Charles Cowling

The funeral industry is right to be wary of those who claim to scrutinise it on behalf of consumers. After all, Jessica Mitford did much injury to the American funeral industry with an exposé which held it up to ridicule and focussed on price at the expense of value, and so was actually of very little use to consumers.

Jessica and her muckraking merrymaking aside, the UK funeral industry was always going to find scrutiny hard to bear both because it is unaccustomed to being held to account and because parts of it  suffer from a degree of complacency, self-importance, even, induced by customers who come through its doors, hold their hands up and say, “Tell me what to do.”

The Good Funeral Guide is guilty of having had some fun at the expense of the funeral industry. Any consumer advocate is going to be adversarial at times, and resolutely non-aligned, of course. And in the interests of readability, this blog aims not to be solemn but challenging, thought-provoking, tail-tweaking, humorous, deadly serious, thoughtful, silly and sometimes downright maverick. Entertaining. If it’s earnest you want, join me at the University of Bath on Saturday for the CDAS annual conference, entitled A Good Send-off. It won’t all be dull. Melissa Stewart of Native Woodland is speaking.

The approach I have taken to the funeral industry is to hold it to account from time to time and, where possible, engage in constructive dialogue. Where the trade bodies, NAFD and SAIF are concerned there has been very little of that. Emails are not replied to or even acknowledged. If this makes me, sometimes, waspish, who’s not to understand?

Yet my main thrust has been not to expose rottenness but to spotlight what’s best in funeral service, to sing the praises of the unsung heroes – to show consumers the way to the good guys so that they needn’t worry themselves about the bad and the awful. Those good guys are invariably independents.

For this reason I tend to be slow to respond to beastly goings on. That’s why, in the matter of Co-operative Funeralcare’s response to the SAIF IPSOS-Mori price comparison survey, I have been slow out of the blocks. I don’t get a bang out of giving Funeralcare a drubbing once in a while. It is a wearisome duty conducted on behalf of funeral consumers, socialism and the ideals of the Rochdale Pioneers.

But this latest business is as bad as it gets.

Even though the SAIF price comparison survey would seem to be 100% quantitative and 0% qualitative, even though it talks about what consumers need to know, SAIF has, along with at least three of its members, in the words of SAIF ceo Alun Tucker, “been issued with papers from the legal team representing The Co-operative Funeralcare. The documents relate to the wording in various items of SAIF literature and the content of some advertisements that members have placed in their local press. I will not comment further at this stage, as we have placed the papers in the hands of solicitors for a response to Funeralcare’s claims.”

I think we all know exactly what we reckon to that. There is no reason to overexcite Co-op lawyers by putting our thoughts into words. Justice is only very, very distantly related to the Law. They hardly ever see each other, never at funerals.

There’s worse. There are allegations from others in the industry that SAIF-affiliated suppliers of merchandise and services are coming under pressure to think carefully about who they do business with – a threat to the viability of SAIF as a trade body. Who is applying this pressure? And, as a writer to SAIF Insight, the trade body’s magazine, says, what if all this were to come into the public domain?

Well, it is in the public domain. And we reckon we know what it’s all about, don’t we? The funeral industry is not a hermetically sealed world like the illegal drugs trade. This is a matter which belongs to wider society; it needs to be aired; it is of material interest to all funeral consumers, the very people the funeral industry and the Good Funeral Guide together seek to serve.

It is because we share this common purpose that I believe we should talk to each other. We won’t always agree, but that’s not the point. So I hope I shall hear soon from spokespeople at SAIF and the NAFD.

My sincere thanks to all those of you who have contacted me with information and told me what you think. Where do we go from here?

If you want to leave a comment, please be very, very careful how you word it.

Co-op lawyers please note: I signed my house over to my wife when I cancelled my smile bank account. I am penniless. (It’s true, too, but I’m throwing it in also for readers who are members of the NAFD. They’ll see the joke.)

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11 years ago

As you say, Charles,the gap between justice and fairness is obscenely wide sometimes. It’s shameful that we can’t see the allegedly offending words.

11 years ago

Charles, all power to your suitably careful and characteristically well-poised quill, elbow and keyboard. But I guess we can easily gain access to the wordings that have so outraged the Co-op that they are engaging lawyers? Then we could decide if we agree that the organisation has been unfairly traduced and misrepresented,or not. After all, no fair-minded person would wish to see a large and powerful multi-strand consumer orghanisation, founded on the best of human principles, unfairly disadvantaged in the market-place by a much less powerful alliance of small independent businesses, would they? Of course they wouldn’t. Fair’s fair, after… Read more »