So that was 2017, over and done with.
It was quite a year in Funeralworld. We lost one of the brightest stars, the founder of the Death Cafe movement, Jon Underwood, who died on 27th June 2017, tragically young at 44. Jon’s legacy is not only his two beautiful children, but the continuing spread of Death Cafes around the world; over 5,600 have been held so far, offering tens of thousands of people the chance to drink tea, eat cake and talk about death.
We saw the appointment in Scotland of the new Inspector of Funerals Directors, Natalie McKail, in a step towards the regulation of the funeral industry north of the border, something we are sure will be watched with interest in England and Wales.
We watched Dignity’s share price tumble by more than 25% over 12 months, opening at the beginning of the year at 2,447 and closing on Friday at 1,820 after CEO Mike McCollum warned of increasing competition eroding their pricing power.
We were informed of the disappearance of the CEO of the National Association of Funeral Directors, Mandie Lavin who is no longer in position – although as yet no explanation has been given to members.
We’ve seen the re-emergence of Howard Hodgson as a player behind the scenes of the Hospice Funerals franchise scheme, something we will continue to monitor and challenge as we go forward into 2018. We will be publishing the results of our survey early next month.
As for the Good Funeral Guide – well, we’re still here, watching and observing, participating in discussions and debates and doing the work that we are dedicated to; supporting, empowering and representing the interests of dying and bereaved people living in the UK.
We have added a further 12 funeral directors and two burial grounds to our recommended lists after they went through our stringent accreditation process, and we have several more companies waiting to be visited in the new year. Membership of the Good Funeral Guild has doubled in 2017, and there is a thriving networking group where thoughts, ideas and best practice are all freely shared.
Funerals are changing, there is no doubt of that, and it is largely thanks to the efforts of dedicated, challenging, committed individuals who are determined to give bereaved families the best possible experience at the worst time in their lives. We are proud to be associated with so many of you, and we will continue to support you as best we can using the platform that we have.
As we head into 2018, we have ideas and plans for new ways to keep the momentum going. We have meetings and collaboration planned with colleagues in the church, in celebrant organisations, with the Natural Death Centre charity and with SAIF, and we’ll be working hard to ensure we all go forward together with the best interests of bereaved families at the heart of all we do. We’re adding more information to our website so people can access free, unbiased and accurate guidance about funerals, and we’ll continue to publish our thoughts and opinions without fear or favour on this blog.
And lastly, we’re leaving some things behind. We’ll no longer be involved with the Good Funeral Awards. We think it’s time for new ways of celebrating what is good in the world of funerals.
Watch this space.
Happy New Year from all at Team GFG
Hat’s off to Ann Lee, I say. She’s the courageous CEO of St Margaret’s Hospice, Taunton who has launched a joined-up funeral service with the twin goals of caring for her patients in death and earning some much-needed money to pay for the care her hospice extends to the living. What’s not to like?
A hospice is uniquely positioned to create great funerals at a time when too many mainstream funeral providers are offering a product which, in the eyes of consumers, costs too much and offers poor value. Yes there are some lovely undertakers out there doing their best for their clients. But they’re not putting in the thinking, most of them. They’re not creating funeral experiences that meet the needs of modern mourners.
Hospices can be the changemakers we need to break this dismal cycle. Because only they can close the care gap. The seamless service they talk about makes instant emotional sense, doesn’t it?
And they’ve got the two things they need to do it.
First: hospice values.
Second: hospice ways of working. A hospice workforce is a mix of highly-skilled professionals and highly-motivated volunteers. And it’s exactly this mix of people that will make hospice funerals beacons of best practice and low prices.
The blueprint is already out there — has been for some time, now. Communityfunerals.org.uk is a how-to guide to setting up a “funeral service which, in a spirit of common purpose, deploys volunteers and professionals as its members see fit in support of three objectives: commercial, social and environmental.”
The concept is the product of a partnership between the Good Funeral Guide and the Plunkett Foundation, the people behind community shops and pubs. It has attracted lots of interest but no-one has yet had what it takes to see it through. Now I sense its time has come.
Here are some excerpts from the communityfunerals manifesto:
A community funeral service (CFS) reclaims the care of the dead and the support of the bereaved from the for-profit sector, but in doing so it does not take inspiration from the past. A CFS is a progressive agent of social change in response to, in particular, the growing challenges posed by longevity, the changing needs of the bereaved and evolving trends in the expression of grief and the commemoration of the dead.
The community funerals movement does not denigrate the values and skills of the best funeral directors. On the contrary, it seeks to accommodate them.
A CFS promotes healthy, robust and informed attitudes to mortality by responding to the ‘death of one of us’ as ‘something that touches all of us’. In doing so it rejects as emotionally unhealthy the outsourcing of the care of the dead and the arrangement of their funerals to specialist undertakers.
A CFS asserts the normality of death and assumes ‘a neighbourly duty of care for our own’.
A CFS does not treat the death of someone as a standalone event. A CFS works collaboratively with those who care for the elderly and the dying, and with those who support the bereaved.
A CFS acknowledges that its fitness to deliver its social and environmental objectives derives from its ability to deliver economic benefits to it members. Unless it can provide a service offering better value for money than the for-profit sector it has no business in the marketplace.
And this is what the CFS manifesto has to say about how a CFS is staffed:
At the heart of the philosophy of a CFS is the belief that the bereaved would rather deal with ‘one of us’ than ‘one of them’ – that death is better handled by ordinary altruistic members of a community than by those whose exclusive professional competence is the care of the dead and the service of the bereaved. For this reason, a CFS is staffed as far as possible by people for whom the work is part-time, just as it was for the laying-out woman and midwife in times gone by.
There you have the gist of it. There’s much, much more on the communityfunerals website. Shining ideals and copperbottomed practicality. Here’s an aside: when did you last see anyone with physical or learning difficulties working in funeral service?
If you don’t mind, I want to speak direct to Ann now.
Ann, you’re clearly something of a newbie to the cut-throat world of commerce. Along with others, I think you could have taken better advice. Ours for preference. I don’t fall in with those angry folk who write Mr Hodgson off as a ‘bottle-blond muppet’ or a ‘poundshop Svengali’. But I do think his business plan lacks intelligence. No one ever made money by dishing up the same old same old.
A community funeral service, on the other hand, is tailor made for you.
So think again. Remember: i) hospice values, ii) pro-am workforce. A hospice funeral service will never make St Margaret’s a fortune but it’ll make people think well of your work and that will loosen the purse strings of your many supporters. Feed the love and you will reap a rich harvest.
If I’ve failed to persuade you and you insist on sticking exclusively to ‘income diversification’ as an end in itself, then your best bet is to open a string of kebab shops. More profitable.
To: The CEO of the North Devon Hospice
Dear Stephen Roberts
It is with sadness and grave misgivings that I have learned of your decision to throw in your lot with Hospice Funerals. Any new business is a gamble, but I think you’re risking more than money in this new venture. Let me tell you why.
You’ve done your market research and you know that the market you are entering is saturated: we have more funeral directors than we need. I recognise that you’d only be doing this if you had identified a gap — an opportunity to provide a commercial service catering for needs that are not presently being met. And you have. Together with Hospice Funerals you have identified four areas where you reckon you have a competitive advantage. One of these amounts to a USP which no other provider can match.
First, there is ‘transparency’ — price transparency. The Good Funeral Guide has been campaigning for undertakers to post prices online for years so I’m with you there. Failure to publicise prices stops the market from working properly and creates the impression that undertakers generally are overcharging. It is true that some undertakers have indeed been using this as a way of disguising unacceptably high prices, but many have refrained from doing so on the grounds that it was not, they felt, ‘dignified’ to do so. It has taken time to alter this mindset. Online price comparison sites have helped. The best undertakers now post their prices online while the rest are rapidly following suit. My judgement is that transparency, once a major issue for funeral consumers, won’t be for much longer.
Second, you intend your funeral service to be ‘affordable’ — in plain English, cheap. The reasons for funeral price inflation are complex and have much to do with above-inflation third-party price rises (eg, burial and cremation). The funeral directors’ component of the final bill for a funeral has actually been below the rate of inflation for the last two years. Margins generally have been shrinking in response to consumer demand for cheaper, simpler funerals. Furthermore, there has been an appreciable number of altruistic new entrants to the market throughout the UK operating on very low margins indeed in order to be accessible to people on low incomes. If you propose to operate your hospice funeral service at the ‘affordable’ end of the market you are likely to be disappointed by its crowdedness and its poor profitability. Partnering with an organisation — Hospice Funerals — that exists only to make money out of you is only going to diminish your bottom line further.
Third, your funeral business will be operating under the name of your hospice. This is likely to be a potent force in marketing your funerals. But remember, yours is essentially a speculative venture. Being good at looking after the dying, their families and friends, does not automatically translate into being good at looking after the dead and the bereaved. Any falling short in funeral provision is likely to impact grievously on the good name of your hospice and consequently on the high regard of your volunteers, supporters and donors. To lose money on this venture would be reputationally disastrous.
Fourth, your raison d’etre and USP is to bridge what you call the ‘care gap’ by providing a seamless service from terminal illness to grave. This is a marvellous idea. Yes, if you had cared for someone as they lay dying, why wouldn’t you want to go on caring for them in death? Why hand them over to strangers? A hospice is in a unique position to achieve this. It makes very good sense.
Except that it won’t be hospice staff who care for your dead on hospice premises, will it? It will be a separate team from somewhere else. Strangers, in other words. So not seamless at all. Or different. You’ll be just another undertaker, no different from all the rest, competing in the same overcrowded market.
You say that “North Devon Hospice’s key focus is income diversification right now”. Perhaps this gives us an insight into where you’ve gone wrong. Your thinking been profit-driven, not values-led. Consequently your business case is a muddle of wrong assumptions and wishful thinking.
I urge you to reconsider. Please, whatever you do, don’t take risks with your hospice’s good name.
With best wishes
Director and founder of the Good Funeral Guide
Predictably, the Good Funeral Guide’s recent decision to take a public stance on our misgivings about the wisdom of UK hospices engaging in the Hospice Funerals franchise opportunity has not been welcomed by the parties involved in this venture.
We have been described as ‘disingenuous’, ‘concerned with protecting the commercial interests of those who fear increased competition in the funeral market’ and people have been encouraged to ‘question our motives’.
We thought it might be worth stating our position very clearly for the public record.
The Good Funeral Guide was founded to represent the interests of funeral consumers. Neither its CEO nor any of its directors has a financial stake in any undertaking business.
WHERE DO WE GET OUR MONEY FROM?
Like any consumer organisation, the GFG can only be of value to consumers if it is a sustainable business. Like any consumer organisation, we must source revenue principally from one or more of three sources: i) subscribers (consumers), ii) funeral directors, iii) advertisers. Because we want our site to be open to all at the point of need we do not charge consumers. Because we do not want to clutter our site with distracting, garish ads, we do not accept advertising. Instead, we invite funeral directors to submit to our stringent accreditation process, charge them for the work involved and, on top of that, charge them a small subscription of £150 pa for our review of their services to appear on our website. The rationale for this is clear: funeral directors benefit from increased business once they have been recommended by the GFG; they can afford to pay.
WE ALWAYS SAY WHAT WE THINK
In submitting to our accreditation process, funeral directors understand that the GFG is feisty, fearless and outspoken in its advocacy of the bereaved in a way which may occasionally make them uncomfortable. It is precisely our free-spirited integrity that makes our endorsement of their services a) valuable and b) worth paying for. They know that we have refused to accredit funeral directors who have failed to meet GFG standards; we are hard to please. Above all, they understand that we always put the interests of funeral consumers first. So they know that if hospices were to extend their care of their patients by caring for them in death in a way which we considered to be beneficial to people who have died and those who mourn them, the GFG would support them. As indeed we would.
WE LOOK FOR THE BEST
Unlike a great many (uninformed) commentators on the funerals business, the Good Funeral Guide does not take a view that the business of undertaking is systemically predatory and exploitative. We know that while there are a great many unsatisfactorily run businesses, there are also that some are exemplary and admirable. That we sing the praises of the latter is to the benefit of consumers. This does not make the Good Funeral Guide a mouthpiece for those businesses. That we have invited our listed funeral directors to endorse our opposition to the Hospice Funerals concept is because we consider their views to be of weight and merit.
WE THINK THE HOSPICE FUNERALS CONCEPT IS DOOMED
To reiterate: in the matter of the Hospice Funerals enterprise, we call it as we see it. It is our judgement that the business model is intrinsically defective: Why? Because Hospice Funerals will not be competitive on cost, personal service, transparency or choice. Hospice Funerals will not improve the lot of funeral consumers. Hospices should not be spending volunteer-raised money on an untried, speculative enterprise. Britain’s best funeral directors happen to agree with us.
Last weekend, we despatched letters to the boards of trustees of every hospice in the UK to share our concerns about the new franchise offer that was launched at the Hospices UK conference the previous week.
Our misgivings about this venture are shared by a number of individuals and companies who gave permission for their names to be added in support. The letter is published in full below, together with the names of those who agree with us.
The Chair of the Board of Trustees
December 1st 2017
HOSPICE FUNERALS: THE GOOD FUNERAL GUIDE COUNSELS CAUTION
Dear Trustees of SAMPLE Hospice
We write regarding the recent launch of Hospice Funerals LLP, of which you may well be aware. Should you not have heard of this new venture, it is a joint collaboration between St. Margaret’s Hospice Ltd. in Somerset and Memoria Ltd., owner /operator of a number of crematoria around the country and of Low Cost Funeral Ltd.
Hospice Funerals is offering all UK hospices the opportunity of a becoming a partner in their franchise funeral director scheme by becoming a ‘Hospice Provider’, entitled to operate exclusively within a defined area, offering undertaking services branded under the hospice name. For full details, please see the Hospice Funeral website https://www.hospicefunerals.co.uk/
The Good Funeral Guide wishes to draw the attention of the Board of Trustees to the very serious concerns that we have about this proposed new revenue stream generator, despite the public proclamations of how this will address the issue of funeral poverty and ‘bring choice, quality and affordability to families in our communities.’
As a trusted, not for profit, social enterprise company, wholly independent of the funeral industry, that has for years supported, empowered and represented the interests of dying and bereaved people living in the UK, we would be delighted to see a truly ethical, community focused undertaking service evolving from the hospice movement; indeed, we have a blueprint guide to how to set up such a model on our website which we developed in partnership with the Plunkett Foundation several years ago.
Unfortunately, this new model proposed by Hospice Funerals does not, in our opinion, fall into the category of an ethical, community focused service, despite the marketing hype.
THE COMMERCIAL RISK
- It is a franchise operation, which is intended to utilise ‘brand recognition’ of the hospice name to leverage advantage over existing providers of undertaking services in the franchise catchment area (defined by Hospice Funerals) and by ‘disrupting the market’, in the process conveniently increasing the numbers of cremations carried out by the crematoria owned by Memoria Ltd.
The Good Funeral Guide is not aware of the successful application of any franchise model to the business of funerals. Franchise operations are best suited to selling merchandise, not personal service. The franchise model proposed by Hospice Funerals is wholly unproven.
- Figures provided by Hospice Funerals indicate an extremely optimistic analysis of the potential income of a ‘Hospice Provider’. Their analysis suggests that a single unit operation offering funeral packages at their pre-specified prices, requiring a capital input of £110,00, would generate £356,500 through sales of 100 ‘at-need’ funerals and 46 pre-arranged funerals in year one, yielding profit of £26,656. Year three sales are projected as comprising 200 ‘at-need’ funerals, 120 pre-arranged, generating £212,964 profit.
The Good Funeral Guide contends that these figures are misleading, to say the least.
The ‘funeral market’ is, by admission of the directors of Memoria Ltd, already saturated with providers. In the town of Taunton, where the first Hospice Funerals unit is scheduled to open in early 2018, there are currently twelve funeral directors catering for the needs of local bereaved families. This in an area with a population of 109,000 (the borough of Taunton Deane) and an average UK death rate of 9.4 per 1,000.
Figures quoted by the representatives of Hospice Funerals at the launch of the scheme last week cited the average cost of funerals in some areas as being ‘well over £6,000’.
This figure was derived from the Royal London National Funeral Cost Index 2017 and was arrived at by adding the cost of a burial in a specific London Borough, Kensal Green, (£9,809) to the cost of a cremation in the same borough (£3,223) and dividing in two.
It is mysterious that the Royal London Report didn’t allow for the fact that almost 80% of UK funerals are cremations. A more accurate average would be to factor in the percentage split of types of funeral, (20 x £9,808 + 80 x £3,223, divided by 100), which would result in an average cost of a funeral in the most expensive location in the UK being £4,504, not the much more alarming figure of £6,516 quoted in the report.
Note: all monies that will be paid into a Hospice Funerals pre-arranged funeral plan will be held in a Royal London whole-of-life policy, indicating a close and perhaps unquestioning relationship between the two bodies.
Directly related to the above ‘average cost of funerals’, the prices of the funeral packages offered by Hospice Funerals range from £1,295 for an unattended service at a Memoria crematorium to £3,500 for a traditional service with a hearse and bearers at a crematorium of your choice.
In comparison with the inflated figures quoted as the cost of an average funeral, this might seem to be a wholly worthy attempt to address funeral poverty, as it was described at the Hospice Funerals launch, yet the prices of their funeral packages are equivalent with, and in some cases higher than, those currently charged for comparable services by most independently owned funeral directors.
As an example, two Good Funeral Guide Recommended Funeral Directors in the Taunton area (where the first white labelled Hospice Funerals unit will start operating in 2018) are both lower priced for the same traditional funeral service, with all third-party costs included:
Wallace Stuart Lady Funeral Directors (Bridgwater) £2,630.00
Crescent Funeral Directors (Taunton) £3,000.00
Hospice Funerals £3,500.00
The Good Funeral Guide is concerned that the figures quoted by Hospice Funerals could erroneously lead hospices to think that they would have a straightforward price advantage over competitors in offering a local undertaking service, when this would simply not be the case.
THE REPUTATIONAL RISK
We also consider the employment of the name and reputation of hospice, both specifically in the use of the individual name of a local franchisee, and nationally in the use of the company name ‘Hospice Funerals’, to be a calculated, and indeed one could say cynical, attempt to persuade the public that this new undertaking model is simply an extension of the highly reputable and locally supported end of life care provided by their cherished local hospice.
The fact that it is in fact a white label operation, maximizing the use of the ‘brand name’ of the hospice in each area, controlled by Memoria Ltd, who have divided the UK into ‘catchments’ of 100,000 people (and who are proffering these 650 areas for sale at £10,000 p.a. franchise opportunities to hospices as a means of securing their much-needed income) seems to be lost somewhere in the marketing spin.
We would suggest any hospice considering entering an arrangement of this kind notes the following:
- Other franchisees could give the brand a bad reputation
- All profits (a percentage of sales) are shared with the franchisor.
- The franchise agreement will include restrictions on how you can run the business. You might not be able to make changes to suit your local market.
- You may find that after time, ongoing franchisor monitoring becomes intrusive
- The franchisor might go out of business.
Reputational damage to individual hospices signing up to this opportunity could potentially be catastrophic. Legacy donations and in memoriam fundraising could be seriously impacted if families elect to use a hospice funeral home, as they could consider they have done their ‘giving back’ to the hospice through their payment of the fees involved with the funeral.
The move from being perceived as a deserving recipient of gifts and donations to being seen as a money-making business entity, competing with established, trusted and well-liked funeral providers, is a subtle but potentially disastrous one, impacting on the public perception that a hospice is a wholly altruistic organisation.
Comments on our blog post about the advent of Hospice Funerals have been overwhelmingly against the idea of hospices entering the supplying of funeral services.
Phrases used include ‘unethical’ (several times) ‘goes against every principle a hospice should stand by’, ‘will negatively impact their charitable and bequest income’, ‘conflict of interest’, ‘risk losing this public support’, ‘at what point does care and support for the dying and impartial advice given to a family suddenly at sea after a death turn into a sales opportunity?’
On social media, there has been a similar reaction. Questions have been asked about the arms-length relationship between a hospice and its funeral home – how will this work in reality? What will be the impact on the current relationship with local undertakers when the hospice enters the marker as a direct competitor? How will the new hospice funerals service be promoted to the community, and how will this be reacted to?
It seems to us that hospices will be carrying all of the risk in the hope of optimistically calculated but completely unproven rewards.
If SAMPLE HOSPICE is considering partnering with Hospice Funerals, we would counsel strongly that the trustees take heed of our concerns before making your final decision to risk your donated funds to venture into competition against the local funeral directors who work so closely with you to look after the families of those whose lives end in your care.
The Good Funeral Guide is supported in our misgivings about the wisdom of this new venture by the individuals and organisations listed below, some of whom may be known to you as local, independently owned undertakers who share our fears about this seductive offer being touted to hospices around the UK.
Should you wish to contact me directly about this I would be more than happy to discuss our collective concerns further. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CEO Good Funeral Guide CIC
On behalf of the board of directors of the Good Funeral Guide and the undersigned supporters.
A Oliver & Sons Funeral Directors
A.W. Lymn – The Family Funeral Service Ltd
Adrian Pink – Town & Country Funerals
Alistair Turner Funeral Directors
Allistair Anderson & Hasina Zaman – Compassionate Funerals
Amanda Pink – Evelyn’s Funerals
Andrew Dotchin (Reverend)
Andrew Smith Funeral Service
Angie McLachlan MA; BA Hons, BIE
Anna Briggs – Independent Officiator of bespoke funeral ceremonies
Anne & Simon Beckett-Allen – Rosedale Funerals
C Waterhouse & Sons
Carrie-Ann Rouse – Rouse & Co. Independent Funeral Directors
Carrie Weekes & Fran Glover – A Natural Undertaking
Claire Turnham – Only With Love
Claire Young – Young’s Independent Funeral Services
Clare Brookes – VW Funerals
Colin Liddell – Liddell Funeral Services
Coles Funeral Directors
David Hardie & Son Funeral Directors
David Holmes – Holmes & Family
Don O’Dwyer – O’Dwyer Funerals
E A Dodd & Son
Edward Towner – Arthur C. Towner Ltd
Emma Curtis – Secular Minister, Celebrant & Grief Counsellor
Eric Massie Funeral Directors
Gail Willington – Elizabeth Way & Company
Gordon Tulley & Alison Finch – Respect Woodland Green Burial Parks
Heathfield Funeral Service
Jacob Conroy & Sons Funeral Directors
James L Wallace Funeral Directors
Jane Morgan – Jane Morgan Ceremonies
Jeremy Neal – Rotherham Funerals
Jo Loveridge – Albany Funerals
John Beattie & Sons Funeral Directors
John Pinder – W. E. Pinder & Son Ltd
Judith Dandy – Dandelion Farewells
Judy Mansfield – Cherish Ceremonies
Karen & Julian Hussey – A. G. Down
Leverton & Sons
Louise Winter – Poetic Endings
Lucy Coulbert – The Individual Funeral Company & Coulbert Family Funerals
Like & Liz Farthing – Farthing Funeral Service
Maggie Brinklow & Tony Killen – Margaret Rose & Bespoke Funerals
Malcolm Jones – Molyneux Jones Family Funeral Directors
Mark Binnersley MPRCA Communications Consultant
Martin Stibbards – S. Stibbards & Sons
Matthew Lucas Funeral Directors
Michael & Clare Gamble – Michael Gamble Funeral Directors
Nick Armstrong – Armstrongs Funeral Service
Nikki Hill – Bright-Hill Funerals
Overmass & Chapple
Paul Burrows Gibson – Veterans Funerals UK
Paul Sullivan – Sullivan Funeral Directors
Peter Grenfell Funeral Directors
Poppy Mardall – Poppy’s Funerals
Philip & Sallie Evans – Sussex Funeral Directors
Rosalie Kuyvenhoven – Rituals Today
Robert Samson Funeral Directors
Rupert Callender – The Green Funeral Company & Callender, Callender, Caughty & Drummond
Saint & Forster Funeral Directors
Simon Helliar-Moore & Robert Helliar-Moore – Crescent Funerals
Simon Smith – Green Fuse, Heart & Soul Funerals
Southgate & Roberts
Tim Coombe – Senior Anatomical Pathology Technician
Tim Purves – William Purves Funeral Directors
Tilly Munro – Community Funeral Specialist
Toby Angel – Sacred Stones Ltd.
Tom Woodhouse Funeral Directors
Wallace Stuart Funeral Directors
W G Catto Funeral Directors
W G Potter
Wood & Hay Funeral Directors
This afternoon an e-mail was sent to all members of the National Association of Funeral Directors announcing that Mandie Lavin, the CEO appointed just under 15 months ago, is no longer employed by the Association.
No explanation has been given for her abrupt departure, but as the current President steps in to take the reins of the ‘Voice of the Profession’, we have received a guest post from Louise Winter, a progressive funeral director in London, in which she puts forward some thoughts that the organisation might like to consider as they look to the future.
An Open Letter to the NAFD
Dear National Association of Funeral Directors,
In light of the sudden change in leadership at the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) which was announced today, and as the leading trade association representing the funeral profession in the UK, there are a few considerations I’d like you to make when debating the future of your organisation and appointing your next CEO.
Funerals are important. A good funeral can be profound and transformational in helping to acknowledge and accept that someone has died. As the homepage of your website points out, ‘funerals matter’.
With this in mind, please consider the following:
- To introduce an underlying commitment to better serve the needs of the bereaved public and to make this the determining factor in any decision that is made.
- To become a force to be reckoned with, representing both traditional, modern and progressive funeral directors, corporates and independents.
- To be seen as universal – as interested in the smallest independent funeral directors as the needs of the biggest corporate firms.
- To share best practice and encourage collaboration for the sake of the future of the funeral profession.
- To offer modern, useful and thorough training to develop the next generation of the funeral profession.
- To improve the reputation of the funeral industry in the interest of making funerals a desirable career path for the brightest employees of tomorrow.
- To behave as a forward-thinking organisation that helps funeral directors to prepare for the market of tomorrow, where complacency and arrogance is not encouraged.
- To take immediate, effective and decisive action over those funeral directors who do a disservice to the funeral profession by behaving in an unprofessional manner.
- To not just encourage complete transparency regarding prices, but to make it a requirement of membership.
- To provide a clear and transparent procedure to allow complaints to be dealt with in a professional, unbiased and effective manner.
- To employ a diverse workforce of thought leaders who are enacting actual change.
- To be at the forefront of leading this change whilst retaining the values of the past.
- To be responsible for creating a network of funeral directors of which the UK can be proud.
- To value integrity, openness, honesty and transparency in all matters.
I hope that the NAFD will be the change we need to see in the funeral profession and wish you all the best in the appointment of a new CEO.
There’s something afoot in funeral world. Letters have been pinging into the inbox of funeral directors around the country advising them of a shiny new entrant into the world of undertaking.
“Over the next few days you may read about a new funeral company called Hospice Funerals LLP. It has been set up by St Margaret’s Hospice of Somerset in order to allow local hospices to extend their care to the local community by providing a caring, transparent and personal funeral service..”
Expert end of life carers join with expert provider of state of the art crematoria and low cost funeral services to offer communities across the UK a new, better alternative when it comes to funeral arrangements.
But let’s take a closer look.
Memoria’s CEO, Howard Hodgson, is well known in the funeral world. Here’s a little background, taken from an article by Tony Grundy in 2015:
‘For example, in a classic UK television documentary some years ago, former undertaker and entrepreneur Howard Hodgson told of how he led the transformation of the industry through a combination of acquisition, consolidation, value innovation and cost management. In his book ‘How To Become Dead Rich’ Hodgson set out his vision of how to run his funeral business as economically as possible, with an efficient set of local operations providing up to several funerals in a day, making much better use of facilities such as cars, storage and sales facilities. Alongside this he pioneered a more extensive range of services, optimising the average price.
This hugely widened operating profit margin and increased return on net assets. This vision became the model of the Great Southern Group, which Hodgson sold out to and which, after a period of being owned by US company Service Corporation International, is now called Dignity, one of the UK’s top players. These changes also reduced competitive rivalry in the UK market, where a higher proportion of the market had previously been fragmented, made up of ‘mom and pop’ independents.’
St. Margaret’s Hospice announced their plans earlier this month, without mentioning their new partner. The role of funeral director was advertised at £36,000 plus car. One of their existing charity shops is being converted into suitable premises in Taunton – a town in which there are already 12 other undertakers.
The Hospice Funerals website states:
HOSPICE FUNERALS’ VISION
To provide all hospice communities with the choice and experience of hospice funeral services that uniquely reflect the dedication, warmth and reputation of the hospice movement – an extension of exemplary hospice care – caring, transparent and personal.
HOSPICE FUNERALS’ MISSION
To bring choice, quality and affordability to families in our communities, so that they can celebrate the lives of loved ones with a unique and individual funeral that respects their wishes. This is achieved by only engaging highly trained staff with unwavering attention to detail and compassion – so ensuring a caring, transparent and personal funeral to all whatever their budget.
This sounds absolutely wonderful.
Although the top benefit for hospices electing to become a provider listed in another part of the website is:
‘Participation in a new enterprise that will deliver sustainable and growing income going forward and thus helping to bridge the considerable funding gap that stands between government funding and the annual needs of the hospice.’
And in the brochure for ‘hospice partners’ it clearly states:
The partnership will operate as a franchise scheme. These are the facts:
- Hospice Funerals signs an agreement with the partner hospice (the partner Franchise Agreement – samples available)
- The hospice partner will be entitled to operate exclusively within the defined area
- A hospice partner can acquire more than one area if it so wishes
- Hospice Funerals will give each partner a demographic survey providing a death profile of the granted area and will be able to advise the partner on this issue
- Hospice Funerals will issue a list of products and prices that the partner will need to purchase in order to create their funeral service.
- The hospice will be supported to deal directly with these suppliers, shop fitters ad other trades. This means that Hospice Funerals is not involved in the invoice chain and so is making NO margin on the set up of the unit.
- Hospice Funerals support you with a turnkey service and are on hand throughout the set up period, signing off the premises when complete.
- Thereafter, the location will be inspected prior to opening and all snagging signed off.
- Hospice Funerals will select, train and manage the partner’s funeral staff, while being accountable to the partner.
- Memoria will also carry out the majority of funeral administration for the partner.
- Memoria will also install and teach the partner’s funeral director how to operate a bespoke software system for making funeral arrangement.
Hmm. So, perhaps not quite so in line with the hospice movement set up to look after the dying and their families by Dame Cicely Saunders then.
It’s a franchise scheme, dressed up in the hospice’s clothes, making money for both the ‘hospice partner’ and Memoria alike.
Here’s what we think.
It’s hard to criticise the idea of the much loved local hospice continuing to care for those who have died after death (albeit charging for this part of their service, while everything else until the last breath is taken has been free of charge.)
Why wouldn’t you choose to use them?
Hospices are pillars of the community after all, caring for the dying in the most wonderful way. And your money will be going to help support this admirable cause instead of lining the pockets of those men in black, the stereotypical undertakers.
It’s easy to see what a brilliant idea this is – piggybacking on the reputation and respect held by the hospice to give an immediate advantage over the funeral directors who are so widely and relentlessly pilloried in the media as greedy, money-making vultures who prey on the vulnerable bereaved.
With the helpful assistance of the self-serving life insurance companies generating fear of soaring funeral costs in their annual cost of dying reports, and the media focus on funeral poverty (driven by high charges from corporate funeral businesses including Dignity, Howard Hodgson’s baby, plus austerity cuts and shortage of space impelling local authorities to keep raising the cost of cremation or graves), funeral directors en masse are tarred with the same brush.
The public won’t take much persuading to look elsewhere for help with organising a funeral. And it’s available to everyone, not just hospice patients – again, from the Hospice Funerals website:
‘It is important to note that it is intended that everyone needing the services of a funeral director will be able benefit from the caring, transparent and personal service offered by Hospice Funerals. Therefore, our services are available to everyone in the community – irrespective of whether or not they have been a hospice patient.’
Well, not quite everyone.
This from Howard Hodgson’s letter to funeral directors yesterday:
‘The Directors of Memoria have no desire to compete with its funeral directing clientele. Therefore, in order to prevent a conflict of interest, it has been contractually agreed that NO Hospice Funeral operations will be set up within a 20 MILE RADIUS of ANY existing MEMORIA crematoria.
This agreement will be on going and so will prevent funeral directors within the declared 20-mile exclusion zones from facing this new competition now or in the future.
We hope this act demonstrates our loyalty and gratitude to ALL of our funeral directing clients, whose close working relationship we highly value.’
Nice of him to consider how funeral directors might feel about this idea, although only the ones who operate in the vicinity of one of Memoria’s crematoria. The rest of the funeral world is clearly fair game.
What concerns us about this genius return to the world of funeral provision by Howard ‘How To Become Dead Rich’ Hodgson is what it will do to the wonderful, dedicated, desperately hard-working, ethically run, generous, kind and principled undertakers who have devoted their lives to starting up and running small businesses to serve their communities.
They are everywhere, working day and night to do the absolute best for the families they care for, often living hand to mouth and struggling to stay afloat as the corporate companies relentlessly target them by opening branches nearby. Many of them can be found here on our recommended funeral director list. We applaud and salute them for what they do, and we fear for their future with this latest new player in the game.
These really good people don’t have the massive marketing budgets to pay for TV advertising and PR campaigns, unlike Dignity, Co-operative Funeralcare and now Hospice Funerals, but they are providing vital services for their communities. And they are offering real, informed choice.
Hospice Funerals could spell the end for many of these artisan, genuine, small undertaking businesses, people who have been battling against the corporate expansion into funerals for years, as money men have scented the opportunity to get rich by taking advantage of economies of scale. The Hospice Funeral idea is likely to be a pressure too much for many if it spreads around the country.
If this idea were vision-driven, altruistic. non profit making, a real community venture motivated by a genuine desire to really make a difference to our society , we’d respect it, we’d be completely behind it and we’d be promoting it as far as we can reach.
But it’s not, it’s a clever, clever commercial move.
Maybe the public, those who volunteer and fundraise and support their local hospices might see it for what it is, but probably most people will just think it’s a great idea and not give it any more thought.
And sadly, we expect that the advent of this new hybrid beast is likely to be greeted with delight by hospices around the country as a means of generating the much needed income to keep them afloat. Without thinking about the wider implications.
We’ll be at both events.
Fans and followers of the egregious Richard Sage aka Mark Kerby will be pleased to know that, since his release from prison, he has been living in straitened circumstances in Westcliff-on-Sea. In case you had forgotten, he was jailed for fraud. Only after he had been banged up did it become apparent that money handed over for prepaid funerals was missing.
He has now been summoned to answer 3 charges of fraud (details not known to us) at Basildon Crown Court in a hearing slated for 4-8 December 2017.
A little bit of adversity never dimmed the spirit of our exponent of worst practice in funeral service. The world may be against him but his dreams live on. Our spy on the spot, to whom we pay thanks, informs us that he has advanced plans to open up a funeral home in Westcliff. He is currently banned from holding any directorships. We think we have the name of the person under whose flag he will fly, together with the name and the address of the premises he will occupy, but we have been unable to verify these in a watertight way so we’ll keep mum for now.
As soon as we know more, we’ll let you know.
Editor’s note: We received this blog post from Mark and publish it as we feel it raises matters of great concern to funeral consumers and practitioners alike.
Out of courtesy, we provided the NAFD with an advance copy and invited them to comment.
We were advised that their legal team required several statements made by Mark in his original post to be removed, and he has obliged by doing so. His post below is amended accordingly.
We have been supplied with an official response from NAFD President Alison Crake which we are required to publish in full. This response can be found below Mark’s observations.
Guest post by Mark Binnersley, Communications Consultant
‘The NAFD – what is its point?
I care deeply about the funeral profession. I care even more about how we treat bereaved people. So it is depressing to see the National Association of Funeral Directors in the midst of a protracted existential crisis.
From what I witnessed as an employee between spring 2016 and summer 2017, it seemed like it didn’t know whether it wanted to be a trade association or a regulator.
Any dreams the NAFD might have of becoming regulator in Scotland are unlikely to get out of the starting blocks. There’s no way the Scottish Government is going to allow funeral directors to mark their own homework. And quite right too.
Self-regulation often fails because industries have a tendency to put their own vested interests before public protection. It’s an indisputable fact.
The association should certainly think carefully before making any calls for regulation of the funeral profession in England and Wales.
I take the view that it is wiser to see how regulation in Scotland pans out before wishing it on English colleagues, and crucially to respect the vote against “regulation by Government” by members at the association’s annual conference in 2016.
Besides, has anyone asked officials in Whitehall whether they would like to regulate English or Welsh funeral directors?
No. And to my mind there is no appetite.
Anyone who thinks regulation of funeral directors might stand a chance of becoming Government business amid the shambles that is Brexit would have to be seriously deluded or suffering from a clinically-problematic overinflated ego.
If I were a small, independent member of the NAFD, I would also be wondering what the point of the association is and, with an inflation-busting 5 per cent subscription increase planned for 2018, would be considering the following three questions.
Firstly, is the NAFD going to help my business grow? Well, it’s not going to refer funerals to me, so that answer to that question has to be no.
Secondly, what protection does membership offer my business? It hasn’t managed to stop regulation in Scotland and it hasn’t halted the spread of local authority trading.
The reason it hasn’t been able to influence either of these developments is because it cannot afford to alienate its larger members. For your Co-operative Funeralcare, Dignity and Funeral Partners, regulation and local authority contracts represent an opportunity. Faced with a situation like this, the NAFD has little choice but to offer its support or make nuanced opposition at local level. Like a heroin addict, the association is hooked on the big boys’ subscription fees.
And thirdly, what is the NAFD doing to raise public awareness of the advantages of asking one of its members to conduct a friend’s or relative’s funeral?
The issue of public profile is being scarily overlooked as a result of the association’s obsession with regulation in Scotland.
Many members join the NAFD because they are led to believe that putting the lion logo in their shop window makes them look like they adhere to a set of standards.
However, just as many members know that the NAFD brand has near zero profile and the sticker means very little to your average bereaved member of the public. Indeed, an independent YouGov poll, commissioned by the NAFD, showed that only 7 per cent of people had heard of the association.
The NAFD really needs to develop a campaigning culture when it comes to public relations.
If it is to truly add value to its members, it should run a series of public information campaigns aimed at raising its profile and showing people the benefits of choosing an NAFD member over non members. It should be out and about at public events, talking to its members’ potential clients.
For some reason, it seems to prefer reactive PR, which is good for self-assurance but does diddly squat for one’s profile.
There’s no hope of this changing whilst the association obsesses over regulation. But if as a result of statutory regulations it is no longer to be seen as the upholder of industry standards – certainly in Scotland – then what is it for?
Other sectors – take for instance insurance – seem to find space for their trade association(s) to co-exist alongside regulation and continue to add value to members.
Another question members ought to be asking relates to staff resignations. Six employees have left or announced early retirement from the association since June this year.
The NAFD needs to be doing much more to promote its CPD and lobbying activity and show the public, through concerted campaigns, what a good funeral director looks like.
There are plenty of them in membership of the NAFD.
Sadly, their interests are being overlooked because the association doesn’t seem to know what it’s for at the moment.
I’ve written this blog in order to start a conversation, as someone who cares about the funeral world and more importantly the vulnerable people it serves.
I wonder what founder Henry Sherry would make of it all.’
Response to above by Alison Crake, NAFD President
‘Mark Binnersley made many positive contributions to the work of the NAFD, during his short time in our employment, which makes his short sighted and poorly informed assessment of our work all the more surprising and disappointing.
He has dramatically overstated both his level of influence and access to information during his time with the NAFD in suggesting that, after working with the profession for only a year at a junior management level, he had assumed greater knowledge and strategic insight than funeral directors who are caring for bereaved people on a daily basis – many of whom have been in business for generations. He was certainly aware of some key developments which took place during his tenure and contributed his thoughts towards decision making, but he was by no means any kind of lone voice of reason and there were many discussions and decisions made, at a more senior level, which he simply was not party to.
In addition, given that Mark has not been in the NAFD offices since late June, almost four months ago, he is unaware of any significant or strategic developments during that time, rendering his views somewhat outdated.
Nevertheless, I would like to address some of the key points in Mr Binnersley’s blog post.
Far from being in the midst of an ‘existential crisis’, I am sure the bereaved families who look to the Good Funeral Guide (GFG) for guidance would be reassured to know that the NAFD, which oversees standards for 80% of the UK’s funeral directors, is quite clear and resolute about its core purpose but, equally, remains unafraid to talk to a wide community of stakeholders, in a time of change, to make absolutely certain that it is meeting the evolving needs of bereaved people, as well as the needs of the funeral directors that care for them.
Equally, his assertions that the NAFD had ‘dreams’ of becoming a regulator in Scotland bear no resemblance to reality. Certainly we were, and remain, prepared to be a statutory regulator if ever the need arises, building on our current, respected, self-regulatory role. However, our main priority is to work with the Scottish Government as closely as possible on the implementation of regulation to ensure that it is proportionate, assists funeral directors in delivering high standards and acts in the public interest. Mr Binnersley is right, there is little appetite for regulation in Westminster at present and we’ve never called for it. However, in a YouGov survey in 2016, 80% of Britons said regulation of the funeral profession was important and therefore it would be remiss of us not to demonstrate our experience as an effective self-regulator to Government, highlight to our members the possibility that it might one day come, and work with them to ensure they maintain the highest possible standards of operation, irrespective of which organisation is overseeing their work.
I am sure GFG readers would also be reassured to know that, as a not-for-profit organisation, the 5% subscription increase that he refers to will be ploughed into additional education resources to train funeral directors to the highest standards, into our inspections and standards regime, and into planned initiatives that will provide even more information and support to the public when they experience a bereavement. For more than 90% of our members, the increase represents less than £1 a week extra for each funeral home they own and, as a result, the proposed increase was comprehensively backed, by members of all shapes and sizes, at our half year AGM last week.
We can always do more, but that is true of all organisations. However, the NAFD has been transparent in its commitment to evolve in the face of the changing needs of families, Government and our members, and I do not understand why Mr Binnersley feels this to be a bad thing? Although he was aware of these conversations during his time with the NAFD, he resigned without being involved in any level of decision-making about the way forward.
I do feel I should point out to Mr Binnersley that, in 112 years of the NAFD, its’ role has never been to ‘refer business’ to its members. We are not a sales promotions agency and this fundamental misunderstanding, on his part, of our role within the profession, only emphasises his lack of authority to speak on these matters. The NAFD’s role is to provide advice and support; to promote and monitor adherence to our Code of Practice and Code of Professional Conduct; to build relationships with Government and speak on members’ behalf; to use its collective buying power to help members run their businesses effectively and to signpost the public towards both sensible information and the details of all NAFD members in their local area.
I am immensely proud to be President of such a progressive, determined and supportive organisation. The NAFD is also democratic, with our members all having one vote, irrespective of size and led by an Executive Committee, drawn from all sections of the profession, with small independent funeral firms representing 60% of the committee’s membership.
I am sorry that Mark has chosen to criticise from the outside, rather than shape the profession’s future from within. As a funeral director of 38 years, the ongoing wellbeing of the families I care for, across Teesside, are the reason I do this job and I know that this sense of duty is true of the vast majority of NAFD members. The fact that we choose to pool our collective experience, expertise and resources, under the umbrella of the National Association of Funeral Directors, in service to bereaved families across the UK, should give GFG readers confidence to know that they can turn to an NAFD member in their time of need and know they will be professionally and compassionately cared for.’
A stellar line up of well known names in the funeral world comprised this year’s shortlist for the lifetime achievement award, all of whom merited a mention for the work that they have done in their field.
- Natasha Bradshaw, Superintendent and General Registrar from Mortlake Crematorium and specifically for her role in the joint working partnership with others in providing funerals for babies
- Clive Cappleman from Sherlocks Funeral Directors for 45 years service and being an outstanding funeral director
- Janet Cheal – long time accomplished organist, now at Forest Park Crematorium
- Simon Dyer from Albins Funeral Directors
- Jeremy Field from CPJ Field
- Howard Hodgson from Memoria Ltd for his years of work in the funeral industry and his latest ventures providing both state of the art crematoria and low cost funeral services
- Jason Kiely from Key Air for his work with repatriation services
- Clive Leverton for his lifetime dedication to the family funeral business
- Colin Liddell for his devotion to serving families and his constant availability offering advice and assistance to other undertakers
- Alan Lister BEM for his dedication and inspiration working in the funeral industry since the early 1990s
- Chantal Lockey for her work with The Foundation for Infant Loss
- Cara Mair for her leadership, collaborative approach and pioneering work at ARKA
- Julia Samuel OBE for her acclaimed book Grief Works and her ongoing role as a bereavement counsellor
- Terri Shanks for her support, training and mentorship of celebrants through the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants.
- Professor Tony Walter for his 30 years’ work as a death sociologist and resulting worldwide achievements and acclaim.
A tough decision to make, but the judges finally made their choice:
At 73, having officially retired from his family firm nearly three years’ ago, this year’s winner is still very much involved in supporting not only the firm but also the profession itself. Starting work when he was just 16, he has dedicated his life to growing and innovating the family business with genuine care and passion. As director, his commitment and drive to be ethical and client focused in all that they do has given staff and colleagues someone to be inspired by.
Perhaps most notably, although he would never draw attention to this, he has carried out many famous and infamous funerals, including in 1997 along with his brother, the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales and the responsibility that this brought with it. What was of paramount importance to our winner was that the company could commit to their other clients and funerals on those significant days. The respect from those around him comes from knowing he treats everyone the same, whoever they are – with dignity.
He has represented all that is traditional and modern in the profession. He is a man that gives. And he gives selflessly. He has been Chairman of the St Pancras Welfare Trust for 20 years and is also a member of the Worshipful Company of Upholders.
His ability to go above and beyond his duty is very much reflected in his achievements. He has been instrumental in professionalising independent funeral directors. Not only did he help to establish and grow SAIF, he was also part of the creation of Golden Charter, now the biggest Independent Plan Provider in the UK. He is never afraid to try something new and he pioneered the very first all-electric hearse in the UK in 2013, taking two years to invest, design and develop a much needed Eco-friendly alternative to the traditional hearse.
In well-deserved recognition for his lifetime of contributions to the profession the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Clive Leverton of Leverton & Sons.
Award photograph by Jayne Lloyd
The 2017 Good Funeral Awards were generously sponsored by Greenfield Creations