates a relevant link, citation and rich media which once embedded into a web page will drive your site’s exposure.  This article provides a comprehensive guide.

Conclusion:

Configuring a website to be found within Google for a desirable keyword (SEO) is at its heart an exercise of two halves:

  • A labelling exercise (keyword research: understanding what users search for and labelling your content accordingly)
  • Matching and exceeding your competition (quality / quantity of relevant content & links)

Any questions ???

 

Lifetime Achievement Award

Thursday, 20 October 2016

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Josefine Speyer, wife of the late Nicholas Albery and co-founder and patron of The Natural Death Centre Charity

 

“Despite the list of contenders for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award being jam packed with luminaries from the death world, the judges were unanimous in their decision that this year the award would be given in recognition of a visionary pioneer, the architect of social change, without whom the Good Funeral Awards would probably never have come into being.

In appreciation of his memory, and in tribute to those dedicated individuals who continue to fulfil his dream 25 years on, the judges humbly, and gratefully, and with the greatest of pleasure announce that the Lifetime Achievement Award 2016 goes to the late Nicholas Albery and the Natural Death Centre charity.”

 

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Bridging the Gap Award

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

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Julian Atkinson, managing director of J. C. Atkinson & Son

The ‘Bridging the Gap’ award was introduced this year specifically to acknowledge the work being done by this particular industry supplier who is doing the most to move the funeral business forward.

Julian Atkinson was given this special award in response to the way his company, J. C Atkinson & Sons Ltd, traditionally a manufacturer of wooden coffins has embraced new, greener products into his range.

Wicker, willow, wool, banana leaf and cardboard products to name a few, coffins made from these materials are often branded as ‘alternative products’, but have now started to become accepted as the norm at funerals.

Along with offering such coffins for sale, J. C. Atkinson’s has invested time and money in educating the funeral industry, encouraging the provision of greener products as part of the normal range, making it easier for families to have a wide variety of choice and enabling individuals to have the type of coffin most suited to them, not just a choice from a selection of veneered or highly polished hardwood coffins for their love one.

Julian’s work in this area has been a large part of the reason other smaller, ‘alternative’ manufacturers have been able to bridge the gap across the funeral industry and enable the public to be given a far wider choice as a whole.

Crematorium Assistant of the Year

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

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‘Brass boy’ aka Steve Biggs, of Mortlake Crematorium

 

Steve Biggs has worked as a Chapel Attendant and Crematorium Technician at Mortlake Crematorium, London for three years. There are a great many people in crematoria throughout the country doing Steve’s job and, like Steve, many of them are unsung heroes, too.  It was a hard choice for the judges to choose one from the deserving nominees, but finally Steve was chosen as this year’s Crematorium Assistant of the Year on the strength of this touching testimonial from a colleague:

“Steve is affectionately known as Brass boy! When Steve is on chapel duty you will see him rubbing the brass door handles, door plates and brass on the catafalque vigorously before the first service in the chapel.

“Steve is particularly sensitive to the needs of bereaved parents. Little baby coffins used to be placed on a very old wooden oak board. He transformed this by carving a heart into the solid oak and cleaned and polished it. For each baby funeral he carefully places tea lights and flowers around the board. He selects appropriate and different music for each and every funeral when parents are unable to attend.

“There was an old wooden cross that used to be placed above the catafalque. The cross was often removed for one service and then need to be put back for the next service. This was done by athletically leaping onto the catafalque and placing on a ledge. This does not look respectful in the chapel and was dangerous. Steve cleverly altered a beautiful oak 5’candle holder to hold a brass cross which could be moved easily and looked in keeping with the chapel and lecterns. Of course he polished it too!

“If nobody is attending the service Steve will select music for the person and attend the service, showing respect by bowing as the curtains close. Of course if someone has asked for no music and no service he carried out their wishes. He carries out the family’s or indeed the deceased’s wishes to the highest standard he can, without judgement or opinion.

“Whilst working in the crematory he cleans and polishes the stainless steel. Having a clean chapel and crematorium shows respect for families and the deceased.

“His colleagues love him because he bakes great cakes and sausage rolls. So the numerous diets that are started often come to an end if Steve appears with a tub of homemade chocolate shortbread or freshly made bread. Steve may be 6’2 with a booming voice but he is a gentleman and more importantly he is a kind and caring. He is moved on many occasions by the grief he comes across. His response to this is to do everything he can to look after those people, often these little touches go unnoticed but not by us.

“In the three years he has been at Mortlake Steve has completed his Crematorium Technicians Training Scheme, passed his advanced Cremator Technicians certificate, and passed 3 modules of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management diploma all with distinctions.”

 

Runner Up in this category: Carolyne Reeve of Teesside Crematorium

An afternoon of education at CDAS

Friday, 14 October 2016

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Adam and Eve as portrayed at the Creation Museum Kentucky illustrating John Troyer’s presentation. 

There’s some interesting stuff going on in the world of academia which can go unnoticed in the frenzied world of Facebook updates and Twitterfeed, and yesterday the GFG took a few hours out to go and listen to some learned folk exploring religious responses to contemporary western death practices at the Centre for Society and Death at the University of Bath.

Introduced by good friend of the GFG Professor Tony Walter, the seminar was attended by an eclectic mixture of academics, undergraduates, postgraduates, eminent experts and interested others. Which we think included us. We put our hands up for that anyway.

Tony started things off with a paper on four ways that religions interact with society’s death practices – promotion, opposition,accommodation and compensation. In a compelling canter through illustrations of various ways different religions interact and influence with societies around the world, Tony touched on Mizuko Kuyo, monotheism’s opposition to ancestor worship, Nepalese Christianity, Madagascan death rituals , the popularity of spiritualism post WW1 and the lack of channels for grief provided in Protestant countries that have perhaps led to the development of bereavement memoirs, bereavement counselling and the association of green spaces and nature with soothing of grief.

Next to speak was Dr. Shirley Firth, presenting a paper on outdoor funeral pyres and the legal battle that began ten years ago when devout Hindu Babaji Davender Ghai was refused permission for a traditional open air pyre by Newcastle City Council. Four years later the Court of Appeal ruled that an outdoor pyre would be lawful if it took place in a structure with walls and an opening in the roof – see here. To date, none have. This could be because of the complexity of the various legal processes that would be involved in gaining planning for outdoor cremation given the likely invocation of the Prevention & Control of Pollution Act or the Environmental Protection Act. Undeterred, Mr Ghai continues to hope for his funeral to take place according to his beliefs, see here.

(As a completely irrelevant aside, readers of the blog with fond memories of THAT scene from the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice may be interested to know that Dr. Firth’s son is the one and only Colin Firth. We didn’t realise this yesterday.)

Third up was Dr. Mansur Ali from Cardiff University, presenting  early results from his research into the response from Muslims in Cardiff to the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013 which is now enacted. Dr. Ali has explored the feelings and beliefs about organ donation among the Islamic community through interviews and focus groups with Islamic scholars, medical professionals and an online survey, and the impact of presumed consent that results from the Act. Entitled ‘Our Bodies Belong to God’, Dr. Ali’s fascinating presentation explored the conflict experienced for Muslims when considering transplantation of organs from or to a body that is considered the property of God and not of oneself. He outlined some of the questions that arose such as ‘if my corneas are donated to someone whose sight is restored as a result but who then goes on to watch pornography (a sin according to Islam), does this make me also a sinner?’ Results from his findings are of significant interest, and he hopes to gain funding for much more comprehensive research.

The afternoon was rounded off by Dr. John Troyer, Director of CDAS who explored the fundamental Christian response to end of life planning in the United States. Definition of when death occurs, who has the right to determine life or death and the influence of fundamental Christianity were covered in a broad ranging presentation –  protests by Christian groups outside the hospital where Terri Schiavo’s persistent vegetative state was allowed to end in death (despite attempted intervention by President George Bush and his brother Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida), and the lack of support of hospice care from some sections of the Christian Fundamentalist movement illustrated his points, and he ended with a slide showing a placard from the current presidential election campaign stating ‘1st choice for President – God, 2nd choice – Jesus, 3rd choice Trump.’

And on that rather terrifying note, the seminar was over.

Mortuary Assistant of the Year

Sunday, 9 October 2016

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Louise Milligan

Louise Milligan, bereavement services and mortuary manager at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, is a shining example of caring mortuary assistant whose behind-the-scenes role means that her work is rarely seen by members of the public.

In the case of Louise, the testimony of one member of the public explains why she is this year’s award winner:

“Whilst my mother was at the Christie hospital in Manchester, following her death, we met an amazing lady called Louise Milligan. She was the manager there but I have been told she has now left to work as the mortuary manager at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport. She sat down with me and listened as I vented all my emotions at her and then offered me a cup of tea, which made everything seem better, which makes me smile now! The post mortem was done by her and we couldn’t tell mum had even had one. I asked Louise to show me the stitches as I didn’t believe it and she showed me that the cut was made to the side so that mum could wear her blouse for her funeral. I was so grateful as my mum looked amazing and no cuts or stitches were seen by anyone, it made the post mortem worries go away.

I spoke to two other doctors at Christie about her and was amazed how she has fought for better care after death for patients and physically goes to the wards to help and train staff in care. If requested she dresses the deceased and makes sure that they leave in a very high standard. It amazes me how one person can have so much passion and commitment to a job and care for their patients. Louise called them her patients as she sees them as people and I’ll never forget when she said ’Everyone deserves the highest standards of care. I treat everyone as if they were my own as everyone is somebody’s someone’. She is so warm and caring it is a pleasure to be in her company and you can see that she genuinely cares for everyone she meets.”

NOTE: The correct term for a someone who works in a mortuary is an Anatomical Pathology Technician (APT). Louise is shining example of caring APT whose behind-the-scenes role mean that her work is rarely seen by members of the public. APTs support doctors during post mortems. They need a strong stomach for unusual sights and smells. In 2016 Louise won a Christie Award for her work – http://www.christie.nhs.uk/professionals/work-with-us/you-made-a-difference-award/

 

Runner Up in this category: Lara-Rose Iredale of Guys & St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust

Most Innovative Death Public Engagement Event

Saturday, 8 October 2016

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Bristol Culture

‘Death and the Human Experience’ & ‘Death, is it your right to choose?’

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Lavish, visually stunning and highly accessible for people of all ages, Death and the Human Experience was conspicuously successful in spurring people to think and talk about death and dying.

The death exhibitions and events programme were amongst the most successful the museum service has seen with almost 63,000 visitors to ‘death: the human experience’. Several thousand people attended the events in person, and listened to recordings on-line, such as the Assisted Dying debate, ‘What is a good death?’ talk, Death Professionals in Conversation, and the Day of the Dead celebration and Death Fair

People in the UK are reluctant to talk about death and dying. They are also reluctant to record their funeral wishes and to make financial provision for their funeral.

By means of stunningly visual exhibits this exhibition encouraged visitors to start the conversation. They were urged to consider ethical issues, differing attitudes to death and how different cultures deal with the end of life – and have dealt with death from earliest times.

The exhibition displayed a diverse range of objects, from a modern Ghanaian fantasy coffin to a Victorian mourning dress, and revealed captivating stories from cultures across the world.

 

Runner Up in this category: Brum YODO

Traditional Funeral Director of the Year

Friday, 7 October 2016

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Trevor E. W. Hickton

 

Trevor EW Hickton Ltd cleaves to funeral traditions and justly prides itself on its ceremonial excellence. The firm is also open-minded about new trends and works in a mutually supportive spirit with other independent funeral businesses.

Cradley Heath-based funeral directors Trevor E.W. Hickton have been carrying out the funerals of Black Country folk since 1909. Hickton’s is an inseparable part of its community and the family firm is now into its fourth generation.

The Black Country is proud of its funeral traditions – as it is of all its distinctive traditions – and Hickton’s gives Black Country people precisely the service they want and expect. The firm says of itself: “We uphold age-old funeral traditions our family have always used still to this day. Top hats, tail coats and paging the funeral cortège is policy.” In everything they do, Hickton’s employees are smart and dignified and the firm’s funeral vehicles are always immaculate.

Traditional in outlook the firm may be, as the vast majority of their clients expect, but Hickton’s also has a genuine passion for and interest in new ideas, opportunities and choices for families. Instead of being threatened by this they are – and this is rare in the funeral industry — embracing it. They are willing to offer families a whole range of choice of services and products which can help make funerals special and personal.

In an industry in which best practice-sharing is patchy and funeral directors regard competitors with hostile suspicion, Hickton’s is laudably and conspicuously collegial. The firm supports smaller independent funeral directors by renting out mortuary space, vehicles and staff. This has created a genuinely supportive community of independent funeral directors in the West Midlands who work to help each other.

Trevor E.W. Hickton’s 5 funeral homes cover the Black Country and Birmingham.

 

Runners Up in this category:

Albany Funerals 

Suzan Davies of Abbey Funeral Services

 

Scotland leads the way

Monday, 3 October 2016

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The GFG slipped over the border last week to take part in one of three Round Table Discussions on Funeral Poverty hosted by Angela Constance MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security & Equalities. We were in grand company – sitting round the table were a number of fine Scottish independent funeral directors along with representatives from NAFD, SAIF, Co-operative Funeralcare, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Chief Executives of Golden Charter and Dignity PLC.

It was, shall we say, slightly surprising to find Mike McCollum, Dignity CEO and beneficiary of regular and healthy remuneration as a result of the group’s successful steady growth at a discussion on funeral poverty  Perhaps the pleas from this post on the blog in 2014 hadn’t fallen completely on deaf ears; maybe his diary is booked up a couple of years in advance, but at least he was there. (Albeit we didn’t notice much in the way of constructive solutions coming from his part of the table.)

Anyways, as they say oop north, the meeting was a fascinating one. Scotland is forging ahead with issues that Westminster just doesn’t appear to want to address. The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill has been enacted and provision has been made for all sorts of far reaching improvements, including licensing of funeral directors, introduction of a funeral director’s code of practice and guidance on the costs of making funeral arrangements. The Round Table discussions are part of a consultation process recommended in the comprehensive (and well worth a read) Review for Scottish Government on Funeral Poverty in Scotland by John Birrell and Fraser Sutherland, published earlier this year, and findings will be brought together at the first national conference on funeral poverty at Norton Park Conference Centre in Edinburgh on 16th November. (Tickets for the conference are free, to register for a place please email julie.dunk@iccm-uk.com by Friday 4th November).

Much of the discussion ranged over the current inadequacies of the Social Fund Funeral Payment and the things that were needed to improve the system. An online eligibility checker was agreed to be essential, as was swifter decision making by the DWP. Simplifying the criteria required to be eligible and a simplified form were both cited as being necessary to make it easier for families to apply, and the introduction of allowing a funeral director or other body to liaise with the DWP on behalf of a family were suggestions that met with general approval.

Currently, nobody appears to know how many families are in receipt of  SFFP payments, this data is not available from the DWP, but there are clearly growing numbers of people who find it difficult if not impossible to find the money to pay for a funeral. Where families are making an application to the SFFP, most funeral directors require a payment in advance to cover the costs of burial or cremation. As Lucy Coulbert pointed out, “I have to pay the local crematorium just under £1,000 per cremation. If the application is unsuccessful and the family isn’t able to find the money, that leaves me £1,000 out of pocket. I can’t afford to take that risk.” Knowing that an application would be successful could alleviate the need to require an impoverished family to come up with such a large amount of money in advance, as the funeral director concerned would be assured of reimbursement for the payment of disbursements.

The current allocation of £700 towards ‘other costs’ once the cremation or burial fees have been paid by the SFFP is the maximum amount available, and the ‘other costs’ have to include the cost of a coffin, a minister or officiant and the undertaker’s fees. Unsurprisingly, there were calls for this capped figure to be increased to a more realistic amount, and to increase in line with inflation, but this led to the old conundrum – and much discussed issue – of defining a simple funeral.

One would have thought that what constitutes a simple funeral shouldn’t be that difficult a thing to agree on, but without the will of the industry as a whole to adopt a specific standard and a reasonable (if locally varying) price for the same, it doesn’t seem to be possible. Having been scrapped by the NAFD in 2014 as a required provision in their Code of Conduct for being unworkable and unpoliceable, there is apparently little inclination to revisit the concept; indeed the idea was described as potentially being considered price fixing, or a cartel, but according to Nick Wilcocks, from yourfuneralchoice.com, the vast majority of funeral directors do offer what would be considered a simple funeral (collection and care of the deceased, a simple coffin, all necessary paperwork and conveyance to the place of committal, usually in a hearse), but the costs for exactly the same service can vary by thousands of pounds.

The subject of licensing brought further debate – licensing of funeral directors will happen in Scotland, the likely timeframe being 2018/9 for the introduction of inspectors of funeral directors and in due course, the licensing of funeral directors. In the first instance, once appointed the inspector(s) of funeral directors will scope the existing provision for funerals, engage in discussions with the trade associations and other interested parties and formulate some advice to government on the form of licensing required. Generally the idea of licensing funeral directors was welcomed by all at the table, with the caveat that it must be done by an independent body, not an existing trade association.

The recommendation of introducing a funeral bond was mentioned briefly, but not gone into in depth. Hopefully this idea will have more of an airing at the conference, as the idea of some kind of a savings scheme supported by government specifically for a straightforward simple funeral available from all licensed funeral directors is one that seems to have real potential.

There was consensus on the need for transparency in the funeral industry, something that needs a great deal of work. Only around 25% of NAFD members currently have prices online, there is no standard descriptor of what is a ‘normal funeral’, and the way that individual firms charge for their services can make it hard to compare like with like.

A representative from a Dundee social enterprise put forward a suggestion that the industry might like to consider creating a foundation or trust fund from some of their profits to be available for those in financial difficulties to apply to. We liked this idea very much indeed. We didn’t have a note of any response to this suggestion from Mr. McCollum.

Finally, we will leave you with Lucy Coulbert’s straight talking conclusion, addressed to the Cabinet minister and her colleagues in Scottish government:

“Accountability. Accountability is very, very important when it comes to licensing, and when it comes to invoicing. For example, I can buy a coffin for £120, if I give you an invoice for £320 most people will say that’s about standard, if you get one from a funeral director that’s exactly the same as mine but mine’s £320 and the other funeral director’s is £900, why would you pay that? There’s a massive gap in funeral directors’ charges, and although we’re not here to point a finger and we’re not here to say you shouldn’t be earning a profit, there is a big difference between funeral directors charges. We’re talking about a very simple funeral for very vulnerable people, and if you’re getting major discrepancies in bills for the same service then why on earth would you pay it?

And the whole point of licensing, if someone’s not doing a good job, if there are complaints about a certain funeral director all the time, look into it. If they shouldn’t be a funeral director, take their bloody license away. It’s a joke. There is no accountability in this industry whatsoever. For so long, really good funeral directors have been doing an amazing job, but there are some really bad funeral directors that have been really taking advantage, and there has got to be accountability. We are supposed to be self governing – it clearly hasn’t worked. So, if you want to regulate people, you’ve got to have the balls to stand by what you’re doing.”

 

 

 

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