A not so quiet revolution

Fran Hall

revolution

Guest post by Lucy Coulbert, owner of Coulbert Family Funerals and The Individual Funeral Company.

Lucy’s been invited back to Westminster next week. And she’d like your thoughts about what she’s planning to say.

In the aftermath of the Support for the bereaved enquiry, I was not only contacted by a lot of media agencies, but I have also been invited to a meeting with Baroness Altmann next week along with a further meeting with the DWP.

It is my understanding that they will be talking about the issues that have arisen as part of this enquiry and are looking for recommendations on how to make claiming easier.

We have to be very clear that we are talking about funerals for people who are applying to the DWP for financial help. Our recommendations are outlined below.

The enquiry suggested there should be an online checker for people applying to the DWP for financial help paying for a funeral to see if they are eligible. I happen to think this is a good idea.

 

They also suggested a list of funeral directors should then appear based on postcode with their prices. While in practice this is a good idea, you will never get a like for like quote as funeral directors bundle their charges in very different ways. So one funeral director may charge for the removal fee and hearse fee in one lump sum and others itemise each cost. Therefore, if you don’t want a traditional hearse, you are still paying the same charge.

I think to appear on this website, a few things should happen. The funeral industry has got to agree on what a “simple” funeral should be and that every funeral director should give a price for those services only.

The second thing that should happen should be that funeral directors have the option of opting in or opting out at least twice a year. Therefore, if a national chain are particularly busy in December for example, there should be an easy way to take themselves off the DWP website so the family don’t have to wait weeks longer than they have to for a funeral.

The third point I will be making is that the payment system has simply got to be improved. My recommendation is that there has to be a facility for the funeral director to email their invoice and it should be paid within 14 days of receiving it. That way, we can book the day and the time of the funeral and the family doesn’t have to find the deposit.

The fourth is that there absolutely must be accountability. The report heard of families who after telling arrangers in national chains that they were applying to the DWP for help, were still presented with bills between £5,000 – £6,000.

If you have said you will undertake a “simple” funeral for £1800 for example and then present a bill of £5,000 I think it is fair that the company would be barred from advertising their services on a government website.

I have spoken to funeral directors up and down the country who agree that the following encompasses a “simple funeral” and doesn’t marginalise small funeral directors or home funeral directors.

Professional services

A coffin

Removal of the person who has died

Taking care of the person who has died

An estate car to take the person to the crematorium or cemetery on the day of the funeral

A service in the crematorium or a graveside service at the cemetery

The appropriate number of bearers on the day of the funeral

We also think that the minister’s fee (vicar/celebrant/humanist) should be a disbursement as not all families want someone to take the service and the family want to do this themselves.

We have said an estate car because not every funeral director owns their own, more traditional hearse and it seems to be a trend that traditional hearses aren’t in favour at the moment.

This is our definition of a “simple” funeral and is what we would be proposing to both the Baroness and DWP.

However, I would personally like to take things a step further in light of the growing problem with funeral poverty. I would like to propose a national minimum funeral cost for a simple funeral as outlined above.

While I am all for a free market, the general public haven’t any idea of what a funeral costs. If you are on a low income and not necessarily in receipt of benefits, then what do they do? Still get into debt because they have been presented with a £5,000 invoice?

By having a national minimum, again, funeral directors can opt in or opt out of undertaking funerals for xxx price but at least families would know who they can do to for a funeral that is affordable to them.

Again, there has to be accountability if a funeral director was on some sort database and still gives someone an over inflated bill.

By recommending a national minimum, I genuinely think the funeral industry has done all it possibly can to help the public. From then on, the onus is on them to do their research.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t charge a fair price for our bespoke services. I know I certainly do because of the level of work involved for a bespoke funeral. If funeral directors don’t make a profit, we won’t survive to help more families. However, we simply must offer the funeral we know is affordable to the family that is sat in front of us worrying about a bill for thousands.

There are amazing funeral directors around the country already doing this, but not all.

The Government are looking very closely at funeral directors pricing costs and we need to be proactive. If we aren’t, legislation will soon follow. In fact, I think it is inevitable that it will and it is closer than we think. If we don’t do something significant now, perhaps it will be taken out of our hands.

If Government are looking at legislation, pricing and regulation you can be assured that your future and your business is going to be in the hands of the NAFD and SAIF. It is my personal belief that if we don’t band together now, that these trade associations will possibly try to marginalise home funeral directors, those without their own hearses, funeral directors who don’t hold a Dip.Fd  for example, but are amazing funeral directors.

So a few points then before I go into these meetings.

Am I on the right track with the DWP proposals?

How do you feel about a national minimum price?

Does my interpretation of a “simple funeral” marry with yours?

I will fight as hard as I possibly can to make sure the DWP system is easier for the people it was designed to help and we are paid a fair price for the work we do. I will also fight like a tiger against any legislation or regulation that marginalises the smaller funeral director or home funeral director but I am just one voice.

I already have a few behind me but how many more troops can we rally? If the only way we continue to have a voice and a seat at the table of these meetings, I will happily start a new funeral directors association….in fact, this is already in the pipeline and hope to tell you more about it next week.

An army of voices is always better than a lone one and I can’t keep talking for and on behalf of funeral directors like me if we aren’t all in it together.

So in the words of Susan B. Anthony – “Organize, agitate, educate, must be our war cry.”

What do you think?

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Lucy CoulbertDavid HolmesFran HallJennifer UzzellCharles Cowling Recent comment authors

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David Holmes
Guest

Apologies for sticking my oar in so late – I have been on a much needed holiday. Thank you, it was lovely. I cannot see any government fixing a minimum price and understand Charles’ points re regulation (terrible anti-choice idea) nor service, and stigmatising the poor is exactly what happened in the past. Decades ago, when I used to offer simple funerals, clients were terrified of a cloth covered coffin appearing outside their home because they associated them with ‘pauper’s funerals’. I never quite get this, the richest usually opt for the most basic funeral services. They know it doesn’t… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

That is something that was discussed. That the DWP pay for a “simple” funeral and then there would be access to a repayable loan should a family want more. While this is good in theory and will stop people going to places like Wonga, will it then mean that those funeral directors who see it as purely business, then hike up their prices so all families applying to the DWP would then have to apply for this loan? You are also absolutely right that the majority of my clients who have opted for my direct cremation service or a simple… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

Last word from me, which is to heartily endorse what Jonathan said: licensing funeral directors would grievously restrict consumer choice and, if the US is anything to go by, send funeral costs rocketing. Nothing must interfere with a person’s right to care for their own in death.

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

What about a register….a bit like the GMC?

Charles Cowling
Admin

Nice. But I foresee a political thicket, internal strife, grandstanding… Which is not to say that such a debate would not attract the attention of the public and elicit their views. Yes, it would be good to see consumers drawn into a debate about how they want their funerals businesses to be ordered.

Fran Hall
Guest
Fran Hall

Just to say jolly good luck to you tomorrow Lucy when you meet Baroness Altmann – hopefully the comments on your post have encouraged you that you’re not a lone voice speaking up for bereaved families – we’re all behind you and glad that someone has stepped up to take the baton, no matter differences of opinion on details.
You go girl!

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

Lucy, I find myself on a rather different tack from yours, but as far as your questions go: Yes, I think you’re broadly on the right track with DWP proposals, though defining a universal, simple funeral is problematic because of its inherently prescriptive nature, and its disregard of individual firms’ styles — rather like defining like-for-like meals at different restaurants. National minimum price is an idea, but needing universal agreement from funeral directors about it, with their widely different pricing structures and overheads, would limit those willing to go on the register. Good luck with these, but expect resistance from… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Again, all really good points and I will certainly try to bring them up tomorrow. I do think that any funeral professional will have to be licenced at some point in the near future. That would include home funeral directors for example. The only thing that I am not sure of is a hospital mortuary keeping people for an indefinite amount of time in order for people to make a decision. My Mother is a mortuary manager in Surrey and the pressures put upon her facility is increasing. The same with my local hospital in Oxford. There just isn’t the… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

£5 a day is a bloody good rate — but obviously not intended to be taken advantage of! I take your point about hospital mortuary space, but we’re in an emergency situation. People are going into serious debt simply because the State considers its responsibility for public health provision, free at point of delivery, stops short of what is in fact its own legal requirement to dispose of a body hygienically, set out on public health grounds. Quoting shortage of mortuary space, valid as it is in practice, is no good answer to the underlying issue; namely, turning over responsibility… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

And yes, a public mortuary could be and affordable solution as long as it weren’t run by a private company!

James Dunn
Guest

Lucy, I don’t want to hijack the overall discussion on the DWP proposals but I was reading this and thought I’d add some comments on online quoting, prices and transparency for customers. In particular, whether it is (ever) possible to get like for like quotes for funeral director services. Our recently launched site (www.funeralbooker.com) gets very close in my opinion. Customers quickly and simply ‘build’ the funeral they want and then see like for like real prices from funeral directors. They then choose on cost, service, reviews, location, affiliation (even GFG accreditation) and get in touch with the right funeral… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

How delighted I am, Jonathan, to see someone back the idea of adding funeral expenses to NI. Last time I suggested it lots of people said nooooo and sounded a bit embarrassed for me. Another way would be for the govt to award a sum to people when they are 18 and get them to pay it back like a student loan. Those above a certain income level would pay it all back, those on the lowest incomes wouldn’t, but everyone would still get the money — well, their personal rep would. This would completely shaft the pre-paid funeral pedlars… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Amongst most FD’s terms and conditions (including mine) is a clause that states that if a funeral account is not paid within 60 days for example and after the usual recorded delivery letters, then the account will be passed to a debt collector. Once the account has been effectively bought by the debt collector, then the FD would get their account paid in full within 7 days. So if I was an immoral cowboy, I could get a family to spend £5,000 on a funeral. I wait 60 days and contact the debt collector who would then pay me. No… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Lol! Well said! £75K!!! Oh how funny 🙂
Lucy, that’s not how debt collectors work in my experience!

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Doctors and teachers, Charles, are paid (however inadequately) by the government, not the vagaries of the free market!

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

(see Michael Jarvis’ comment, Tuesday 26th April 2016 at 4:03 pm)

“… the NHS was set up its stated aim was to provide support ‘from the cradle to the grave’. It seems to me that this has been interpreted over the years to mean from the pre-natal clinic to the mortuary.”

But it seems to me to stop just short of the mortuary, and therein lies the nub of the problem… the only morturaries available are the ones attached to a commercial enterprise with a vested interest in selling funerals. That’s something that urgently needs addressing.

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

A quickie here before it leaves my brain: “We agree with the principle that individuals should look to make financial provision for their own funeral, wherever this is at all possible. Where this has not happened it is right that family or friends should make provision. The state should be the last resort.” (From the DWP report on funeral poverty). But families themselves may not agree with this principle (I, for one, do not necessarily), nor may they be aware of the other last resort of handing over the dead person’s funeral to the Council. It should also be pointed… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

“The use of an estate car instead of a hearse might be perceived to be stigmatising, the more so by the very demographic you want to help…” I’m just chucking in a general observation here, by way of a break from ploughing through the DWP report, but it strikes me as an important aspect of the discussion… I think your comment above, Charles, highlights the epicentre of the problem of costs. It is precisely such perceptions of what is right, dignified, fitting, required etc, that drive up funeral costs and tensions beyond those of a basic, human grieving ritual —… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

Completely agree, Jonathan. Message to all undertakers: ‘Seek not to know what you can do for your ‘families’ but what they can do for themselves.’ Changing perceptions is the hard part. Respectful remains very much the funeral of choice for those (on the whole) least able to pay for a funeral, while useful tends to be favoured by those who could easily afford respectful.

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Really interesting points Jonathan. Some of the most beautiful funerals I have ever undertaken have been the most simple and where the families have been more involved in different aspects. Charles, I see what you mean about the “menu” idea. It is something that many funeral directors have opted for. Just the fact that funeral directors are actively putting their prices online is a huge step forward within the funeral industry. The NAFD “simple funeral” was also a sticky subject. Funeral directors bundle their charges in so many different ways that it is extremely difficult to get a like for… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Some really interesting points and I will try to address all of them. Charles – your first point. The committee didn’t have to define anything because it was an enquiry. It is for the DWP to answer and it is absolutely something I will be putting to Baroness Altmann on Thursday along with Sheena Mustard who is the head of legislation for the DWP on 6th May. I think it is terribly important to get an answer to this question from one of them. I totally understand what you mean in your second point. I am currently working with a… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

Lucy, the NAFD dropped its simple funeral because there was no uniformity of practice and because, if price lists properly itemise properly, clients incline to select the options that suit them. I think there’s a lot to be said for a cafeteria approach and I wonder about the feasibility of obtaining consensus on the elements of a simple funeral. Remember, the old simple funeral threw up all sorts of anomalies. I remember the man who rang me in fury because he’d surveyed the elements of a simple funeral at an undertaker and decided that it was exactly the funeral he… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

I have been following this conversation keenly and such good points have been so eloquently made that I almost hesitate to interrupt and go off at a bit of a tangent. Lucy, I wish you every success but I do fear that there are so many complexities that the powers that be will come up with some sort of fudge. Meanwhile I think that Charles touches on a very real problem – that of ‘awareness raising’. Those of us of a certain age will remember the sight of the Man from the Pru, or the Wesleyan & General, or whoever,… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

Michael, when you’ve written your article on crowdfunding, please will you post it here? Also, I agree that private insurance isn’t the answer, but — call me naïve — here’s some maths: To round things down to order-of-magnitude terms rather than concrete predictions, let’s say people work for 40 years of their life on average, and a funeral is very roughly £4000 at today’s prices. That’s £100 for each working year, or £2 per week. How feasible would it be to add £2 a week to National Insurance contributions to provide an index-linked amount for each citizen’s family to spend… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Jonathan, your NIC suggestion has a certain elegance. It’s worth remembering that when the NHS was set up its stated aim was to provide support ‘from the cradle to the grave’. It seems to me that this has been interpreted over the years to mean from the pre-natal clinic to the mortuary. I wonder what Jeremy Hunt would make of a campaign to Bring Back the Grave? Or Why No Grave?

Oh, and sorry, the crowdfunding piece was commissioned elsewhere.

Mark Shaw
Guest

Not a bad idea.

Matthew Bourne
Guest
Matthew Bourne

Hi Michael

When you have finished your crowndfunding piece, would you be able to provide a link to it? I’d be interested in giving it a read

Thanks

Mark Shaw
Guest

Lucy, perhaps the last suggestion you want, but what about joining SAIF and joining their Executive Committee as they may be lacking representation from people with your outlook ? I think the quality / standard of services needs to be agreed. It is then up to those who want to trade as funerals directors to provide these services to the required standard whether directly or through sub contract (yes I have done a start up on limited resources). It is entirely wrong to set the standard based on what some funeral directors are limited to. As with a hearse, if… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest

A number of interesting points here. I agree that funeral poverty for many people, including those not able to apply for DWP is a big issue. And yes, why shouldn’t there be a national “recommended” price which should be able to get a funeral buyer something along the lines of a simple funeral as described. Individual companies can then trade as they wish and show there various prices with this as a benchmark/comparison. (Similar to the M.O.T. Test model) My fear with government promoting “cheap” funerals is that it opens the doors to low quality companies who still want to… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest
Charles Cowling

Thank you for sticking your neck out, Lucy. It’s brave of you. And well done on your very successful lobbying — a real and valuable achievement. Much of what you say strikes me a very sensible, informed as it is by experience and by your commitment to helping people of limited means to organise a funeral. The importance of speeding up the application process, for example, is something we can all agree on. I also agree with much of what Mark says. I’d just like to add one or two other points to consider. I haven’t yet, I’m ashamed to… Read more »