Don’t expect Dignity to solve funeral poverty

Charles 14 Comments

Yesterday we let the interns loose on the blog and they impulsively passed on an appeal to readers to write to Mike McCollum of Dignity plc and ask him to do his bit in the fight against funeral poverty.

What they conspicuously failed to do was identify a single reason why Mr McCollum and Dignity should feel any moral obligation whatever to alleviate funeral poverty. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics?

Sure, a great many people feel the big six energy companies should be doing more to alleviate fuel poverty, but this goes with a conviction that the energy companies overcharge because the energy market is not free, open and competitive. The funerals market, on the contrary, is free to the point of free-for-all. Dignity sells its funerals at a premium. Is a Dignity funeral the MacBook Air of funerals? Is it a high value product? Don’t answer, it’s irrelevant. People buy them, end of. They can buy cheaper if they shop around.

While Dignity ploughs its high-end furrow to the delight of its shareholders and the enrichment of Mr McCollum — that’s capitalism — there are hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.

Because, we remind ourselves, the Funeral Payment was brought in (by a Tory government) to enable everyone to buy a decent funeral. We have such a long history in this country of state subsidy for funerals that it has become an automatic expectation — a right. If that has now changed, then the government has a duty to register the change and explain it. You can’t just pull away a prop and expect people with no money to carry on as if it were still there.

Nor can you expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service. Good undertakers offer a high value service and deserve to make a decent living. It is folly and distraction to expect them to take one for the poor. If Dignity lowers its prices, does that make its funerals affordable? No. If it subsidises low-cost funerals at the expense of its wealthier customers, is that fair? Of course not. The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment. So while it may give passing pleasure to have a go at the fatcats, let’s not mistake righteous indignation for impotent fury.

And while we’re about it, let’s stop wilfully missing the point. Two factors which inflate the cost of funerals can easily be addressed. First, cremation can be carried out much more efficiently. Second, we can start re-using burial plots. To do so wouldn’t make funerals affordable for all, but it would make a decent-sized dent. Squeezing the undertakers, on the other hand, won’t make a blind bit of difference. There are enough already working for next to nothing.

The root cause of funeral poverty is political. The impact is social. The solution needs to be radical and will not be advanced by waving a bleeding stump at Mr McCollum.


    1. Charles

      Perhaps it’s not the foregone conclusion it may appear, Andrew, although it looks likely at first because undertakers have to cover overheads such as vehicles, premises, storage units, wages, fuel… Could you do it?

      It seems to me an axiom that, since the hygienic disposal of a corpse is a public health requirement, the burden of cremation or burial ought by default to fall on the health department that makes the rule, not the individual who takes that responsibility away from them (usually in the belief they are obliged to). That would make a huge hole in the bill, though I believe the funeral payment covers it.

      But it’s by no means only those who qualify for the FP who have trouble. I believe we should also challenge the generally accepted expectation that a commercial firm, fitted up with sophisticated equipment unavailable to non-members of the cartel, has to be paid to make the arrangements. One in six households ends up £1,200 in debt because we won’t return the glance of one fundamental change, staring us in the face, that’s required to significantly alleviate the problem.

      My contention is that it is possible to carry out a funeral for less than the amount of the funeral payment, given the will, the stomach, the equipment and the information. Dignity isn’t going to turn up in an old Transit van with the body in a home-made box and bring home-cooked food for the wake, its staff couldn’t work for free even if they offered, a celebrant can’t conduct a ceremony for nothing, Interflora won’t bring flowers from their garden, four passers-by won’t carry the coffin. But we, the bereaved, could organize things for a lot less money if we changed our attitude to make space for a New Kid on the Block.

      Not all of us want to transport and store a body and heave it into a cheaply-bought coffin, or learn the forms and procedures to dispose of it, or even to create original ceremony to accompany it. But it’s presently a Hobson’s choice between professionals or ourselves, with nobody in between such as a jobbing corpse handler with an estate car and strong shoulders, a coffin sourcer with knowledge of simple funerary procedures and a good manner with people who’s living person is suddenly dead, a person who can encourage us to think of how to commemorate our dead with our own words and gestures, someone willing to help us for payment for her petrol and her (and her mates’) time off their day-jobs. Like they did a hundred years ago.

      These are the things I believe the Funeral Poverty passionistas should be considering, not involving CAP and the QSA in top-heavy discussions about how to persuade someone else to pay a Funeral Director’s uncontested invoice, even if he generously shaves bits off it where he can.

      1. Charles

        I disagree Jonathan.

        You say it is a Hobson’s choice between professionals or people doing things themselves, yet there are progressive funeral directors who are the very people you identify as being needed. They are people who are at ease with handling people who have died, people with an estate car, people who can help source coffins, at cost, and have knowledge of funerary procedure, good personal skills and a genuine, heartfelt care for helping people who have been bereaved, people dedicated to supporting families to do things their own way and have personal, meaningful funerals. They are breaking their services up into parts, no ‘package’ arrangements, just supplying the services that are wanted, and only charging for what is needed.

        People so intrinsically link the term ‘funeral director’ with what is described above, that providers of these services have no choice but to call themselves funeral directors, or face being misunderstood for what they do. As I see it though, they are the ‘go between’ that you describe as being so needed.

    2. Charles

      It depends on how you define ‘funeral’ and also what your particular overheads are. A more pertinent point is that a family who does manage to make a contribution prior to the funeral will have this amount deducted from any DWP payment they receive despite the fact that the Funeral Payment is, theoretically not means tested. There is your biggest immediate problem

  1. Charles

    I sat yesterday and typed a lengthy viewpoint replying to the blog. It pretty much said word for word what is written in Charles blog today. I deleted it because I always end up vehemently disagreeing and was starting to feel like a right grumpy old man. Thank fully Charles posted the above.

    It really is simple. If people want a respectful funeral at a reasonable cost, they can have one. it shouldn’t be down to funeral companies such as dignity to dictate that. Do I think Dignity are expensive. Absolutely. Do people have to use them. Absolutely not. Is it a bit late sometimes for people when they have already contacted a funeral director. Yep. But again – that isn’t Dignity’s fault. Or problem. This is a business and an industry. It isn’t just about body disposal. if it was then funeral directors wouldn’t exist as they do. And I can’t see any of that changing any time soon.

  2. Charles

    Ian, you never come across as a grumpy old man — not to me, anyway. Any blog worth its salt is a place of debate and, therefore, disagreement. It’s a place where opinions are tested, sometimes to destruction. We need your voice and we value it.

  3. Charles

    Hi Charles. Thanks for taking the time to comment on our plans.

    I think you’ve misunderstood our aims, though. We’re inviting Dignity Funerals to take part in a discussion with other bodies from the funeral industry, charities, campaigners, and ordinary people.

    Funeral poverty is a real and growing problem for many people. We’re not blaming Dignity Funerals for it, and we don’t expect them to solve it on their own. We just think that, as the UK’s biggest funeral provider, they can make a valuable contribution to our discussions about this issue. We’d like to hear their opinions, and work with them constructively to identify positive solutions.

    Do you really think that they wouldn’t have anything to offer to our discussions?

    Liam Purcell, Church Action on Poverty

  4. Charles

    Liam, I don’t think Dignity is remotely interested in funeral poverty or providing Lidl funerals for little people. Benevolent behaviour is inimical to its purpose, which is to maximise financial returns for shareholders. Like all big plc’s it is wholly self-interested. Dignity cultivates a policy of corporate silence and zero brand recognition; it rarely breaks cover in the public sphere; its presence in the market is camouflaged by the names of businesses it has bought out. The only people it talks to on a regular basis are financial journalists. Dignity doesn’t stand for anything except making money.

    Now, I may be overstating this, Liam, in the hope that Dignity will prove me wrong and show up at your meeting. That would be a result. You’re right: Dignity is not a cause of funeral poverty. I can’t see it being any part of the solution, either.

    If Age UK is at the meeting you may care to ask them what on earth they’re doing selling Dignity funeral plans. While it’s difficult to get worked up about any business as commonplace as Dignity, it’s impossible not to be furious that a leading charity sells such a product.

    I think Co-operative Funeralcare might be a little narked to see Dignity described as the UK’s biggest provider. I hope that this overpriced undertaker may be persuaded to return to its ethical roots and play a leading part in addressing funeral poverty. This is it raison d’etre and it deserves to have its feet held to the fire.

    For what it’s worth, I feel the best ways of addressing funeral poverty will come from empowered communities, not from top-down initiatives (and more Govt lobbying).

    1. Charles

      Charles, I’m not sure why you think this is a ‘top-down intitiative’. It arises directly from the work QSA have done with people affected by the issue – and those people will take part in the event, agreeing solutions and ways forward.

      We’ll see what response we get from Dignity… I hope you’ll come to the event as you clearly have a contribution to make!

      1. Charles

        I think that if Dignity were to come to a meeting on funeral poverty, its motivation could only be how to cut its losses in a squeezed market and its presence be a distraction.

        Charles’s expression ‘top-down’ is perfectly understandable to me, Liam. My own belief is that funeral poverty is the consequence of the community’s unhealthy response to death and its aftermath, which has become an act of fearful surrender and which makes individuals isolated and vulnerable to suggestion.

        Death, and our dead, need to be reclaimed and normalized if bereavement is to be empowered and affordable once more, and finding ways to limit expense in an unchanged status quo will not remove the cause of over-expenditure.

        The bereaved means all of us, not ‘charities, communities, policy-makers and the funeral industry’, and we aren’t helpless victims. It’s our voice that should be heard loudest, not as a faint buzz behind the noise of policy makers.

  5. Charles

    As with so much on this blog, it comes down to education, consumers of funeral services are (mostly) uninformed and so opt to do what everyone else does – including using the familiar name funeral director everyone else does without questioning cost or value.

    Doing the right thingitis I could call it. Very contagious it seems too, has been for decades. Those of us who seek to improve funerals for the bereaved must address this conundrum or look forward to the status-quo enduring for decades to come. What is a funeral and what do funeral directors do? Some of us believe we know the answer to that question, but however hard we try, we are also stuck with premises, business rates, staff and various overheads. lIKE EVERYONE ELSEy funerals cost what they do because of these costs – I don’t have a choice nor the luxury of the big boys quantities. Our fees reflect our costs but my time, ears and brain are always offered without charge.

  6. Charles

    Prior to all previous comments i do believe that consumers are uninformed about funerals hence why many of them get ripped off by unlicensed funeral directors giving them over priced plans that don’t suit there financial capabilities.Although there are undertakers that do support those with financial issues.

    However having a plan that fits your budget means keeping you out of “funeral Debt” which in some cases can hinder a lot of people prior to actually passing are all ready in debt or have financial problems.

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