Don’t expect Dignity to solve funeral poverty

Charles Cowling

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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.

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Ryan SmithDavid HolmesLiam PurcellHazel PittwoodJonathan Recent comment authors

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Ryan Smith
Guest

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.

David Holmes
Guest

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… Read more »

Charles
Guest

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… Read more »

Liam Purcell
Guest

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!

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

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,… Read more »

Hazel Pittwood
Guest

Hello Liam,

I’d be very interested to know when and where the talk is taking place? I can’t see any details about it. Please let me know, thanks.

Hazel

Liam Purcell
Guest

Hi Hazel. You can apply for a place at the event online, at http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/facing-up-to-funeral-poverty-tickets-10954253467

Thanks!

Liam

Liam Purcell
Guest

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… Read more »

ian
Guest
ian

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… Read more »

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

“The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment.” Discuss.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

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… Read more »

Hazel Pittwood
Guest

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… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

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