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.

Fran Hall

 

Our good friends at Life. Death. Whatever. have written a brilliant piece today about the current shock / horror media coverage of the advertising campaign for a funeral price comparison website that was rejected by Transport for London because of the potentially offensive nature of the adverts.

Read it here.

We echo everything said in the piece, and by Louise in her interview this morning on the BBC World Service ‘World Update’ programme – listen here (starts at 48.25)

 

Fran Hall

 

Guest post by Louise Winter

Back in April last year, we exposed the condition of the conveniences at Honor Oak Crematorium in South East London – peeling paint, a toilet held together by chewing gum and floors covered in used tissue paper.
 
Earlier this year, I was delighted to be invited back to Honor Oak to see, not only the newly refurbished conveniences, but the refurbished crematorium as a whole.  The chapel, waiting room, memorial rooms and gardens have all been renovated, making the most of a calming light blue and grey colour scheme throughout.  There’s even Dyson air blade hand dryers.
 
Honor Oak is an Italianate crematorium, built in 1939, with a chimney that resembles the cathedral campanile at Venice.  It was designed by Borough Architect William Bell and Maurice Webb, son of Sir Aston Webb, whose company had designed the adjoining Camberwell New Cemetery.  The crematoria around South East London mostly and unusually have descending catafalques, and Honor Oak is no exception.  
 
Just don’t lean any floral tributes against the base of the catafalque before it descends and the lid meets the floor.  I learnt that the hard way.
 
     
   
      
 
 
Fran Hall

 

Over time, we have received a number of well informed comments on a post written back in February 2017 on Ecolation, the supposedly innovative alternative to cremation. 

It became apparent that we, along with many others, had been taken in by a sales pitch for something that wasn’t at all what it seemed.

The slick PR and the glossy website didn’t materialise into anything.

Fortunately, unlike others, the GFG didn’t have any money to invest in the promises that seemed so plausible when we visited the Dublin HQ, so it’s just embarrassment at having been fooled that we’re nursing now, not an empty bank account.

So we would like to say a public thank you and pay tribute to ‘Mary’, who has been indefatigable in her pursuit of the facts and the source of all the additional information which resulted in her latest comment on the blog post yesterday, including an excerpt from an article in The Sunday Times on July 8th, detailing the sorry end of this pipe dream.

We have reprinted Mary’s comment below to save you looking it up.

‘From the Sunday Times, July 8 2018, “Put on ice” :
“… Last month, the High Court Judge Deirdre Murphy ordered that Ecolegacy should be wound up and a liquidator should investigate payments made to Ennis and Brian McKimm, the company’s erstwhile chief operating officer who was formerly bankrupt in Northern Ireland.
Ecolegacy was “brought to its knees … by the mismanagement and intransigence of Tony Ennis” and the potential misappropriation of company funds, said the judge.  The ecolation unit in the company’s west Dublin warehouse cost 2.2m euro but is not fit for purpose and is worth about 300,000 euros as spare parts.”
I wonder how they spent 2.2m euro on an “ecolation” unit and how, with no possible product to carry out the process in the manner described in the sci-fi video, the whole thing could ever have ended other than with ecoLegacy on its knees.
And they never even had planning permission to do it on so much as a pork chop. 
Deirdre Murphy should be impressed that Anthony Ennis did not follow entirely in the footsteps of Susanne Wiigh-Masak’s footsteps – the high priestess of Promession.  She supported the notion of people putting Promession in their wills and several were held in deep freezers for many years after their death while the relatives hoped that the promised imminent arrival of a promator in Sweden would permit them to give their deceased loved ones their wished for disposal method.  She campaigned tirelessly for them to remain in freezers rather than be forcibly buried when the Swedish state withdrew the exemption because the promator was not materialising.  But, like Mr Ennis, she never came up with the goods.
It seems from this article that Mr Ennis instead focused his energies on wealthy live Americans keen to invest in his “thriving” venture.

Here’s the link to the detailed article.’

 

 

Fran Hall

 

It’s been twenty five years since the inspirational Ken West MBE opened the very first natural burial ground at Carlisle cemetery, and here at GFG Towers we felt that this landmark anniversary needed to be acknowledged. Members of the Good Funeral Guild felt so too, and, under gentle pressure from Stephen Laing we have co-opted fellow Guild members Emma Curtis and Sarah Weller to help us organise a celebratory day to commemorate Ken’s achievement at the beautiful, iconic Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey on Sunday September 9th, between 10.00 and 17.00.

Since 1993 when the very first natural burial took place, over 300 sites around the UK have been opened, and countless thousands of people have chosen this gently, environmentally responsible alternative to cremation or traditional burial. Despite this, natural burial lags behind in the statistics, being the choice of only around 1% of the population, which we think is a real shame. We’d love to help raise awareness of natural burial generally, so this celebratory day is a starting point for us. Watch this space for further developments.

In the meantime, the event on Sunday 9th September will be open to everyone to attend, with an opportunity to explore the fabulous historic Brookwood Cemetery as a bonus. The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was established in 1852 to provide ‘a great metropolitan cemetery situated in the suburbs, large enough to contain all of London’s dead for ever’, in response to great public concern about the state of London’s cemeteries. Two years later, Brookwood Cemetery was opened and the London Necropolis Railway ran between Waterloo station and two private stations in the cemetery, carrying coffins and mourners directly into the cemetery grounds. Since then, over 240,000 people have been buried here, and the cemetery is a hidden wonder of beautiful landscaping, quietly fading memorials and mausolea, immaculate military cemeteries and gems such as the only Zoroastrian cemetery in Europe and the St. Edward Brotherhood, a small Orthodox Christian monastery.

Set in the heart of Brookwood Cemetery is the natural burial area, Gillian’s Meadow, and it is here that we will be gathering to commemorate the establishment of natural burial as a viable alternative to the existing funeral choices. The Open Day will run from 10.00 until 17.00, and along with the ceremonial tree planting, there will be activities throughout the day to encourage guests to explore incorporating nature and ritual in their end of life decisions.

Death cafe picnics will run alongside rustic crafts, mandala and garland making, story telling,message writing and a ‘Time to Altar Grief’ installation, there will be a book tent where you can browse through all kinds of books on death and funerals, a chance to meet and chat with people working in the funeral industry who can answer any questions you might have, an opportunity to see a grave prepared for a natural burial, and Sound in the Woodland. We will also be offering Forest Bathing walks, allowing the opportunity to learn about the healing benefits of being among trees and nature, in the perfect setting. Bring a picnic and a rug and come and spend the day immersed in the beauty of Brookwood.

It will be a wonderful day, commemorating a hugely important movement inspired a quarter of a century ago by the brave innovation of Ken West and Carlisle City Council. We’ll be inviting all of the UK natural burial site owners and operators to come along and join us in acknowledgement of Ken’s influence, as well as local dignitaries and friends of Brookwood Cemetery. Members of the Good Funeral Guild will be coming along too, and the day will be open to the public to come and be part of.

Oh, and there will be cake. Lots of cake. With a very special centrepiece cake created by Conjurer’s Kitchen.

Details about Going Green at Brookwood can be found on Facebook here.

 

Fran Hall

 

 

 

Guest post from Jonathan Taylor, independent funeral celebrant in Totnes.

(That’s not his photo above, by the way.)

 

We are always delighted to receive guest posts from long time readers of the GFG blog, and this one is very topical given the obsession with ‘whacky funerals’ from the media (most recently the Nigerian man who buried his father in a brand new car, see here) and the keenness of Co-operative Funeralcare to position itself as ‘a thought leader on funeral trends and to tackle the misconception that large funeral directors were impersonal’ in pumping out PR about bespoke funerals -see here.

Over to you Jonathan.

I’m often asked, regarding my work with funerals; “What is the whackiest funeral you’ve ever done?”

It went like this. Well, as a matter of fact almost all of them have gone like this:

A gaunt figure in faux-Victorian fancy dress, carrying a silver-capped cane and black leather gloves, slowly led a specially adapted, shiny black vehicle, followed by two extremely long motor cars carrying the family, up the crematorium drive.

A lozenge-shaped veneered box with brass-effect plastic handles, topped by a floral wreath and containing the dead person’s body, was visible through the high glass sides of the leading vehicle as it pulled up by the door. Four pinstripe-clad gentlemen bowed to the box with an air of contrived solemnity resembling some obscure parody of grief, and carried it into a mock-ecclesiastical chapel and onto a roller-topped bench within a curtained area, before melting away mysteriously to allow Mister Macabre to usher his victims into parallel rows of benches a short distance from the corpse.

Everyone listened to a tribute to the person whose funeral it was, spoken by me as I stood between the living and the dead. Someone read a poem for him, the curtains closed over the coffin to his favourite tune, and the attendant signalled the allotted time was up. Black Glove bowed to the curtains and lubricated everyone’s way outside round the back, where he put the coffin flowers on display and stood clasping his top hat with an air of restless patience before driving off to meet another wood-effect box for a similar procedure; and the chief mourners departed, tangibly relieved, in the expensive cars that passed an identical cortège of vehicles, led by another Dickensian character, on its way up the drive.

Weird enough. But when I’ve asked bereaved families why they’d chosen this particular style of grieving ritual, they’ve mostly been at a loss to explain.

 

Fran Hall

 

Dear reader

We’d like to ask for a few minutes of your time to respond to two important funeral related consultations.

The first is the Funeral Market Study by the Competition and Markets Authority. This forms part of a year long study into the state of the British funeral market which will examine how competition between funeral directors works and transparency issues in the provision of funerals, and will also look at competition in the crematoria segment of the industry.

For anyone who has an opinion on transparency of ownership or pricing of funerals, it is important that your voice is added to the responses that will be received. You can download the CMA Statement of Scope here. Responses are requested by June 28th 2018.

The second, parallel consultation is the Government’s Call for Evidence to aid in the design for a more appropriate regulatory framework for the pre-paid funeral plan sector. The government is particularly interested in views from all affected stakeholders, including funeral plan providers, funeral directors, insurers, asset managers, introducers, actuaries, solicitors, and consumer interest groups. The consultation document can be downloaded here. The consultation closes on August 1st 2018.

We’ve waited a long time for the government to show some interest in the funeral industry, so let’s make sure that the voices that are heard are telling them what is actually happening.

Team GFG