‘Everyone has a plan til they get punched in the mouth.’ – Mike Tyson

Charles 17 Comments

Of all the products dreamt up in the secret, black and midnight minds of financial services sorcerers, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan must rank as one of the rankest. It stinks. It’s idiotic. 

A funeral plan purports to benefit consumers by enabling them to buy tomorrow’s funeral at today’s prices (or thereabouts). But it wasn’t invented to benefit consumers, it was invented to benefit funeral directors. It addresses a problem peculiar to funeral directors. The problem is this: however brilliant you are (and caring, dignified, etc), there’s absolutely nothing you can do to induce more people to die, and you can’t sweet-talk them into doing it more than once.

If you want to steal a march on your competitors, therefore, you need to stitch up tomorrow’s market by bagging the biggest share you can get of it in advance — by taking tomorrow’s clients off the market today. 

What a pity it ever started. As soon as one funeral firm does it, everyone else has to join in, like it or not. There’s even a formula to work to. If your sales of funeral plans are greater than 20 per cent of your sales of at-need funerals, you’re okay. Less, and you’re in doodoo.

The only way you can achieve this increased market share is by offering a product riddled with deficiencies and anomalies. In this, the age of the bespoke, personal funeral offering a high-value emotional and spiritual experience to the bereaved, you offer packages of the crudest, most mechanical sort — it’s the only way to do it. Package one: Crudholme coffin (4 handles), no viewing, hearse straight to crem. Package two: Greyfriars coffin, viewing, hearse and one. Package three — but you know all this.

The problem for funeral directors is that if you ask people to buy a funeral for themselves, they tend to buy the cheapest. What price superb personal service in all this? Zilch. Experiential value to those left behind? Irrelevant. Funeral plans offer nobbut disposal in limited and highly unimaginative cosmetic options. Its appeal is highest to the put-me-out-with-the-rubbish brigade.

The last person you should ever ask to arrange a funeral is the recipient.

Memo to the living: we mustn’t plan our funeral. All we can do is be available for it. Write your funeral wishes in pencil. Hint, don’t prescribe. Die. Butt out. 

There’s a lot more that’s wrong with funeral plans, as you well know.  Money hasn’t grown since 2008 and the economy isn’t recovering. Funeral costs — they double every ten years — are rising faster than RPI. As the battle for tomorrow’s market share becomes more strident and overheated, the battleground is looking more and more like Syria. Plans are coming in underfunded and funeral directors are having to bear the brunt of that (to the incidental benefit of the plan holder). Independent funeral directors are in danger of surrendering their independence, because there’s a real danger that some plan providers will, in desperation, be forced to become funeral brokers, offering work to the lowest bidder. Funeral plans aren’t regulated by the FCA

Never before has there been so much talk of a plan provider going bust. The Ponzi-word is much muttered these days. All the while, new products are coming onto the market, and new providers, and new enhancements, like legal services. It’s getting frenzied. Is there a big bust a-brewing? Consensus says yes.

If one of the plan providers does go bust, what happens? Do the others get together to bail it out? Up to a point, perhaps. If the provider is a member of the Funeral Planning Authority, its members “shall co-operate and examine ways in which the FPA might assist in arranging delivery of the funerals of customers of the insolvent Registered Provider.” If you bought a funeral plan from the heavily despised Avalon, you don’t even get this reassurance. Avalon is not a member of the FPA

No wonder funeral directors, for whom these plans were designed, fear and loathe the bloody things, today more than ever.

Where, you might ask, is the media now that the gelignite is beginning to sweat? Where are the expert, investigative journalists when you need them? Out to lunch. 

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there will be PPI-style megascandal and we can all start from ground zero with a consumer-focussed funeral plan. 

What would a consumer focussed funeral plan look like?

Well, first of all, it would pay out to the family, not direct to a funeral director. 

Second, there would be change, a sum left over, if an executor decided not to spend it all. (Whoever got change from one of today’s plans?)

Third, the rights of the dead person would assume their rightful legal value — zero — and the bereaved would be empowered. People should get the funerals they deserve, not the funerals they want. We’d get much better funerals as a result. 

Fourth, the sum would not be assigned to any particular family member. If Granddad doesn’t go first because Wayne (17) drives into a tree, Wayne gets it and we top it up for Granddad — or whoever’s next. 

So, fifth, the family funeral fund does not expire with the death of any particular family member, but lives on and is handed down. 

What would be the best repository for a family’s funeral fund? A trust? 

We don’t know, but you probably do. 

Let’s not be daunted. There has to be a better way than the self-reinforcing shambles we have today. 


  1. Charles

    I wonder if the notion of an alternative funeral plan is begging the question. As a solution to the problem – of giving bereaved relatives a way of getting hold of a funeral affordably – it rests on the same assumption as does the present funeral plan idea, namely that a funeral must by its nature be forever unaffordable “because funeral costs are rising above inflation”.

    But who dictates the cost of an after-death event? The funeral directors? No, of course not. All they do is offer one, stylized method of dealing with the dead that happens to be very expensive. You’re pretty well stuck with burial or cremation costs, that’s a given (and anyway, does your funeral plan guarantee to cover ‘disbursements’?), but you can still do a back-of-the-estate car in a home made coffin job, if money’s an issue.

    In fact, the more of us take things into our own hands and disown current fashions in preference for a more practical and personal approach to dealing with death, the more it’ll become acceptable as part of a ‘norm’, and something called a ‘funeral’ will just be one of many options.

  2. Charles

    All good points, Jonathan, and I think we agree in the primary importance of empowerment. How ‘families’ wishes to express that is, of course, going to vary according to taste etc.

    I don’t think the alternative plan supports any particular style or model of funeral. It’s simply a vessel or repository for money earmarked ‘funeral’ to be dipped into according to circumstance and at the discretion of the living. They can spend as much or as little as they please according to both their budget and their feelings for their dead person.

    To change the subject, do read this sponsored article in the Telegraph and despair. The Telegraph is besotted with Dignity – to the very great detriment of its apoplectic readership: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/financialservices/retirement-finance/funeral-plans/9969408/Ten-facts-about-Dignity-Funeral-Plans.html

    1. Charles

      Good old Telegraph, lie upon lie and no questions asked. And why do funeral plan adverts always feature photos of a group of people grinning as if they’ve just cheated death? – would that I had the money to sue them all.

      How about a credit union death-event savings account? Credit unions, staffed by volunteers as they are, will lend ethically to people who need money, so surely they’d be well placed to negotiate a payment scheme backed up by a realistic ritual disposal service…

  3. Charles

    Whilst I see where you are coming from, I have to say that I disagree with almost every word of this post (I was going to start with “I used to think you talked an amount of twaddle, now I know it” – but I thought better of it).

    Funeral plans benefit their holders greatly. To use the cliche – they give peace of mind when people want it. Many people simply want to know that their funerals will be taken care of when they die, and are happy in the knowledge that it’s all paid for (providing it’s been sold correctly that is).

    “The only way you can achieve this increased market share is by offering a product riddled with deficiencies and anomalies.” Not so. With just a little bit of thought, a funeral plan can be as personal as an at-need funeral. We frequently sit down with the person for whom the plan is being bought and his or her next-of-kin, and plan the entire funeral. To my mind that makes it even better than an at-need funeral, because the person ‘it’s all about’ is there.

    We offer a couple of ‘fixed price’ funeral plans, purely so that people can get an idea of what they can have for what cost. http://stneotsfuneraldirectors.co.uk/pre-need-funerals/ – but the vast majority choose the Kingfisher Bespoke plan because that is exactly what it is.

    “The problem for funeral directors is that if you ask people to buy a funeral for themselves, they tend to buy the cheapest.” Not so, in my experience. Only 14% of my clients have bought the cheapest plan available, and all of these are direct cremations. I can’t see the GFG begrudging people a direct cremation can I?

    As for the consumer-focussed funeral plan. Pros and cons there I think.

    1. Pay to the family, not the funeral director. No problem with that personally, but I suspect most people buying the things would prefer that it didn’t go to their family.

    2. Change from a ‘left-over’ sum. No problem with that. Done it too when the executor decided she didn’t need the limousine that had been paid for.

    3. People should get the funeral they deserve, not the one they want. Can’t quite believe I read that. Not on here.

    4. Sum assigned to any family member. No problem with that. I have several plans assigned to ‘whoever goes first’ – although agreed, these are named people. I don’t think it would be an issue though, provided the consent of all parties involved was obtained.

    5. Handing down. OK. No problem in theory, but not wildly realistic. People buy things because they want to use them, not so they go on in perpituity.

    Where funeral plans do not work is when intermediaries are brought in to sell them. Financial planners, life assurance companies, brokers and the like. I’ve been approached three times in the last two months and asked to take on funeral plans sold in this way. I’ve asked the “seller” the simplest of questions (eg what fees are included in the disbursements) and they’ve all been unable to answer these. I’ve refused them all, knowing that they have all been sold by people who have not the faintest notion of what they are selling, and preferring not to have to face the consequences when the holder dies. That may be commercial suicide, but to me they’re just not worth the risk.

    1. Charles

      Ah, but Andrew, you didn’t think better of it, did you? You surely know the rules by now. I present a one-sided argument in order to pique debate and allow people to show off and/or teach us something. And you have. Thank you.

      The merits of prescriptive funeral wishes, except in cases of people who have no one to see them off, remain especially debatable.

      1. Charles

        Just taking a brief moment out of marking hell to say that by and large, I’m with Andrew here. Funeral plans don’t suit and are not appropriate for everyone, but they do have a place. The real disaster are the ‘life assurance’ policies masquerading as funeral plans.
        They do not have to be ‘packages’; ours aren’t…they are as individual as our funerals. When we started we realised the restrictions put in place by most providers so we went and found one we liked. We set the prices, not them.
        Oh and yes, actually, we have given ‘change’ on overpayments.
        Its like funeral directors…there are the good, the bad and the ugly out there.

        As for who should plan the funeral (the person who has died or the family) I think its a balance, isn’t it? Surely?

        Right, back I go to interesting definitions of original sin.

    2. Charles

      People should get the funeral they deserve, not the one they want. That’s why a funeral should be planned, conceived and carried out by the people left behind, not the dead.

  4. Charles

    Quite right, Jonathan. Vale is very keen on this — he’s often spoken to me about it but we never actually followed it through. I don’t know why they haven’t come up with something of their own accord.

    Interestingly, AW Lymn in Nottingham have their own voucher scheme. You buy your vouchers as and when you can afford them, and top them up if you live a long time. You can also take out exactly what you paid in at any time should a financial emergency arise. You get a 20% discount when the vouchers are cashed in for a funeral.

    There are humane and simple ways of enabling people to put a stash aside for their funeral. Someone will come up with something that makes the present pre-pay plan look as ludicrous and repulsive as it actually is.

  5. Charles

    I must make an observation about funeral plans that came to me a long time ago.

    A scandal waiting to happen!

    We take Perfect Choice Funeral Plans; nothing wrong in that and we guarantee the cost of the whole funeral. So we charge a small premium.

    It occurs to me that a problem can occur when a family want to pay the funeral director, do not have a bank account and pay cash. The funeral director pays it in to their account (as we do) and immediately sends a cheque to “Perfect Choice” so far so good.

    The unscrupulous funeral directors could trouser the cash. (Not send on the money) Give the person taking out the plan a copy of the paperwork; that satisfies them, as long as they have a piece of paper. After doing this a number of times, clear off.

    I suspect this would be done by a newcomer setting up cold and finding things difficult, could resort to the above.

    I would bet this is happening as I write this, the FSA, FPA, or other organisation will find it hard to regulate for the truly dishonest.

    This can happen with “Golden Charter” or any other plan provider, it is not the perfect crime and would be found out eventually, but the dishonest are short sighted and perhaps short term, it seems attractive.

    Trust is everything in any business and as people on the periphery of the funeral trade think easy money is to be made. Dishonesty is all around us, we must be on our guard.

    I do not want to bore anyone, you get the picture, does anyone else see it this way? So I’ll leave it there.

  6. Charles

    I fear this issue will not attract the attention of the media until a plan provider actually goes belly-up. Until then, the cash will roll in – to the relief of those giant organisations we all know and love.

  7. Charles

    Charles said .. “Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there will be PPI-style megascandal and we can all start from ground zero with a consumer-focussed funeral plan.”

    – something that 10 – 15 years ago, none of us would have thought possible. The banks certainly didn’t think that they would get ‘stung’ so badly with their ‘star PPI products’.

    I sincerely hope that all remains well for those folk with plans, but it is food for thought that SHOULD a plan provider falter, just who will pick up the pieces?

  8. Charles

    My concern is that while funeral plans are financially unsustainable (invested money growing at 2%, funeral costs increasing at 7 – 10% pa.) the companies themselves are at risk; I fear for the precious clients’ monies the plan providers are said to hold if they find themselves belly up. Is it guaranteed by the FSA … the FPA ?
    I have found that the surviving family never seem to mind a small ‘top up’ when disbursements have outpaced RPI – they are mainly just grateful that the bulk of the cost is covered; and while they are keen to honour what the person wanted, the money set aside is just a lump sum to be spent however the executors/family desire. However, it serves the undertaker to lock in an abbreviated, standardised content offered in the ‘Balmoral’ or the ‘Windsor’ deal.
    Like Andrew Hickson (above) ‘bespoke’ arrangements are ALWAYS an option, even in a giant chain of undertakers, should the survivors insist! And their (bespoke) way is likely to result in a cheaper funeral anyway.

  9. Charles

    The last Dignity accounts show £511.2m being held for 238,000 funerals = £2148 per funeral (not clear whether or not this includes disbursements). Much less than they’d charge at need but they’re 99% sure of getting this and as long as the marginal costs (coffin at cost, casual staff, fuel – £500?) are covered, they’re better off than losing the family to a competitor. The last Dignity funeral I went to was prepaid and held two and a half weeks after the death – using empty slots?

  10. Charles

    I Agree – the biggest threat to good funerals is external plan providers taking a (significant) margin off the money people want spent on funeral services.

    Perhaps just as there is a regulation stating that funeral directors can’t take funeral money in advance of a death unless it goes to a Trust, or Insurance, no one can take money for a funeral unless they have a direct involvement in the provision of funeral services?

    As for leaving the bereaved to spend more on a funeral (out of guilt or not knowing what to do for the best?) Good for the funeral directors! – but surely not the aim of GFG – what better way for an individual to ensure guilty relatives don’t go spending too much on a fancy coffin when the time comes. Not to mention the anxiety saved by a family who might not otherwise know what their relative wanted.

  11. Charles

    A friend of mine, now resident in Dorset, recently showed me his Dignity plan – bought many years ago in London. He originally paid not much more than £1,000 for it, and asked me if I thought they would still honour it? Having a vague idea of current costs, he seemed genuinely concerned. I told him yes, I believed they would. Quite how they can afford to is a mystery but I believe they know what they are doing..

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