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

Charles Cowling



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. 



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[…] it makes sense and some of it doesn’t. Don’t pay ahead – show your kids why – and here’s some damn good reasons if you don’t know. Don’t plan to the letter and take that privilege from them. They need to do […]

8 years ago

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..

Mark Shaw
8 years ago

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… Read more »

8 years ago

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?

james showers
8 years ago

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… Read more »

Nick Gandon
8 years ago

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 years ago

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.

Malcolm Garton
8 years ago

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… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
8 years ago

In order to do this legally, however, you have to be a big enough company to be able to afford to set up and administer your own trust fund!

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)

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… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
8 years ago

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… Read more »

Ru Callender
8 years ago

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.

8 years ago

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…

8 years ago

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… Read more »