Fran Hall

 

Last week, the Competition and Markets Authority published the findings of the consumer research undertaken as part of their Funeral Markets Study.

It makes interesting reading.

The research was commissioned from Research Works and Ipsos MORI as part of the attempt to understand the behaviour, experiences and decision-making of people who had recently engaged the services of a funeral director.

We read through all the findings and felt that there were some important points that should be highlighted. We quote directly from the research:

‘Levels of knowledge of the funerals marketplace were generally very low in this sample. Consumer knowledge about how to arrange a funeral was broad and relatively vague, but finding out more did not appeal, other than finding a funeral director to take on the task of making the arrangements when required.’

‘When they first started thinking about the funeral arrangements, most respondents thought that funerals were expensive.’

‘Broadly, the expense of funerals was accepted and not scrutinised at the point of need, as long as it fit with respondents’ ‘ballpark’ estimates. However, reflecting back on the funerals they organised, a small group of respondents questioned why funerals were so expensive and to what extent this cost was justified.’

‘Most respondents did not compare two or more funeral directors to help them decide which funeral director to use.’

‘… a large group of respondents felt under time pressure to organise the funeral as quickly as possible, minimising the time or will they had for comparing funeral directors. A large group also reported emotional distress as one of the factors for not shopping around, as they felt that would have added more burden at an already difficult time. The research also found that cultural sensitivities around funerals may make some uncomfortable to shop around based on price, as this may be perceived in negative terms (e.g. as putting a ‘price tag’ on the deceased or not caring enough for them).’

There’s lots more to read if you want a more detailed understanding of the findings of the research, but on the whole, it appears that:

Most people don’t want to think about arranging a funeral until they must.

Most people expect funerals to be expensive (well done life insurance companies and funeral plan providers, the media regurgitation of the astronomical figures attributed to the cost of dying and all those relentless adverts on day time TV seem to be working well…).

Most people don’t challenge the funeral cost that they are presented with.

Most people don’t compare two or more funeral directors before engaging one.

Most people are unaware that there can be considerable variations in the prices charged by different funeral directors.

Most people are unaware of ways in which funeral costs can be managed or reduced.

Many people feel pressurised to organise a funeral quickly.

All respondents wanted a local funeral director.

Most people would not change the funeral director once they had chosen them, even if problems arose in the service they received.

Pretty much what we at the GFG have been saying for years.

There’s little appetite among the public to think about funerals in detail, funerals are expected to be costly and the idea of shopping around between funeral directors is viewed as something rather not nice.

Bereaved people on the whole are uninformed, unwilling or unable to become informed for a multitude of reasons – and, even for those who want to be, unable to easily find the information that would enable them to be better informed.

We expect that when the CMA publishes its final report later this year, these findings will form part of the conclusions, and will add weight to the growing momentum towards some form of regulation of the funeral industry.

The conclusions of the CMA research are re-printed below:

“The research suggests that the funerals market does not seem to work as well as it might when: 

Consumers lack experience of arranging funerals. Those with experience of arranging funerals are much more likely to scrutinise how many services they ask the funeral director to provide, and the cost of individual elements, as well as overall cost levels.

The funeral is being paid for from the deceased’s estate and they have specified their wishes. The person arranging the funeral may not perceive themselves as ‘owning’ the purchase, so their main concern is with ensuring the deceased’s wishes are followed and they are not as motivated to scrutinise the cost. 

Consumers feel under pressure to move the deceased person’s body from the place where they have died (e.g. their home, care home) and subsequently make a decision about a funeral director very quickly, typically based on very little information about funeral directors available in an area. 

Consumers attempt to find cost information online. There is a perceived lack of cost information available on funeral director websites and consumers appear unlikely to use other sources of information (such as price comparison websites). 

Consumers are located in a rural environment, where the choice of local funeral director is assumed and prices are not discussed until after the event.”

Both funeral industry trade associations also published their responses to the research last week – the National Association of Funeral Directors welcomed the results of the research in a press release here. (It’s an impressive exercise in skimming over issues raised by the research, focusing approvingly instead on the points that people ‘overwhelmingly want to follow the wishes of the person who died’, and that funeral directors were chosen on ‘locality and previous experience’.)

A more considered and comprehensive response from the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors acknowledged some of the concerns raised by the findings and highlighted two issues in particular: the CMA’s claim that trade associations do not offer consumer protection and concerns over transparency of ownership.

Fran Hall

 

Our recent blog post about Simplicity Cremations, the offshoot of Dignity Funerals, elicited this response from a disapproving reader:

‘This rattled me. “Dignity’s prices are too high and they are the cause of funeral poverty. Big bad dignity”. “Dignity lower their prices and offer a low cost cremation option. Big bad Dignity”. 
Seems to me that someone has a bee in their bonnet and constantly looks for the negative. 
Simplicity Cremations offers almost zero funeral director contact. The deceased is washed and dressed but that’s about it. A funeral director will arrange the Crem forms and dr’s fees but it stops there. There’s no face to face contact. Families arrange their own officiant, flowers, music and so on. The £600 odd pounds you’re quoting seems to only really cover the admin side of things, collecting and dressing the deceased, transport and a coffin. Seems fair enough.’

Hmm.

Let’s have a look at how the other arm of Dignity PLC (the owners of Simplicity Cremations) prices the services they offer clients.

Somehow, we don’t think that a figure of £600 odd pounds for the ‘admin side of things, collecting and dressing the deceased, transport and a coffin’  is considered ‘fair enough’ by the Dignity management when it comes to charging those families who prefer ‘face to face contact’. Or the bereaved people who do what most people in this country do, go into their local funeral director rather than going online to make arrangements.

Dignity Funerals Ltd is the company which, at the last count, has 831 high street branches (all trading under their original names) It is the company that conducted 39,700 funerals in the first six months of this year.  Or an estimated 12.1% of all the funerals carried out in Britain.

And apparently, Dignity’s methods of pricing their high-street-facilitated funerals are remarkably different from those used for their on-line business.

You will be faced with a bill of significantly more than ‘£600 odd pounds’ for ‘the admin side of things, collecting and dressing the deceased, transport and a coffin’ if you walk into one of their high-street branches.

That ‘face to face contact’ seems to bump up the prices by several thousand pounds.

We collected some current price lists from Dignity branches in the London area and the South East and North of England.

Here’s what we found.

The prices shown are for Dignity’s ‘Full Service Funeral’ – i.e. a funeral on a day and time that you choose (rather than them telling you when you can have it), with a choice of coffin and the option of having the person dressed in their own clothes (rather than a ‘suitable basic gown’), the option to spend time with them at the funeral home, assistance in organising floral tributes, obituaries, service stationery and donations, and the freedom to add limousines if you want.

Or, in other words, what most people would expect a funeral director to offer.

 

 

 

London  South East England  North England
‘Our Service to You’* £1,705* £1,655* £1,470*
‘Our Service to the Person who has Died’* £1,045* £1,020* £1,015*
‘Your Appointed Funeral Director’* £ 720* £ 700* £ 725*
‘Our Hearses’* £ 720* £ 720* £ 620*
‘Our Limousines’ £ 252 (from) £ 252 (from) £ 175
‘Traditional’ coffin range £ 150* – £1,250 £ 150* – £1250 £ 150* – £1,250
Cardboard coffin £ 660 £ 660 £ 660
Willow coffin £1,015 £1,015 £1,105

 

 

If your eyes are glazing over at all the figures, we’ve added them up for you below. And we offer some prices from GFG Recommended Funeral Directors for comparison. (We hadn’t intended to do so, as this post is meant to be about the Dignity prices charged by different arms of the business for very similar services, but we thought comparisons with the prices of some independently owned businesses might be informative.)

We included the components with stars against them in the results table above, i.e. the charge for meeting and making the funeral arrangements, the charge for collecting and caring for the person who died, the peculiar additional charge for ‘Your Appointed Funeral Director’ (we’ve never come across a separate fee for having a funeral director appointed to you before?), and the charge for a hearse. We used the lowest priced coffin in the Dignity range, just to keep it simple, although we think that probably very few families pick the £150 option when presented with the coffin brochure, and we didn’t include embalming, even though the Dignity blurb states ‘…. as members of the National Association of Funeral Directors we recommend the peace of mind that embalming brings.’

We then checked the prices for the same or comparable service listed by independent funeral directors in the same parts of the country on our Recommended list.

Oh, and remember, these are figures for just the funeral director fees.

Cremation or burial costs, medical certificates if required (in England and Wales), and the fee for a minister or officiant will be in addition to the figures shown. Also, flowers, orders of service, limousines, placing of obituaries or other optional extras will all be extra costs. It would probably be wise to budget at least a further £1,000.

Here we go:

If you are in the London area, the Dignity price we were given is £4,340

For comparable services, Leverton & Sons would charge £2,310

From Compassionate Funerals, comparable services would cost £2,159

If you are in South East England, the Dignity price we were given is £4,095

Comparable funeral director services from Albany Funerals would cost £2,245

From Holly’s Funerals, comparable services would cost £2,131

If you are in the North of England,the Dignity price we were given is £3,980

Comparable funeral director services from Barringtons Independent Funeral Services would cost £2,150 (and include a limousine)

From Saint and Forster Funeral Directors, comparable services would cost £1,690)

Now, we know that there’s the fabled ‘face to face contact’ involved with all of the prices above. And a hearse. And visits to the chapel of rest if you want them. And a funeral director too. And staff to carry a coffin.

But what we are trying to illustrate is the VAST chasm between the prices charged for the‘admin side of things, collecting and dressing the deceased, transport and a coffin’ by the same company.

Just as a reminder, Dignity’s Simplicity Cremations ‘Attended Funeral’ costs £1,895 including cremation and doctors’ fees.

The lowest Dignity Funerals Full Service Funeral price we found cost £3,980 WITHOUT cremation and doctors’ fees.

That ‘face to face contact’, flexibility in arrangements, visits to the person who died and providing a hearse and staff at the funeral appears to add something in the region of three thousand pounds to the price.

(Now, in case anyone’s interested, the most recent Dignity Investor Presentation reports £120,100,000 revenue from their funeral services in the first 26 weeks of 2018, with Underlying Operating Profit of £42,100,000

Forty two million pounds. In six months.

The Investor Presentation is downloadable here.)

We’re sure that Dignity will be at pains to tell us that they offer a Simple Funeral for £1,995 plus third party costs.

We know this.

We also know that if you opt for a Dignity Simple Funeral: 

You will not be able to decide the date and time of the funeral, they will choose it.

You will not be able to choose a different coffin.

The person who died will not be dressed in their own clothes.

You will not be able to add a limousine if you want one.

There will not be a funeral procession.  

Payment of third party costs will be required at the time of making the arrangements, with the balance due 48 hours before the funeral.

See ‘Some important points about the Simple Funeralhere.

This restricted service is possibly not what most people would expect in return for paying a funeral director almost £2,000 for their service. Even with the face to face contact (and ‘motorised hearse’) you get with Dignity’s Simple Funeral.

You could ditch the face to face contact and the hearse, pick the day and time of your choice, have a similar coffin and save yourself around a thousand pounds (which you’d need to find for the third party costs on top of the Simple Funeral fee) by opting for a Simplicity Cremations Attended Funeral with that all-in price of £1,895.

Though this probably won’t be offered to you if you are a bereaved person who goes into a high street branch of Dignity. It’s only available online. From a company with a different name.

(Or, you could choose to use an independent funeral director instead. Ideally, one that we recommend. Look again at the prices for full, unrestricted funeral services from independent companies above.) 

But to go back to the original point of this post, and to directly address the person who objects to our opinion and thinks we constantly look for the negative:

No, on balance, and with the greatest of respect, dear disgruntled reader, we don’t think it’s ‘fair enough’.

We don’t think it’s fair at all for a funeral provider to be subsidising costs for some bereaved people and charging much, much higher prices, for remarkably similar services, to other bereaved people.

Which is what appears to be happening here.

Incidentally, if you’ve read this far, you might want to have a browse through comments from some long-suffering Dignity PLC shareholders here and here, – many have seen the value of their shares crash since last year and are nervously watching the so-called ‘price war’ between Dignity and Co-operative Funeralcare, wondering how this will impact on the value of their holdings.

Some of the more optimistic appear to be hopeful that, under the lead of Paul Turner, Dignity’s new ‘Transformation Director’, the company’s performance will pick up, and the value of their holdings will start heading up from today’s level (around £10.50 a share) back towards the giddy heights of £24.60 a share just last November. 

The Dignity transition programme is expected to be largely completed over a three year time frame according to that Investor Presentation. So possibly a scenario for ‘Hold’. (Or ‘Hope’.) Time will tell. 

Meanwhile, according to some former and current Dignity employees, there’s a rather gloomier picture on the inside, read reviews here

Now, where’s that bonnet?

 

 

Fran Hall

 

 

We want to make it very clear to anyone who might be unaware – the Good Funeral Guide CIC had nothing to do with the recent announcement of Dignity PLC’s sidekick, Simplicity Cremations as ‘The Best Direct Cremation Provider 2018’ with a ‘Good Funeral Award’.

Having been co-organiser since they began, the Good Funeral Guide is no longer involved in any way with the Good Funeral Awards, we parted company with Brian Jenner amicably last year. 

We wrote about it in a post on the blog earlier this year. And Brian wrote about it on his blog too

We have no knowledge or understanding of the deliberations involved in arriving at a decision to name a Dignity offshoot the best in the country.

Rest assured, had we still been involved in the Good Funeral Awards, we would have strongly resisted handing such a valuable accolade to the marketing people at Dignity to emblazon on their website and include in their press releases.

It simply wouldn’t have happened.

Our record shows our feelings about Dignity PLC. We have written almost 50 blog posts over the years, making our thoughts very clear.

Today we feel it is essential to write another.

Yesterday’s announcement that the online-only, Dignity owned, direct cremation service Simplicity Cremations is now offering clients an attended ceremony at a Dignity owned crematorium for an all inclusive price of £1,895 references the fact that Simplicity Cremations was recognised as Best Direct Cremation Provider at this year’s Good Funeral Awards.

We are concerned that this might be misconstrued as an endorsement of some kind by the Good Funeral Guide CIC by anyone who missed the announcements of our withdrawal from the organising of the awards.

It is not.

We do not endorse Dignity’s calculated attempt to step in as a solution to the issue of funeral poverty by offering their services at a rock bottom price.

We consider funeral poverty to have been very much contributed to by the bloated price increases charged year on year by Dignity PLC and other funeral providers following their business model.

We do not endorse the fact that, in areas where Dignity own a crematorium, local people looking for a low cost funeral will now find that the best price for a funeral service is offered by a company also owned by Dignity.

Meanwhile, families from the same areas preferring to use a local independent funeral director to assist them will be charged among the highest fees for cremation*, making the overall cost to these families for similar services disproportionally higher.

How is this fair to bereaved families?

*(Across the UK, the highest cremation fees are charged by Dignity crematoria. See the 2016 report from Beyond here, showing 9 out of the 10 highest priced UK crematoria are Dignity owned.) 

How is this a level playing field for small independent funeral directors? For small business owners trying to compete in a market where the cremation fee charged to their clients appears to be vastly higher than that charged by Dignity to clients choosing an ‘Attended Funeral’ from their wholly-owned Simplicity Cremations service?

Here’s an example.

If you live in the Oxford area and want a funeral on a day and time of your choice at Oxford Crematorium (owned by Dignity), and you use a non-Dignity owned funeral director to help you, the cremation fee you will be charged is £1,070 (plus, potentially, doctors’ fees of £164). 

If you instead choose the Dignity owned Simplicity Cremations, the full price you will be asked for for the entire funeral service, including cremation fee and doctors fees is £1,895. You can choose the date and time to suit you.

This means that Simplicity Cremations (aka Dignity PLC) is willing to provide all the remaining funeral directing services, including the collection of the person who died, their care, dressing them and taking them to the crematorium on a day and at a time of your choice for just £661.

How is this possible? While there are obviously savings to be made by dealing with bereaved families by phone rather than in person, the remaining services surely come at a greater cost than £661? The only way that we can think that this can make financial sense is that the cremation fee element is not £1,070 for clients engaging Simplicity Cremations rather than another funeral director.

Is this the case? If so, this is not acceptable.

We do not endorse Dignity crematoria offering differential prices to clients of Dignity funeral services, (whether trading under the online Simplicity Cremations name or the locally named high street Dignity branches).

We do not endorse bereaved families being unfairly penalised for choosing a funeral director that is not also owned by the owner of a crematorium in their locality.

We will be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority** to enquire how this situation sits with them.

We suggest anyone who shares our concerns does the same.

**The Competition and Markets Authority ‘promotes competition for the benefit of consumers, both within and outside the UK. Our aim is to make markets work well for consumers, businesses and the economy.’

 

 

Fran Hall

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5’C

As policy makers and news editors across the world digested the implications of the findings and the stark warning that doing nothing is not an option if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world with coral reefs and sea ice, at GFG Towers this got us wondering how we could do our bit (apart from cutting back on the Kobe beef suppers and trips to the corner shop in the Bentley).

And we thought perhaps exploring the impact that our western choices of funeral styles and goods have on the environment might be a good start.

Here are some facts.

In 2017, 607,037 people died in the United Kingdom and of these, 467,748 were cremated.

This represents 77.05% of all deaths (in comparison with 1960, when 204,019 people  or just 34% of all those who died were cremated)*

*Figures obtained from the Cremation Society of Great Britain Pharos International UK Cremation Statistics issue.

Now for the more intricate bit. The effect of the funeral choices for these 607,037 people on our environment.

This is surprisingly hard to find accurate, up to date and unbiased information about. There are lots of quoted figures for the environmental impact of different choices, but it’s extraordinarily hard to substantiate any of them. It also makes sense to try and find out where the figures originally came from, and consequently, who paid for the research. There are very vested interests in this area.

All this following-of-links is time consuming and frustrating, so we’ve just cited the sources of the information below. And we gave up trying to establish the carbon cost of funerals, it would just be guesswork on minimal accurate information, and a variable way of measuring. But suffice it to say that there is a cost. A significant one. Funerals require a lot of energy to create the way we currently do them. And the need to dispose of our dead isn’t something that is going to go away.

Currently, more than three quarters of people who die in the UK are cremated. So we’ve focused on this.

Cremation – or the incineration of the bodies of those who have died (although incineration is frowned on as a term by the sector, it has ugly historical / industrial connotations) – is clearly not a good thing for the environment.

We’ll try to explain why, but a warning – it quickly gets complicated and the sentences get longer and longer.

The average weight of a middle aged British adult is 70kg for a woman, 83.6kg for a man. Source: ONS

The average weight of the cremated remains handed back to a family after the cremation has taken place is roughly 3.5% of the weight of the person who died. Source: Cremation Institute 

Approximately 60% of the human body weight is water – Source: US Geological Survey’s Water Science School 

So, by our amateur calculations, after allowing for the percentages of weight of water content and the ‘cremains’ returned following cremation, there’s a conservative third of a person – or around 20kg – that has disappeared in the combustion process.

Is that right? If so, even allowing for the fancy filtration equipment capturing the nastier elements en route, that’s a whole lot of potential emissions going through the flues and up the crematorium chimney stack. Per person. Multiplied by 467,748 in 2017.

DEFRA offered some Statutory Guidance for Crematoria in 2012 – below is an extract from those guidelines, listing some of the potential pollutants from the cremation process and the techniques to control them:

Techniques to control emissions from contained sources

Particulate matter(PM)

Particulate matter in unabated cremators is controlled by good combustion and by gas flows that do not carry particles out of the cremator. Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of particulate matter.

Hydrogen chloride

Hydrogen chloride mostly arises from the salt content of bodies. Chlorine should be avoided by careful control of coffin materials, contents, shrouds, clothing and items other than the body itself. Condensation is prevented by dilution and preheating stacks. Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of hydrogen chloride.

Mercury

Mercury is highly volatile and therefore almost exclusively passes into the flue-gas stream. Mercury is only partially removed with particulate matter. The rest remains in the flue gases as volatile compounds. Where activated carbon is used as part of the abatement technique, operators should be aware of potential health and safety risks arising from spontaneous combustion.

Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds are controlled by good combustion.

Dioxins

Good combustion and low particulate matter emissions minimise the emission of PCDD/F (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans often referred to as ‘dioxins and furansor even just „dioxins). Mercury abatement further lessens emissions of dioxins.

Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxides arising from coffins might be lessened by switching from coffins made using board made from wood and nitrogen-containing resins. However plain wood is considered too expensive to be required as Best Available Technique (BAT). Cardboard caskets also contain nitrogen in the wet strength additives. Nitrogen is always present in the body. Thermal NOx is minimal due to the secondary chamber temperature and because combustion is staged over primary and secondary chambers.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a pollutant but is also the prime indicator of incomplete combustion that would emit un-burnt hydrocarbons, PAH and PCDD/F, which are much more difficult to monitor. Abatement of carbon monoxide is not BAT but good combustion minimises emissions.

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide emissions are minimised by cremator design and operation. Simple recording of gas consumption and conversion into CO2 equivalent emissions enables monitoring of emissions. Although not BAT, gas meters allow measurement of gas consumption, and comparison with other sites, including the potential for cost savings. Advances in combustion control, allied with short period carbon monoxide monitoring to monitor good combustion, may allow significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for next generation cremator designs.

Hmm. Not quite sure what that all means. But it’s good to know that emissions are being monitored.

Let’s just pick up the mercury point. According to this 2015 Reuters article, the average cremation releases 2 – 4 grams of mercury.

Now, here in the UK, DEFRA got involved back in 2005, and in conjunction with the Implementation of OSPAR Recommendation 2003/4 on Controlling the Dispersal of Mercury from Crematoria Second Overview assessment, required 50% of all cremations at existing crematoria to be subject to mercury abatement by the end of December 2012, with all new crematoria being required to fit mercury abatement. See here.

Because of the difficulties installing abatement equipment in some crematoria, or problems funding the costs involved, an ingenious burden sharing scheme was introduced by the sector, enabling crematoria that installed mercury abatement equipment to derive income by trading 50% of the cremations they undertake. This meant that other crematoria (those without the abatement equipment) could pay for these ‘tradable mercury abated cremations’ in order to become compliant.

This system continues, and despite the UK being a contracting party to the OSPAR Hazardous Substances Strategy that requires 100% mercury abatement by 2020, we haven’t been able to find out with certainty that further progress is being made to reach this target. In the meantime, the level of 50% of cremations having their mercury abated is, apparently, satisfactory.

According to the 2016 Implementation of OSPAR Recommendation 2003/4 on Controlling the Dispersal of Mercury from Crematoria Second Overview assessment the UK states that ‘The data received from Local Authorities recorded in 2013 for England and Wales showed there were more than 330,000 cremations with around 75% of those recorded abated.’

If we apply that same figure to last year’s cremation numbers, and if we use the figure cited by the UK in their response to OSPAR of 0.9g mercury emitted per person cremated without mercury abatement technology (and that’s a very conservative figure – remember that Reuter’s article suggesting the average cremation releases between 2 and 4g of mercury?) then 25% of the 467,748 cremations in the UK in 2017 would have generated at least 105 kilograms of mercury into the atmosphere, drifting towards the North East Atlantic to embark on the process of bioaccumulation into our food chain.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends a maximum daily consumption of a daily intake of 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, or, in other words, for an average adult, 8 micrograms per day.

(If you’re not keeping up at the back, that 105 kg of mercury created by last year’s cremations in the UK = 105,000,000,000 micrograms. Or, if you prefer, a hundred and five thousand million micrograms)

NB according to the same aforementioned Reuters article, some 200,000 babies are born each year in the EU with mercury levels harmful to their development.

We’ll just leave that point there.

We’ve got a bit sidetracked by the numbers and the intricacies of potential cremation emissions (whether financially offset or not) so apologies for that. 

And we haven’t even touched on the cost of the energy involved in firing up and running all the cremators in the UK’s crematoria, let alone the environmental costs involved in the manufacture of all that cremation equipment or the buildings it is housed in. (There are over 290 crematoria in the UK, with more going through the planning process as we write, and pretty much all of them will have several cremators in use.)

We also haven’t got around to the impact of all those nice varnishes, plastics and adhesives being burned throughout the country every day, nor the energy involved in manufacturing and delivering all those coffins. Or all the floral tributes. Remember, there were 467,748 cremations in 2017. That’s a lot of coffin sprays.

Back in 2010, the Burial and Cremation Information Trust created a comprehensive Carbon Questionnaire for crematoria – a document which clearly took a huge amount of time and input to put together.

Unfortunately, we’re not sure which, if any, crematoria have taken the time to complete it. We’ve looked, but we couldn’t find any publications from crematoria citing their work to reduce their environmental impact. There certainly doesn’t appear to be anything in the public domain indicating that there has been an industry wide initiative to establish a base line of the environmental impact that cremating our dead is having.This, we think, is a real shame. We would like to know this.

Anyway, back to the broader subject of environmental decision making when it comes to funerals.

It’s apparent that cremation isn’t ticking many environmental or sustainable boxes. Or any, actually. But unfortunately, choosing a traditional burial also comes with an environmental price tag if you want a traditional burial in a double or triple depth grave and a memorial made from imported stone.

No, if you’re really concerned about the environment, and you want your funeral to have as little detrimental impact on our planet as possible, choosing a natural burial in a site local to you that is well managed according to ecological principles is the only option.

There are hundreds of natural burial sites around the UK – see here for a map, or visit the Natural Death Centre for a list of members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds.

A natural burial comprises of burial in a shallow grave, in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, and with no permanent memorial – see here

And if you want to think about the bigger picture, below are the elements of any funeral where you can make a sustainable choice rather than one that comes at an environmental cost as well as a financial one:

Embalming.Not good for the environment. Even if eco-friendly embalming fluids are used, the process still requires flushing litres of blood into our sewage system. Good funeral directors can care for dead people without having them embalmed.

The type of coffin. Made from mahogany or other rainforest timber? Steel American casket? Not good for the environment. The typical MDF (chipboard) veneered standard mid-price coffin isn’t much better. Ask for coffins that are locally made, from FSC certified, sustainably sourced wood or willow, wicker or papier mache. Or choose a linen or woollen shroud.

Flowers. Plastic frames for letters spelling out words or names? Oasis? Imported flowers that have already travelled thousands of air miles? Not good for the environment. Pick flowers from your garden, or donate to a charity instead.

Travelling to the ceremony. Big gas guzzling hearse and following limousine? Lots of people travelling in cars from a distance? Not good for the environment. Ask for an eco-hearse and car share instead.

Choosing a memorial. That lovely granite tablet that looks so shiny? The pure white marble headstone? Not good for the environment.

The maintenance of the grounds. Manicured lawns, bedding plants and tidy rose gardens in crematoria grounds, intensively mown and weeded cemeteries – not good for the environment. Choose somewhere with conservation areas and a policy for encouraging biodiversity.

  • The indomitable Ken West MBE published an article a while back entitled ‘How Green is My Funeral’ with a handy calculator of the environmental impact of the various choices involved. You have to turn your head 90’ to read it unless you print it out, but it’s well worth the effort.

And our friends at Leedam Natural Heritage have also produced a table showing the different options for consideration by the environmentally conscious when deciding on which type of funeral they want. 

We’d love to know what you think about all this.

As the IPCC is urging us to pay attention to the environmental impact of all aspects of our lives, should we not also be considering the environmental impact of our deaths?

 

 

Fran Hall

 

The GFG is delighted to have been invited to join representatives of various organisations on a working group to look at the role of funeral celebrants. 

We’ve called this working group the Funeral Celebrancy Council and last week the FCC spoke to hundreds of celebrants at the second National Celebrant Convention about the work we’ve been doing so far.

More information about the FCC is below, but for now, we’d like to ask for your help if you are a celebrant who carries out funeral ceremonies.

One of the aims of the FCC is to obtain some realistic statistics. There is very little data about funeral celebrancy, so we are running a survey to try and gather accurate information.

The link can be found here – https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/FuneralCelebrancySurvey2018 and it takes less than 10 minutes to complete.

You don’t need to give your name or identify yourself in any way, but your input will help us build a picture of what is happening out there in funeralworld.

Thanks very much in advance!

 

 

About the Funeral Celebrancy Council

 

The FCC is a working group of representatives from all the established relevant organisations in existence, at the time the council was formed, who took up the offer to take part. It’s called a council because we had to call it something. 
 
At present, the council is still in the early stages of identifying what is required to ensure funerals meet the requirements of the bereaved and the funeral industry as a whole, and we want to hear from as many people as possible. Feedback at the national convention from those working in funeral celebrancy was particularly useful.
 
The members of the council are as follows:
 

The Association of Independent Celebrants

The Fellowship of Professional Celebrants 
Civil Ceremonies 
Humanists UK 
The Institute of Civil Funerals 
Mountain Celebrations 
Green Fuse 
The National Association of Funeral Directors 
The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors 
The Good Funeral Guide,
along with an independent celebrant representing those who choose not to be affiliated to any organisation
 
Several constructive and productive meetings have taken place in 2018, and as a result a document is in development, setting out common standards that all members of the FCC agree all funeral celebrants should aspire to. 
 
This document, the Accord, is not a contract and no one will sign anything. Working to the Accord will be completely voluntary, but we hope celebrants will look on it as something positive we can all aim for. It is intended to be complimentary to what anyone may already be doing as part of their own organisation’s requirements.
 
Consultation on this document is ongoing, and the final version is likely to be published in early 2019.

 

 

 

Fran Hall

 

 

The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors has today issued a press release stating its position on the subject of regulation.

SAIF members received an e-mail yesterday advising them that ‘after careful consideration we have decided that regulation across England and Wales is a good thing and welcome it’. 

The ‘careful consideration’ appears to have been carried out by the SAIF executive committee.  SAIF members were not consulted before the statement was announced and the consultation is apparently to follow.

Now, while it’s quite possible that all of the more than 870 members of SAIF and additional 100 associate members will all unanimously agree that regulation of some kind is required in the funeral industry, if we were a member of an association that was representing our business (we’re not by the way) we’d rather like to have been asked first about our opinion on such an important subject. 

At the GFG we have long taken a stance that regulation of the funeral industry needs to be carefully considered and crafted, and definitely not determined by the trade associations involved. Trade associations are exactly what the name implies.

Any decision on regulation should be led by the interests of the bereaved person, a consumer focus that trade associations are, by definition the exact opposite to. Trade associations represent the interests of their members. Full stop.

Regulation of the funeral industry needs to be informed by wide input, including the funeral world, ideally by seeking the views of every person or company involved with providing assistance of some kind with funerals. However, currently, nobody knows exactly how many funeral director companies are currently operating, whereabouts they are or who is running them. There is no central register of any kind.

At the same time, the UK government is currently paralysed in every area other than those directly involved with the imminent withdrawal from the EU. Attempting to introduce regulation of the funeral industry in the current climate would, we gently suggest, likely mean that government would hand over the critical work of framing the regulation to the funeral industry trade associations hovering helpfully in the wings with their suggestions.

Incidentally, for ‘regulation’, replace with ‘whole tranches of licensing, required training, standards of premises, membership of associations’ and so forth, all providing new layers of bureaucracy, all coming at a cost (to be passed on to whom?), all adding to the end result of – what?

More passionate, creative, intelligent people starting up small companies to serve bereaved families in the best possible way? We doubt it.

 

Read the press release from SAIF below.

 

Independent funeral directors call for regulation of profession in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

England, Wales and Northern Ireland should follow in Scotland’s footsteps and introduce regulation of the funeral profession.

This is the position of the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) – the voice of independent, family-owned funeral directors across the UK.

It makes SAIF the first significant funeral trade association in the UK to back statutory regulation of funeral directors.

The association has also urged its members with websites to display their prices online as soon as possible to help bereaved consumers better understand possible costs involved with a funeral.

It could also mean families get a better deal, with research consistently showing that independent funeral directors’ prices are consistently lower than large groups, like Co-op Funeralcare, Dignity and Funeral Partners.

SAIF’s position on regulation is in response to the positive and proportionate way in which regulation is being introduced in Scotland, and comes in the wake of a small number of worrying cases in which funeral directors have fallen short of standards to which trade association members subscribe.

Terry Tennens, Chief Executive of SAIF, said it was high time all bereaved people across the UK were guaranteed a minimum set of standards from the professionals taking care of them at life’s most difficult time.

“Currently, anyone can set up a funeral directing business and there is no requirement for them to work to a minimum set of standards. Trade associations require their members to abide by a code of practice, but membership is voluntary and we are seeing too many cases of firms who don’t belong to an association operating in an unacceptable way,” Terry said.

He added: “All other care industries are regulated, so there is no reason why funeral directors to whom people turn in great distress should not be subjected to similar rules. The vast majority of SAIF members share concerns about standards and support regulation of the funeral profession.” 

In respect of online pricing, Terry said SAIF’s leadership was set to discuss a commonly agreed set of funeral elements that would appear on a price list, to better help consumers make like-for-like comparisons. A price list should also include options for a simple or basic funeral and a traditional funeral, along with additional items such as flowers and orders of service. This could eventually form part of the association’s code of practice.

Despite concerns about poor practice, bereaved people should be reassured that the overwhelming majority of independent funeral directors operate to high standards. However, one firm operating below par is one too many.

Regulation of the funeral profession should be proportionate and informed by all stakeholders, with the views of independent funeral directors carrying as much weight in any process as those of the large corporates and cooperatives. 

SAIF’s call for UK-wide regulation of the funeral profession comes ahead of the findings of a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) study of the funeral market.

A proportionate regulatory regime could address some of the transparency issues being examined by the CMA and ensure clients of all funeral directors are getting a good deal.

SAIF is to consult its members and the wider funeral profession on areas of focus for any possible regulatory regime which are likely to include:

  • Price transparency – this would include a commonly agreed set of criteria for standard elements of a funeral and clarity around any special offers. SAIF is extremely concerned about Co-op Funeralcare’s recent price match announcement and feels families are being misled by a time-limited offer, which will only be honoured if deemed “feasible”. These types of hard-sell tactics could lead to additional distress for bereaved people if Co-op Funeralcare decline to match what a family felt was a genuine price.
  • Care facilities – all funeral directors should possess or have access to well-appointed care facilities, including a mortuary with spotless refrigeration units and a clinical-standard area for embalming and care of the deceased.
  • Transparency of ownership – the large chains and co-operatives have a habit of buying independent businesses and continuing to trade under the name of the previous owner. Bereaved people need to be given much clearer information by the large firms as to who is delivering the funeral in such circumstances.
  • Financial stability – the distress caused to families if a funeral director goes into liquidation is immense. Any regulatory system should protect bereaved people from the closure of a funeral business, ensuring alternative provision is made in a timely manner and families are not left to fend for themselves, as seen recently in Rochester, Kent.
  • Record keeping – one of the keys to a well-run funeral is a water-tight record keeping system, which prevents any possible mistakes around identity of the deceased and ensures the safe return of any property belonging to families.
  • Regulation that works across jurisdictions – with many funeral directors often finding themselves operating across borders, allowances should be made for any differences in regulatory regimes.

Following a consultation exercise, SAIF is to write to the Westminster Government, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, stating its position on regulation of the funeral profession across all jurisdictions. 

Fran Hall

 

The chaps over at Beyond have detailed their thoughts about some of the responses to the recent Competition and Markets Authority Funerals Market Study. Specifically, the responses from the National Association of Funeral Directors and Dignity PLC. 

NB Beyond say in their introduction that they have a ‘few critiques’ concerning these submissions – it looks like once they started, they were on a roll, as the piece runs to over 5,000 words with a number of helpful tables to illustrate their points.

We thought readers of the blog might be interested in a) the responses to the CMA’s invitation for comments, all of which can be seen here, and b) Beyond’s critique of the responses from the NAFD and Dignity PLC, which can be seen in full here.

We have to confess, we haven’t read all the responses yet. The CMA has been uploading them in batches and we’ve only managed to plough through the first tranche, but we’ll be setting aside an afternoon to read the rest as soon as other commitments allow. 

Hats off to Beyond for reading, analysing and voicing their observations about the content of the responses from two of the major contributors.

Happy reading!

 

 

Fran Hall

 

 

Over the weekend, one of our many readers posted a comment on a previous blog post about Dignity PLC’s report on what they tell us people ‘assume, want and expect from funeral directors.

We thought this comment deserved elevating to a post in its own right. So here it is. (Sorry about the illustration of a female in pink shorts as a reader though, we’re pretty sure it’s not an accurate depiction but it’s the best we could find).

‘Although this piece isn’t about “Quality and standards” and “Regulation” it is about the Dignity business.

I’ve long since ‘had it’ with the constant media spiel that Dignity dispenses, Nothing other than a total smokescreen aimed solely for the benefit of City Institutions/Brokers/Pension funds etc etc. who are only interested in profits, reducing overheads plus a healthy balance sheet, who on the whole know absolutely nothing about the Funeral and Cremation Industry. Those actively involved all of course employ ‘Analyst people’ with an interest in economics, figures whatever who regularly run a line over Dignity’s figures, i.e. expensively employed ‘bean-counters’.  Those Dignity figures will tell them one thing only, exactly how Dignity are performing. What this doesn’t do of course is to give any idea of what the remainder of the Industry are up to.  Said Analysts etc should spend an equal amount of time in looking at this excellent blog since without it, how can any comparisons be drawn……………….?

Consistently Dignity have taken a swipe at the Independent opposition by using the term “fragmented” without ever explaining the use of that term. Put simply, following results last year and earlier this year (together with the Share Price tanking) Dignity realised that they had to do something and as ever that involves a mandate in favour of an expensive Management Consultancy outfit, since that’s the sort of mandate that the Square Mile expects, Corporate Governance you know and again adding to the costs of a Funeral…………………….

Let’s have a look at their Crematoria as it’s not just the pure Funeral side of the business that I suggest is alos suffering, it will not be long (if not already) that they start to feel a real pinch in this area.  For many years no new Crematoriums were built but over the past 10 + years, thanks to Westerleigh and Memoria that position has significantly changed.  Take the fairly new Cromer Crem as an example, this has a forecast 1000 funerals pa. Previously the nearest Crem or should I say Crem’s were both in Norwich, both owned by Dignity.  We all know that the standard Dignity Crem fee is approx £999 so that’s an almost certain annual loss in turnover of £1M from those two locations alone. Memoria also have another operation (Waveney Memorial Park) south east of Norwich which must have added to the ‘Cromer loss’.  All in all Dignity must be taking a large hit in Norfolk, considerably in excess of the £1M already mentioned

Their Oxford operation I suggest is literally haemorrhaging. A few years ago Memoria opened a new site near Abingdon, all of those funerals would previously have taken place at Oxford.  This operation, the South Oxon Crem (shows as per their diary,) 21 funerals during the coming week, admittedly an exceptional amount and 11 next week.  Assuming 800 funerals pa, that’s another £800K that’s not rolling into Dignity’s coffers. Meanwhile down in East Devon, the now mature Southern Co-op funded East Devon Crem has taken a considerable amount of funerals away from what was a very busy Dignity operation in Exeter. That site alone has probably taken 500 funeral pa from Dignity.  Basingstoke is another. The recently opened Test Valley Crem near Romsey has almost certainly affected Basingstoke, say 450 pa (and possibly more)

I’ve highlighted five Dignity Crem’s, which have almost certainly in total shown a Revenue downturn pa of at least £3M, probably more. Memoria and Weterleigh Crem’s are all cheaper than Dignity, so it’s not just the Dignity Funeral side that’s having a marked effect on ‘Funeral Poverty’, it’s their Crem’s too.  I suggest that said Analysts may care to take this into account as well since the number of new Crem’s being built will almost certainly not decrease. Dignity have a monopoly/near monopoly with their Crem’s located in the Brighton, Chichester, Crawley and Leatherhead areas, all very busy but are at risk to new ‘operations’

I ‘sped read’ through the recent media hype that they’ve issued, gawd how much did that cost………..  There’s something about under-performing Branches and something else about separating the Branches from the Mortuary/Vehicle bases,  Funny that, since I thought that that had always been their business model.  And on under-performing Branches this is a ‘token offering’ to the Square Mile, those that current “u-p” are exactly the same as those that did, say five years ago, their under-performance has been mollified by consistently large price increases across the board.  I know who some of them are and would be really surprised if there are more than 30% of the entire Dignity Branches who are significantly profitable.  The plain truth is that what’s happened to Dignity during the past twelve or so months had been a long time coming,  a very long time and the Management have surely been fairly arrogant during this time, in that “…..it cannot happen to us….”.  Prices have consistently been ramped up to a level which cannot be justified and for whatever reason they just hadn’t accepted the power of the web and the constant on-line flow of information re prices etc from opponents, that’s pure arrogance in itself.  Going back to “Corporate Governance”, the current main Board have seven members, there’s only one who has long term experience of the Industry, I suggest that they’re no more connected to the Industry than your average daily commuter

Where is the business going…………….?  Can it go any further – closing a few Branches here and there makes no difference, surely they cannot increase the Crem fees again…….?   It’s a massive business with much middle management.  I could go on I really could……

There’s an additional dimension which never seems to be mentioned regarding the level of a Dignity funeral and the knock on effects that this has towards “funeral poverty”.  Put simply, with Dignity feeling that they can keep their prices at X and X for the different aspects of a Funeral and if the ‘market’ continues to accept them, then it’s pure logic that other Corporates (who are also based in or around Dignity Branches) feel that they can also charge those amounts. On this blog, Co-operative Funeralcare have made a number of appearances, the third largest Corporate i.e. Funeral Partners have to date made just the five appearances on here.  FP have grown significantly during the five or so years and seem to be in very much an ‘avaricious expansion mode’ with 160 shops (or thereabouts) to be precise.  Clearly no ‘mom and pop business’.  FP are no different than Dignity or F’care when it comes to on-line pricing, in fact they appear to be the most secretive.  Later this week I’ll be posting on here current prices for both Dignity and FP for Funerals in the same location. Two highlights (sic) will be the cost of a local removal and for supplying a hearse. I’ll also throw into the mix, comparable prices from a mature local Independent

Finally I had intended to write something along these lines six or so months ago but as the ‘Dignity Plc issue’ per se has again appeared on here, felt that this was a good a time as any to go into print.’

Andre

 

Fran Hall

Yesterday we wrote about the media coverage of Dignity’s findings in their research ‘Time to Talk About Quality and Standards’ and our thoughts about this.

Before writing, we spent some time looking for the full report online, unsuccessfully.

Last night, Dignity kindly sent us a link to the full report which can now be found here.

Plus assurances, which we have absolutely no reason to doubt, that the research was thorough and independently conducted.

A piece also appeared yesterday in the News and Media section of the Dignity Corporate website with the corresponding press release that had been picked up by the Daily Mail and the Guardian in previous days and informed their articles – see it here

It seems that the PR department at Dignity works 7 days a week – and also keeps a close eye on the GFG blog at weekends. 

We have thanked them for furnishing us with the full report and are glad to see it now in the public domain.

PS Were GFG blog readers aware that apparently ‘Consumers expect the cars FDs use to be Jaguars, Mercedes or Daimlers and to be  2 – 5 years old’? No, us neither.

 

Fran Hall

 

Well, well, well.

The people in the Dignity press department are having a busy summer. Two national newspapers have published findings from the recent report commissioned by the funeral giant that operates under ‘over 500 distinct local brands with varying levels of local brand equity’ (source Dignity Investor Presentation June 2018).

Here’s a line from the article in the Daily Mail: ‘Around a third of funeral directors belong to chains such as Co-operative and Dignity, which commissioned the report and are not criticised in it.’ 

Apart from the pretty poor grammar, this is hardly a world shattering revelation – if you pay to commission a report on the industry you are a big player in, you’re unlikely to be seeking to find criticism of your own practice. No, this report is clearly part of the strategy to position Dignity as the leading industry provider of facilities and standards of care for the deceased, and is part of their response to the perceived threat to market share and ongoing ‘volume erosion’. As outlined in the Investor Presentation, ‘the combination of increased price competition and more demanding consumers requires a new approach.’

(That and the calamitous fall in Dignity’s share price precipitated by last year’s investment report by Beyond perhaps?)

And from the article in The Guardian ‘None of the 75 funeral companies visited by anonymous researchers for the report allowed access to their mortuaries.’

Well, why would they? How were these 75 funeral companies approached, and by whom? Would you want the funeral director looking after a relative to let a journalist have access to the mortuary where your relative was being cared for? 

For the record, we ask all companies applying for Good Funeral Guide accreditation whether they would be willing to let clients or potential clients see the facilities where dead people are cared for. All would, with varying stipulations to ensure the privacy of the people in their care. And we go and visit them ourselves to make sure that we’d be willing to have one of our relatives looked after by each company we recommend.

Anyway, that’s by the by. Back to the Dignity PR.

Unfortunately, the ‘Time to talk about quality and standards’ report cited in the press doesn’t appear to be in the public domain, so there’s no way of knowing details of how the findings reported in the press were arrived at. Suffice it to say, the intended result seems to have been achieved, with Dignity positioning itself as the voice of the righteous, campaigning against shocking standards of cowboy funeral directors and calling for strong regulation of the industry. 

In a statement earlier this year, Dignity CEO Mike McCollum said “We will also continue to demonstrate industry leadership by seeking the regulated market that will be good for clients and society and which plays to our strengths as a compliant and well managed business.”

Hmm.

The regulated market that plays to Dignity’s strengths is not quite the shape of regulation that we’d like to see being implemented.

Regulation in the right form is something to be welcomed, but regulation that would impose stringent barriers to entry into the funeral market (as intimated by Dignity as being the preferred option) is something to be resisted at all costs if, as a society we want to have the freedom to choose bespoke, creative and emotionally intelligent people to help us look after our dead.

Dignity have been undergoing an operating review with the help of LEK Consulting, which has resulted in a 3 year transformation plan involving separating front of house (client facing staff) and back of house (funeral directors, funeral service operators) to enable ‘specialisation and efficiency gains’. The former are involved with ‘client meetings and funeral arrangement, in branch pre need sales and viewings of the deceased’, while the latter are responsible for the collection and ongoing care of the deceased and the delivery of the funeral on the day.’

‘Optimisation of network footprint’ is another aim – involving rationalising locations with low performance or highly overlapping catchments and changing the operating model from 120+ networks with 5 branches per network to 70 networks with 10+ branches per network, and centralising operations where appropriate, e.g. mortuaries and fleet.

Investors have been assured that the Group has concluded that a future outlook of stable, comparable market share should be achievable through a combination of service, price and promotion, the latter illustrated by a key phrase from the Investor Presentation regarding future branding – the intent is for ‘marketing to promote Dignity’s commitment to high standards of care, quality service delivery and competitive entry prices’.

So far, so slick.

Congratulations LEK Consulting. And undoubtedly a nice welcome for the newly appointed but as yet unannounced Transformation Director who has ‘significant experience driving organisational change at major UK retailers’ and who will sit on the Dignity Executive board and report directly to CEO Mike McCollum.

The key message of Dignity being the saviour of standards in the funeral industry has been planted. 

Time will tell whether bereaved families will be persuaded by the highly polished Dignity PR campaign, or whether instead people will seek out personalised service from local, independent, flexible and intelligent small businesses. The type of businesses where they can meet the people who will collect and care for their relative, have personal contact day or night with the owner, and know that their dead person won’t be shipped off to a centralised mortuary miles away.

We await the findings of the Competition and Markets Authority market study into the funeral sector with interest. As, we are sure, do the powers that be at Dignity PLC.