Fran Hall

It would be forgivable to have missed the muted announcement of the publication of the Competition and Markets Authority’s Funeral Markets Investigation Final Report. The culmination of a major review of the funeral market in the United Kingdom which began in June 2018, the Final Report is a weighty 497 page document, with 24 appendices – and a glossary for good measure.

The CMA’s findings were published on the 18th December, the day before the Prime Minister announced new Tier 4 ‘Stay at home’ restrictions on much of the country, effectively cancelling the promised Christmas gatherings for millions.

The strange festive period that followed, together with the continuing daily onslaught of bad news, the confusion and apprehension about the capacity for the NHS to cope with the rapidly rising numbers of Covid patients and the wrangling about schools opening or closing – the fast-changing pace of the strange new world we all find ourselves in means that the CMA’s final findings on the issues in the funeral sector have receded to what seems forever ago.

Most people, even those closely involved with funerals, won’t have found the time or the mental bandwidth to read every word in the report and other accompanying documents yet.

The enormous effort that Stephanie Canet and her team at the CMA have put in over the last 30 months, their scrupulous analysis of the existing landscape in the funeral sector, is in danger of being consigned to a shelf or a file on a computer, to be read at a later date. This is a mistake, and we would urge anyone with any interest in the funeral sector to at least take the time to read the Executive Summary (it’s only 10 pages) and familiarise themselves with the headlines at least.

The findings of the CMA are significant, and the issues identified in their Provisional Report (slightly shorter, at 472 pages!) are upheld in the Final Report. These are outlined below:

  • Due to the inherent emotional distress people experience when arranging a funeral, they understandably tend not to spend time comparing providers. They typically choose to use a funeral director that has been recommended or is familiar to them. For crematoria, people generally select one that is closest to them geographically.
  • Pricing and product information is not provided consistently by funeral directors in a way that allows people to compare different offers.
  • The fees charged by funeral directors and crematoria increased at a rate well above inflation for at least a decade.
  • Most people believe that funeral directors are regulated, but that is not the case in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The investigation found that, although many funeral directors meet good standards, some are providing unacceptably low levels of care of the deceased.
  • Regarding crematoria, there are high barriers to entry in the form of the planning regime, as well as building and operating costs, meaning that crematoria are generally few and far between. Most people have little or no choice about which crematorium to use as there is often only one option within a reasonable distance.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during the latter stages of the investigation meant that the findings were necessarily impacted and affected, and the CMA team were unable to develop their proposals for remedies such as price control. This will likely have caused sighs of relief in boardrooms around the country, where the prospect of a cap on prices had been met with horror and strong pushback.

From the CMA’s Press Release about the report: ‘The Final Report sets out further detail on the CMA’s proposed remedies, which are intended to support customers when choosing a funeral director or crematorium, and to place the sector under greater public scrutiny.

They include:

  • an obligation for all funeral directors and crematorium operators to disclose prices in a manner that will help customers make more informed decisions
  • that information must be provided in advance of a customer committing to purchase a service so that people know the price they will be charged and the key terms of business – for example if a deposit is required
  • that customers should be made aware of any relevant business, financial and commercial interests of the funeral director, and that certain practices – such as payments which may incentivise hospitals, care homes or hospices to refer customers to a particular funeral director – will be prohibited
  • a recommendation to government to establish an independent inspection and registration regime to monitor the quality of funeral director services as a first step in the establishment of a broader regulatory regime for funeral services

The CMA continues to have serious concerns about the sector and one of the conclusions of the report is that it should consider whether a further market investigation reference is needed when conditions are more stable.’

Martin Coleman, CMA Panel Inquiry Chair, said:

“Organising a funeral is often very distressing and people can be especially vulnerable during this time. That’s why our remedies are designed to help people make choices that are right for them and ensure they can be confident that their loved one is in good hands.

The CMA will be keeping a close eye on this sector to make sure our remedies are properly implemented and help it to decide whether further action is necessary when circumstances return to a more steady state.”

We think that this is an eminently sensible reservation to make. The funeral sector will inevitably be changed by the impact of Covid-19, and we are already extremely concerned at a new development that has begun to take hold in recent months.

We are seeing tech companies stepping into what is perceived as a gap in the market, offering low-cost funerals organised online and by phone, and heavily promoting themselves with targeted Google Ads to appear as if they are a local funeral company to the viewer.

Most of these companies outsource the collection and care of the person who has died to funeral companies locally and often have absolutely no connection with – or interest in – the provision of quality support or care for bereaved people. The subcontracting bit frequently isn’t mentioned, or is buried under flowery language referring to ‘our partners’. If you look on the ‘About Us’ section of the website it is rare to find out anything about the people behind the business. 

Today we have been informed about one company that is advertising heavily and appears to have branches all over the country. On their website, the team in each location is shown as the same three people, which sets an alarm bell ringing loudly! Coverage from Tyneside to West Sussex with personal service from a team of three is quite something!

Concerned members of the Good Funeral Guild have looked into how this particular company is operating, and, after some detective work, it appears that they are registering as a virtual office, waiting until the Google pin is provided, then cancelling the virtual office subscription and continuing to use the pin in order to appear under searches as a local funeral provider.  Needless to say, the CMA have been informed about this.

Bereaved people, who are frequently, as Martin Coleman observes, especially vulnerable, could easily find themselves choosing a low cost company that appears to be local, thinking they have found a nearby funeral provider with a website, displaying prices online and that therefore they must be ok.  

This is a new and worrying development that the public need to be made aware of, a variation on the long standing lack of transparency that has plagued the funeral sector for decades. The new, faceless, tech based ‘disruptors’ bring nothing to the table other than devaluing the real, vocational work done by genuinely good funeral providers throughout the country, the ones who provide continuity of care, listening ears, impeccable care for the people in the mortuary and personal connection with the clients they serve.

The GFG strongly welcomes the CMA’s continuing involvement and oversight of the funeral sector. We believe this will be invaluable in monitoring the changing market and hopefully raising public awareness about the potential pitfalls of choosing a funeral provider online.

It is a sad fact of life that where there are vulnerable people and money to be made, there will always be those who will take advantage. Ongoing scrutiny of the funeral sector must continue, as the shape and face of predatory money makers styling themselves as ‘funeral directors’ evolves.

In the meantime, and possibly completely unconnected with the CMA’s investigations, there have been some high-level changes at some of the large corporate funeral companies over recent months.

At Dignity PLC, Chief Executive Mike McCollum left his role suddenly in April, taking a hefty £600,000 payoff with him.

His departure was followed by two independent Non-Executive directors, Jane Ashcroft and David Blackwood, who left the Dignity Board in April and June 2020.

In December (on the 18th actually, coincidentally the day the CMA published their Final Report) two further longstanding directors, Steve Whittern, Finance Director and Richard Portman, Corporate Services Director both left abruptly.

Dignity’s current, smaller Board of Directors appears to excel in strategy, finance and executive skills, but none of their bio’s make any mention of funerals. This seems odd, given that they proudly proclaim themselves as ‘The UK leader in funeral related services’ on their website.

Oh, and earlier in the year, Dignity’s Head of Insight, Simon Cox, quietly left his post in October. Regular readers of the blog may recall the bizarre juxtaposition of the Natural Death Centre Charity on Dignity’s stand at the National Funeral Exhibition in 2019, which apparently came about largely as a result of Simon’s efforts to revamp the reputation of the funeral behemoth by cosying up to a much admired and pioneering charity founded by the late, great Nicholas Albery. It caused significant consternation at the time – we wrote about it on the blog here.

Over at Co-operative Funeralcare, the longstanding Director of Funerals, David Collingwood, left abruptly (and apparently reluctantly) – again, on 18th December, the day that the CMA published its report. It seems that the powers-that-be at the big beasts in funeralworld felt that a shake-up at the top was needed, just at the very time that the CMA went public with their findings.

Perhaps the fact that both companies’ strong disagreement with the CMA’s provisional findings was not taken into account in the CMA’s Final Report meant that heads had to roll? See Dignity’s response here and Co-operative Funeralcare’s response here. Or maybe it was simply coincidence. Who knows.

There’s clearly a huge shift and change happening as Covid-19 gouges its scars on our collective consciousness. It’s inevitable that the way our society responds to the huge numbers of premature deaths will change the landscape of funerals forever, and the companies that provide funeral services will change their offering as a consequence.

It may be that the fact that the CMA’s investigation was interrupted by the pandemic will turn out to be beneficial to us all in the long run. The ongoing oversight promised by the CMA may help ensure that the future of funerals, whatever it turns out to be, will be a better one for all of us.

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Poppy Mardall
3 months ago

Wow. That’s a lot of activity! I knew about some of it, but not all. So thank you for summarising the scope of change that’s happening, and the CMA’s work which is such good news for the public and the sector. Thank you GFG.

Judith
Judith
3 months ago

Such a helpful overview, thank you.

David Holmes
3 months ago

Strange times Fran, normally the media would have been all over reporting this and the financial detriment (harm) caused to consumers. I agree too about these new internet FD’s, Google is not your friend if you’re a consumer. What we see when we search for something is what the highest bidder has paid, that can’t be right can it? I’m also concerned that until it’s regulated, the pre-paid funeral market seems to have attracted sharks. One such operator, (no prior funeral background) is offering all of your money back after 10 years, and a free funeral. It’s madness and cannot… Read more »