Fran Hall

 

Back in November 2017, a bright new star rose in the world of funerals.

St. Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset joined forces in partnership with Howard Hodgson’s Low Cost Funerals to form Hospice Funerals LLP in what they described at the time as ‘one of the biggest developments in the funeral market‘.

According to the same announcement, entering the funeral market was the brainchild of Ann Lee, Chief Executive of St. Margaret’s Hospice.

Encouraged by Mr Hodgson, Ms Lee shared her vision of a franchise operation with attendees at the 2017 Hospice UK conference, and in January 2018 the much heralded first Hospice Funerals branch was opened in Taunton.

Here at the GFG, we had some misgivings about the concept, and we wrote letters to the trustees of all hospices in the UK laying out our concerns – you can read the letter here.

It may be that our warning was heeded, or it may be that trustees of other hospices already shared our concerns about the wisdom of St. Margaret’s Hospice’s vision for the future – either way, in early 2018 Hospice UK issued a statement about their position on the concept, and it appears that there were no takers for the idea of getting on board with the Hospice Funerals scheme.

Notwithstanding, the enthusiasm continued, and in a progress report on March 1st 2019, Ms Lee noted “After a successful first year for our Taunton funeral home, we are recruiting to cope with growing demand and are already working on expansion plans to reach more people in our patch.

St. Margaret’s Hospice Funerals is on track to become an established revenue stream for our charity.” 

Is it?

Let’s look a little more closely.

A browse through Hospice Funerals LLP’s filing history at Companies House shows a flurry of appointments, cessations and terminations of appointments, with Low Cost Funerals terminating their involvement as of 28th March this year.

Hospice Funerals LLP now has a somewhat circular list of officers – Hospice Funerals Trading Ltd, and St. Margaret’s Funerals Ltd.

Both HFTL and SMFL list just one officer – Hospice Funerals LLP. Follow the links and you get back to where you started. No names, no pack drill.

It looks like the partnership between St. Margaret’s and Low Cost Funerals didn’t make it to the sunny uplands of the ‘marriage made in heaven‘, as it was described in a comment when the franchise scheme was launched. Nor does it appear to have been ‘genius‘, as described by a CEO of another hospice.

The micro company accounts of Hospice Funerals LLP can be viewed here. We had to read them twice to make sure we had understood the numbers correctly.

In the period to 31 October 2018,  it appears Hospice Funerals LLP spent an eye-watering amount of £329,567 on administrative expenditure! 

This figure includes £41,731 on conference costs, £71,191 on legal costs, £36,342 on travel, accommodation and subsistence and £23,848 on marketing.

The net profit for the period is shown as (£320,862). For anyone unfamiliar with accounting, the brackets indicate a minus number. So, a loss.

These accounts for Hospice Funerals LLP were published on 31 July 2019.

On the same day, St. Margaret’s Hospice announced plans to close the in patient hospice ward in Yeovil.

The Yeovil unit was built after an appeals committee was founded to raise £4.5 million in 2001. It originally had 16 beds and was officially opened in 2004, complete with state of the art facilities and equipment. The people of Yeovil and the surrounding areas have reacted with fury, calling the decision ‘disgusting’. A Facebook group called “Save St. Margaret’s Hospice Yeovil’ has attracted over 13,000 members in a week.

Full details of the planned closure can be found here, along with background information explaining why the hospice was unable to offer staff a cost of living pay increase earlier this year.

It gives us no pleasure to bring you this update today.

 

Fran Hall
 

In a blistering attack on the funeral industry in America this week, Michael Waters wrote in Washington Monthly:

‘The cost of death services has long exasperated Americans. In December 1856, a New York Times editorial argued that “nobody that is not comfortably off in this world’s goods can afford to die” because “to pass into the hands of the undertaker is positive bankruptcy.”

A century later, Bill Davidson noted in a 1951 Collier’s article that “while the cost of living has risen 347 percent in the last 122 years, the cost of dying has rocketed as much as 10,000 per cent.”

Not much appears to have changed in the intervening years since that 19th century New York Times piece, either in the USA or here in the UK. The high cost of funerals is a regular subject of newspaper columns and articles and the causes much debated.

The finger of blame is frequently pointed at the larger players in the funeral sector, while they, in turn justify their higher prices by claiming to provide better quality service. Indeed, a whole report emphasising quality and standards was commissioned by Dignity from Trajectory last year, making much of the fact that price was far less important than quality of service. And Dignity’s Corporate Profile publication (downloadable here) mentions the word ‘quality’ no less than 67 times, stating bravely “Our vision is to lead the funeral sector in terms of quality, standards and value-for-money.”

Hmmm. We’re not so sure that Dignity’s quality of service is justified by the prices they charge. Which appear to vary tremendously between branches, as noted in our blog post here.

Exceptionally high quality service is offered by all of the funeral directors on our recommended list, and not one of them charge the same amount for their services as the Dignity do for an equivalent funeral.

Fortunately, as noted in a series of GFG blog posts since first mentioning it last June, the Competition and Markets Authority are currently carrying out a Market Investigation into the funeral sector, and on Wednesday this week, the first working paper was published, outlining their approach to profitability and financial analysis. 

It is unlikely to be have been met with delight at Dignity PLC which evolved from SCI ownership through a management buyout in 2002. (Yes, that’s the same Service Corporation International mentioned so unfavourably in the Washington Monthly piece; the largest deathcare corporation in North America that, according to one study, charges prices that are 47 to 72% higher than other funeral homes and cemeteries.)

Nor at Co-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Partners Ltd – named alongside Dignity as the three largest providers of funeral services in the UK, and all being treated in the same way by the CMA (much to Funeral Partners’ annoyance, as can be seen in their response to the CMA’s Issues Statement here – ‘It is simply not meaningful to include Funeral Partners as the third of a group of supposed ‘large funeral directors’ and as such, it is submitted that there is no basis on which Funeral Partners should be subjected to any remedy which is not applied to the market as a whole.’)

Detailed financial information requests (going back five years and forecasting for a further year) have been sent to all three companies, with Dignity also receiving a similar detailed request with regard to their crematoria services.

From the CMA working paper –

Paragraph 25: ‘Our market-wide profitability assessment for funeral director services will focus on two groups of firms: 

(a) The three largest providers of funeral director services in the UK, namely Dignity Plc (Dignity), Co-operative Group Limited (Co-op) and Funeral Partners Limited (Funeral Partners). In the UK, these firms have an estimated combined market share of approximately 29%, based on number of deaths.

(b) A representative sample of branches in the remaining 71% of the market, which is composed of smaller providers.’

The CMA tell us at Paragraphs 29 – 30:

‘…we propose to collect data over a five-year historical period from 2014 to 2018, for both funeral director services and crematoria services (referred to as the “Relevant Period” in the rest of this working paper).

Where our profitability analysis is used to estimate detriment and therefore the proportionality of remedies, we propose to consider whether historical (or backward-looking) profitability is a good estimate of prospective (or forward- looking) profitability. We are therefore also collecting forecast information.

The largest providers of funeral director services and crematoria services told us that as part of the ordinary course of business they forecast detailed information for one financial year ahead. We are therefore collecting forecast data for 2019, giving us a total time period of 2014 to 2019.

NB Paragraph 13 of the working paper advises: ‘The Market Investigation Guidelines (the Guidelines) state that: ‘Firms in a competitive market would generally earn no more than a ‘normal’ rate of profit – the minimum level of profits required to keep the factors of production in their current use in the long run, i.e. the rate of return on capital employed for a particular business activity would be equal to the opportunity cost of capital for that activity.’

The CMA’s sampling approach to gathering data from 100 small independent funeral companies is set out in paragraphs 86 – 10 of the paper, and takes quite a different format, acknowledging that these are ‘predominantly small (often family-run) businesses, which may not have full time accountants or bookkeepers.’

Now, we aren’t privy to figures from the Co-op or Funeral Partners, as this information is not in the public domain, but as a listed company, Dignity helpfully provides the public with updates on their success. Their annual report and accounts for 2018 can be downloaded here. And from the CMA’s own findings in their Final Report and decision on a market investigation reference:

‘6.112 It seems clear that the vulnerability of customers has been a major factor in enabling suppliers to charge high prices in the sector for the past 15 years, rather than underlying cost pressures, and it appears to us that Dignity’s pricing policies have acted as the engine of these price rises, with others in the market appearing to follow its lead.’

We’re looking forward to reading about the CMA’s findings when their forensic investigation into the figures is concluded and their Provisional Decision report is published early next year. Even with redacted numbers represented by pictures of scissors, it should be illuminating. Indeed, if we were inclined to a flutter at the bookies, we’d have a fiver on the largest providers not quite making the mark when it comes to only earning a ‘normal’ rate of profit.

Fran Hall

This has popped up on social media by the main funeral directing trade association, the NAFD. (That’s the one that the big, powerful corporates all belong to, not the other one that represents independent funeral directors, for anyone unfamiliar with the world of funerals).

Well, well, well. It was only a matter of time.

There must have been a lot of meetings of important men in suits trying to work out what to do about a tricky problem, as outlined by Dignity CEO Mick McCollum back in early 2018. 

A report from CityWire warned, “Shares in the business are down 60% since early November, when boss Mike McCollum warned of increasing competition in the funeral space.

In this morning’s statement, Dignity said that over the last 18 months it had ‘consistently alerted the investment community as to the increasingly competitive environment in which it operates’.

‘Customers are increasingly price-conscious and in an over-supplied industry, are shopping around more,’ it said.

Increasing competition. Like that’s a bad thing in a sector dominated by three huge companies built by buying up small independent businesses and industrialising what should never have been industrialised?

Oh, sorry, the increased competition means less market share for those men in suits and the shareholders that they serve.

And so here’s their solution. More of the smoke and mirrors, as so eloquently described by a GFG Blog reader here.

Dignity PLC, (whose management are so concerned about the state of the funeral industry that they and their spouses managed to offload millions of pounds of shares just before the value plummeted by half – see here) are the new nice guys in town.

They had a go last year and we didn’t pick it up – we don’t read the Daily Mail here at GFG Towers, but there was this swipe at ‘cowboy funeral directors’ s when they put out one of the expensive reports they publish every now and then to reassure their shareholders.

We did note that ‘The key message of Dignity being the saviour of standards in the funeral industry has been planted‘ in our blog post here last summer.

But we’ve been quite busy with other stuff, so we perhaps haven’t kept as close an eye on this Transformation Plan as we should have done.

“Ask us anything”, says Andrew Judd of Dignity, in his shirt sleeves, looking super friendly. If you really want to watch it, the YouTube link is here.

OK Andrew, here are a few questions, starting off with one we still don’t know the answer to:

Why do branches of Dignity funerals within just a few miles of each other charge such different prices for exactly the same services? (Refresh your memory here about how two different communities in London appear to be charged very differing prices by two Dignity branches trading under their original names.)

And for anyone struggling to know what questions might elicit really useful information from any funeral director, here are a few that you might want to ask before parting with your money:

Who owns this business? Is it still owned by the family whose name is over the door?

Who will be looking after us and assisting with the funeral arrangements? Will it be the same person throughout? Will they come to the ceremony with us?

Who will be looking after the person who has died? Can I meet them before engaging you?

Where will the person who has died be looked after? Can I have a look at the mortuary by appointment?

Can we come and help get our relative ready for the funeral? Can we wash and dress them ourselves? Will they stay here on these premises?

Can we come and visit them whenever we want? 

Can we look after them at home and just use your expertise for advice? How much would that cost?

Can we supply our own coffin? Is there an additional charge for this? If so, how much?

Can we arrange our own transport for the coffin? Is there a charge for this? If so, how much? And why?

Can we carry the coffin ourselves? Are the costs reduced if we don’t need your staff to carry the coffin at the funeral? If so, by how much? If not, why not?

Am sure we could think of more, but please add your thoughts in the comments – got to dash this morning.

 

Fran Hall

The Good Funeral Guide is delighted to announce a day out with a difference.

On Saturday September 21st, we will be hosting ‘Be Better’, a sparkling day featuring a whole stage full of inspirational speakers who are changing the world of funerals. 

And we have found the perfect venue, the vibrant, creative hub of The Other Place, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s studio theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Other Place was established by the extraordinary Buzz Goodbody, the radical, revolutionary feminist director, whose working life was mostly spent with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Buzz was the pioneering visionary at the helm of The Other Place’s artistic direction in its early days, and it was her energy and input that made The Other Place ‘the most productive tin shed in theatre history’.

It feels very fitting that most of our guest speakers at this special event are women. Bright, intelligent and determined women, who are unwilling to accept the status quo when they can see ways to improve it. They are all walking their talk. 

‘Be Better’ is an opportunity to meet and hear from some of the best, most progressive and innovative practitioners working within funerals. They’re all fabulous, interesting people too, and well worth hearing from.

Our line-up includes Louise and Anna from Life, Death Whatever and Fran and Carrie from A Natural Undertaking  experienced  TED Talks speakers, and Cara from ARKA Original Funerals, featured in the beautiful Dead Good film (which will be screened during the afternoon).

Also on our stage during the day will be Beverley Bulmer, from Rosedale Funeral Home, Holly from Holly’s Funerals, Daniel and Abi from Abney Funeral Services, Xina Gooding Broderick from Gooding Funeral Services, Beverley Bulmer from Rosedale Funeral Home and Emma Curtis, from Ceremony Matters, with Steven Cousins from Brahms Electric Vehicles joining a special guest to talk about the environmental impact of funeral choices.

Doors will open for early arrivals at 09.30 and the programme will begin with a welcome from the GFG directors on stage in the Studio Theatre at 10.45 with our first speakers on the stage at 11.00.

Following the screening of Dead Good at 3.00, the director Rehana Rose will join all of our speakers on stage for a Q & A and audience discussion, before the day ends at 5.30 and we can all go to the pub.

We have exclusive use of the upstairs space at The Other Place, so there will be lots of opportunity to meet and chat with others if you can tear yourself away from the speakers, while Susie’s Café Bar downstairs offers hot and cold drinks, and an all-day menu that includes veggie and vegan options.

We will also be holding two Death Cafés during the day, which will take place in the very special Buzz Goodbody Room. NB places for the Death Café’s will be limited, and we’ll let you know how to put your name down in advance closer to the time.

‘Be Better’ is going to be an unmissable event for anyone interested in the world of funerals. It will be a chance for those working in the sector to come and find out how different things could be, but more so, it’s a chance for everyone who might ever need to organise a funeral to come and find out what’s possible.

You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

Be Better.

Be there!

See you in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 21st September

Tickets available from the RSC at their box office here

£25 for the whole day, including the film screening, concessions £15.

Fran Hall

 

The GFG and the Natural Death Centre charity have long enjoyed an unofficial mutual admiration – nothing ever written down, but a kindred fellowship of ideas and ideals.

Founded in 1991 by the late Nicholas Albery and his wife Josefine Speyer, the charity was set up with three aims in mind:

  • To help break the taboo around dying and death, and to make it a natural topic to discuss over dinner.
  • To bring the dying person back to the centre of proceedings and enable them to die at home if they so wished.
  • To empower people and make them aware of their legal rights and choices, taking the power away from institutions.

The NDC inspired the whole of today’s movement towards individuals reclaiming dying and death as a natural part of life, encouraging people to take control of the end of life in much the same way as the natural childbirth movement encouraged women to reclaim birth as a natural process.

It encouraged Ken West OBE to begin the natural burial movement in 1993, and encouraged him and others “to be iconoclasts and attack the so-called traditions” according to Josefine.

It was the NDC that inspired Charles Cowling to start the Good Funeral Guide, and the NDC that encouraged the late Jon Underwood to found the Death Cafémovement in the UK.

The home funeral network and the death doula movement took inspiration and encouragement from the existence of the NDC, and countless families have used the Natural Death Handbook for guidance and support in caring for their dying and dead relatives.

It has had astounding success for a small charity, and all of us in the progressive funeral world owe the NDC a great deal. So to find the NDC sharing exhibition space with Dignity Funerals at this year’s National Funeral Exhibition was a surprise, to say the least.

To move from the robust stance against ‘juggernaut firms committed to feeding share-holders and venture capitalists at the expense of the customer’ as recorded in this 2012 NDC press release to the charity accepting an offer of free exhibiting space on Dignity’s stand at the biennial national trade exhibition seems to have been a huge change of tack.

The directors of the GFG felt compelled to outline their concerns at how this connection between the NDC and Dignity might be perceived. We couldn’t understand how it had come about, nor the reasoning behind it. We laid out our thoughts in an e-mail to the trustees of the charity last week, and then met with two of the trustees at the weekend.

From this meeting, our understanding is that the NDC is very approving of Dignity’s recently launched direct cremation service, as it provides the cheapest direct cremation service nationally.

It appears that they also feel they will be able to positively influence the decisions and strategic direction that Dignity takes through dialogue and discussion with the company, and therefore the charity has taken the decision to have ongoing talks with Dignity representatives.

Our misgivings are that the founding principles of the Natural Death Centre are in danger of being appropriated to enhance the reputation of Dignity PLC at a time when the company’s share price has slipped by over 70% and their main strategic objective is to ‘protect market share and reposition the Group for growth’ (see page 10 of Dignity’s most recent Annual Report).

We fear that the NDC charity’s history and good name are of great value to a company with 830 branches nationwide, and being seen to be in close connection to Dignity in any way, without any resulting, visible improvements in Dignity’s strategy and practice, is potentially perilous. We think that the charity’s hopes for positive influence on such a ‘juggernaut firm’ are optimistic.

However, we wish the Natural Death Centre the very best of luck in their aims. 

It’s a big task ahead.

Fran Hall

Our friends over at Life. Death. Whatever have created an extraordinary movement that is inspiring people around the world who follow them on social media.

Five Things is a collection of five things that LDW collaborators want people to know about life, death and everything in between. Since the launch earlier this month, the LDW posts on Twitter and Instagram have attracted a huge following.

As Louise and Anna (the two forces of nature who co-curate LDW) explain, “We need to talk and let each other know what helps, what doesn’t help, what we want and what we don’t want. Sharing best practice, sharing ideas, sharing stories, sharing lessons, sharing experiences.”

Some of the posts have been extraordinary, some heartbreaking, some informative, all inspiring. The authors of contributions range from leading practitioners in end of life care, through professionals working with those who have died and bereaved people, to individuals sharing the things they learned through personal experience of grief.

We were delighted to be invited to send in our ‘Five Things’, which you can find here, sitting alongside contributions from many of the people we most admire in funeralworld.

Among these, a number of GFG Recommended funeral directors have offered their ‘Five Things’. You can see thoughts from Lucy Coulbert (The Individual Funeral Companyhere, from the team at Poppy’s Funerals here,  from Sarah Jones (Full Circle Funeralshere and from Toby Angel (Sacred Stoneshere.

If you would like to contribute your own ‘Five Things’ then e-mail Anna and Louise at submissions@lifedeathwhatever.com.

And if you’d like to follow the project as it evolves, then follow Life. Death. Whatever. on their various social media platforms using the hashtag #FiveThings

Five Things will culminate in an event in central London in October – we’ll definitely be there to see the installation in its full glory.

Fran Hall

Like everyone else who responded to the Competition and Markets Authority’s consultation on whether to make a market investigation reference for the funeral market, we received an e-mail last week. The e-mail invited us to share our views on whether the said MIR should also cover the delivery of funeral services obtained via a pre-paid funeral plan.

And like everyone else concerned with the state of the current funeral market, we will be submitting our considered opinion on this matter. Which is that yes, there absolutely should be further scrutiny of the funeral sector with regard to the provision of funeral services arising from redemption of pre-paid funeral plans.

This blog has covered the subject of funeral plans on no less than 47 occasions over the years. And our opinion hasn’t changed. On the whole, and with the exception of the Good Funeral Guide Pre-Paid Funeral Plan (which isn’t like any other funeral plan we’ve come across) – we have little time for funeral plans.

We make no apology for again repeating the quote from Thomas Long in his and Thomas Lynch’s ‘The Good Funeral – Death, Grief and the Community of Care’ because it sums up pretty much what we think:

“The ‘buy now, die later’ brand of package deal has meant a lost connection between the sale of funerals and the delivery of them, and with it the loss of face-to-face accountability between buyer and seller that used to provide reliable consumer protection. Now the recipient of the services (the bereaved) and the provider of same (the funeral director) are both perilously out of the loop of the original transaction: a deal often brokered years before, between a commissioned salesperson and the now newly deceased. In such an environment there can be little real accountability.”

Notwithstanding this lost connection between the parties concerned with the funeral, in their consultation on scope of the proposed market investigation, the CMA notes the following:

‘In some respects, the position of the purchaser of a funeral plan from a plan provider may be similar to the purchaser of funeral services at need from a funeral director. In both cases, a lack of clear and comprehensive information about price, range and quality, combined with likely inexperience (as purchasing funeral plans or arranging funerals are generally infrequent purchases) mean that the customer is likely to lack the ability to assess properly the value for money of all the options offered.’

Definitely worth a closer look then.

The CMA’s invitation to offer a viewpoint isn’t restricted to just those who responded to their previous consultation, so if you have an opinion on whether the CMA should be looking at the services provided in ‘redemption of pre-paid funeral plans’, please drop them a line. You have around nine days in which to do so.

Postal address: Funerals market study team, Competition and Markets Authority, Victoria House, 37 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4AD

Email address:  funerals@cma.gov.uk

Here’s the content of the e-mail:

“In November 2018, the CMA consulted on its proposal to make a market investigation reference in relation to the supply of services by funeral directors at the point of need and the supply of crematoria services (in both cases within the UK). The draft terms of reference excluded from the meaning of ‘services by funeral directors at the point of need’ both the provision of pre-paid funeral plans and the provision of services provided pursuant to prepaid funeral plans.  

The CMA has received representations, in response to this consultation, that the scope of the proposed market investigation reference should be extended to include the funeral services supplied by funeral directors in the United Kingdom arising from the redemption of pre-paid funeral plans.

The CMA is, therefore, inviting interested parties to provide views on whether, if the CMA decides to make a market investigation reference, the scope of the market investigation should include the delivery of such services. 

The consultation document can be accessed on the Funeral market study case page at: https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/funerals-market-study

Comments should be provided to the CMA no later than 5pm 13 March 2019.

Fran Hall
Poppy Mardall of Poppy’s Funerals

We’re a bit late to the party, as this came out last week, but we were prompted by a comment from a regular reader on another blog post (thanks Andrew!!)

We were delighted to see one of our Recommended Funeral Directors featured in a documentary on ITV. Poppy’s Funerals were described as ‘female-led funeral directors out to buck several trends in male-dominated industry’. 

We like that!

Watch the full clip here.

Fran Hall

Apparently, according to an article in today’s Times, ‘funeral companies have been told to make fees transparent’.

No they haven’t.

Read the entire piece. It begins with this statement: ‘Funeral directors have been ordered to publish their full fees online after concerns about the soaring cost of services.’ 

No they haven’t.

Later in the piece is the more accurate statement – ‘the NAFD intends to consult with members on adding additional mandatory requirements to the code of practice’

So, they haven’t. And they haven’t.

Shoddy reporting Mr Byers.

(Thanks to Charles Cowling for spotting this)

Fran Hall

Here’s a salutary tale for anyone who is seduced into buying a funeral plan in order to ‘get on with enjoying life’, or ‘protect your family from future costs and worry’ or to avail themselves of the ‘peace of mind that your funeral costs and arrangements have been taken care of’, or whatever the latest snake oil sales pitch currently in use promises..

Back in 2007, a person who wishes to remain anonymous (but who has given us permission to publish this information) decided to do the responsible thing and organise their funeral in advance.

She purchased a funeral plan from Royal London, that UK’s ‘largest mutual life, pensions and investment company’. 

She paid £3,304.53 by instalment payments for what she thought was the cost of her own future funeral. And she thought no more about it until 11 years later when she had to arrange a funeral for her best friend. 

This funeral was carried out by a small, independent funeral director, and the holder of the Royal London funeral plan was so impressed that she went back to the small, independent funeral director to ask if they would be able to carry out her own future funeral – the one she’d paid for by buying a funeral plan. She thought it was called a Dignity plan, and her understanding was that she could decide which funeral director could be used.

The small, independent funeral director spent almost two hours with her trying to work out the current value and situation of the funeral plan, including a phone call to the plan provider that lasted over an hour. The plan provider of the funeral – that had been bought from Royal London -turned out to be Dignity Funeral Plans. 

It transpired that the plan purchased in 2007 for £3,304.53 was now valued at £3,488.25. This total included £827.92 towards third party costs, i.e. the cremation fee, the doctors’ fees and the cost of a minister or officiant. 

So over 11 years, the value of the funeral plan she had bought had gone up by just £183.72. It seemed that interest was only accrued on £640 of the money she’d paid – the money allocated towards the third party costs. The remaining £2664.53 hadn’t attracted any interest at all.

Now, the person who had bought this plan wasn’t very happy with this, and nor was she happy with the fact that her funeral would be carried out by a branch of Dignity Funerals when she wanted it to be carried out by the small, independent funeral director. She particularly wasn’t happy with the way the person on the other end of the phone was speaking, and she wanted to cancel the plan there and then.

The small, independent funeral director said that she ought to go away and think it through. They said they would write to her to set out her options so that she was really sure that was what she wanted. The holder of the plan agreed, and arranged to come back in a couple of weeks once she’d had a chance to read the information that the small, independent funeral director had put together for her about the costs of cancelling and the alternative choices she would have.

A few weeks later, and even more determined to cancel, the holder of the plan went back to see the small, independent funeral director and confirmed she definitely wanted to cancel the plan. Because she had been so unhappy with the way the previous phone call to the funeral plan company had gone, she decided to record the phone conversation, which was on loudspeaker in the office of the small, independent funeral director.

Below is the transcript of the 15 minute phone call that took place. 

Bear in mind, this is a call to a branch of the UK’s self-proclaimed ‘Leader in Funeral-Related Services.

This is how they describe themselves:

 ‘Our funeral directors date back to 1812 and last year we conducted 68,800 funerals, with 99% of families we served saying we met or exceeded their expectations. As a financially stable company, with a long reliable history, we have the stature and capability to stand behind the guarantees made to every Planholder. Funerals are all we do, so you’ll be in experienced hands from the moment you take out a funeral plan to the moment your loved ones need to talk to one of Dignity’s 1,200 owned and approved funeral directors’.

Oh, and just to explain the confusion our plan holder had –  if you look at the Dignity Funeral Plans website FAQs, this is what you’ll find:

‘All Prepaid Funeral Plans from Dignity guarantee to cover the cost of the Funeral Director services and the third party cremation costs specified – these are cremation fees and Minister’s or Officiants’ fees. Some other providers only provide a contribution towards the cremation costs.’

Dialing tone

“Good afternoon, you’re through to ‘Person 1’ at Dignity Funeral Plans, how can I help you today?”

“Hi, can you put me through to somebody that I can speak to to cancel my plan please?’

“OK, I can certainly help you with that today. Is it possible to take – have you got your plan number to hand at all?”

“Yeah, it’s XXXXXXXXXXXX”

“Thank you. Is it possible to take your name please?”

“Yep, it’s XXXXXXXXXXXX”

“Thank you. OK, so, what I’m going to do, I’m going to pop you through to one of my colleagues who’ll be able to help you today.”

“Yes, that’s fine”.

“OK, so I’ll pop you on hold, I’ll be as quick as possible for you then.”

“Brilliant, thank you.”

45 seconds of music……… 

“Hi, thanks for holding, I’m just going to pass you over to my colleague ‘Person 2’ now who’ll be able to look at this for you, OK?”

“That’s great, thank you.”

“Thank you, take care.”

“Hello, is that Miss XXXX?”

“It is.”

“Hi Miss XXX, my name’s ‘Person 2’, my colleague ‘Person 1’ has advised me that you wish to cancel your Royal London Funeral Benefit Plan, is that correct?

“Yes”.

“OK. Um. He transferred you over to me because I’m the only person available in the erm, the customer service centre. It’s not actually cancellations, so we would need to arrange a call back for you, erm, to actually process the cancellation, would that be ok?”

“No, not particularly, I really want to get this done today please.”

“It will be done today. That call back will be today. We usually have to allow for a two hour turn around so it would be quarter to three.”

“No, I really do need to get this done as soon as possible because I want to get something else sorted out. I’ve already got an appointment with a different pre-payment company this afternoon.”

“Right, ok, bear with me, let me just place you on hold”

“Thank you.”

2 minutes 26 seconds of music

“Hi, Miss XXXX”

“Hello”

“I’m just going to transfer you over to my colleague ‘Person 3’ who is on cancellations.”

“That’s great, thank you”

“She should be able to do that for you ok?”

“That’s brilliant, thank you.”

“Hello, is that Miss XXX?”

“It is, yes.”

“Hello Miss XXX, you’ve been transferred over to ‘Person 3’ in the cancellation team. I believe that you’re wanting to cancel your funeral plan, is that correct?”

“Yes that’s right.”

“OK, can I ask, is there any main reason that you’ve decided to cancel at all, is there anything that we can offer to do for you?

“Well, I spoke to somebody last week, um, to try and find out how much interest the plan’s actually accrued, and just to make sure that my funeral was covered – he was just awful, insisted on speaking over me the whole time, couldn’t actually get a clear answer out of him, and then over the weekend the Competition and Markets Authority report’s come out and that’s just sealed the deal for me so I want to cancel.”

“Right, okay, I mean, I’m happy to answer your questions if you’d like me to go through that with you at all?”

“No, it really is fine, I’ve come to the point where I just want to cancel everything please.”

“That’s absolutely fine, you’re well within your rights to cancel. In order for me to do that over the phone I just need to complete a few additional checks with you.”

“Yep”

“It’s just a couple of questions relating to the original set up of the plan if I may.”

“Mm Hmm.”

“So, could I kindly ask you, when you took out the plan, how it was taken out, so was it done over the phone, was it done via a website do you recall?”

“It was with, well, it was by phone but it was through Royal London.”

“It was.”

“Yeah.”

“And there was some different options of plan type I believe at the time, so there was the Standard Plan, the Classic Plan and the Prestige Plan – do you call what plan type you opted for?”

“Yeah, the Classic Plan.”

“Thank you. And do you recall lastly how you was making payments?”

“Yeah I paid by instalments.”

“Yep, was that direct debit or was that by card? Do you know?”

“Direct debit.”

‘OK, thank you. So that’s all the additional checks that I need to be able to start the process to cancellation, so just to confirm with you what will happen now is I will proceed with the cancellation of the plan, it will be completed within 14 days, any money that you paid into the plan will be refunded, it is subject to a cancellation fee however of £395, everything else you will get back.”

“Right. So, that will leave me with exactly how much?”

“Yup, I can tell that, bear with me.”

“OK, so the refund will be for £2909.53.”

“Right, so in eleven years then, I’ve made £187, you’re going to keep my £187, charge me another £400 to cancel it. Is that basically the gist?”

“Right, so the policies are not – they don’t incur interest, um so..”

“I’m sorry, no, sorry, hang on a minute. So, I’ve taken out a pre-payment plan. And I don’t get interest.”

“No. It’s a product that you’re actually buying. You’re actually securing the services within the plan, that is what you’re guaranteeing, so you took out this plan in 2007, and what you’re doing is, regardless of when that plan comes to be used, you’re guaranteeing the services within the plan so it’s holding the services, the value of the services, so it’s obviously guaranteeing to cover the funeral director’s fees and their staff, it covers the hearse plus one limousine, so everything that’s in your schedule of cover that is what you’re guaranteeing to be covered at the time of need.”

“Oh that’s awesome then, so that means that if I decided to keep this plan then there is not another penny that my family would need to pay if I died tomorrow.”

“There absolutely – once it’s fully paid for you’re guaranteeing to cover your services within the plan.”

“Right, so there’s – hang on, look, I just want to get this straight in my head, ‘cause that’s not what somebody else told me, so you’re telling me that if I keep this plan, if I die tomorrow there is not one penny that my family would have to pay for me to get everything that’s on that plan.”

“No, so  everything that’s on that plan you will – you’re –it’s guaranteed to be covered”

“So Oxford Crematorium is £1070, you’re guaranteeing to pay that are you?”

“Let’s have a look. So yours is a contribution plan towards the crematorium fees, so let’s have a look and see what that is worth, because obviously that’s within the plan, those are called disbursement charges.”

“Yep”.

“So there was £600 when you took this out when you took this out – erm, when you took this out..”

“Was it £600? It was actually £640, but – ok.”

“So that is risen in value because obviously that increases with inflation so that is now worth £827.92. So if you, like you said, were to sadly pass away tomorrow, that money your children would have to put towards the crematoria part.”

“So it’s not completely guaranteed then is it?”

“It’s guaranteed to cover everything that’s listed within the plan, so what – the guarantees, in full are to cover the funeral director fees and their staff, that includes the coffin, the hearse and one limousine, for you to be brought into care of the funeral directors so those are your guarantees within the plan so regardless of when that comes of use , those will be covered by the plan, now you’ve got a  – you’ve a third party towards contributions with the money that – what I’ve just advised you of there so that money rises each year in line with inflation, that money is then put towards the crematoria costs, so the only things that are not – that come outside of the plan are things like – other things like flowers, if your family wanted an obituary notice, order of service isn’t covered, so those sort of things are separate that fall outside of the plan cover, but the things that I’ve mentioned are fully guaranteed, regardless of when it comes to be used whether that’s tomorrow or ten years.”

“So the crematorium and the doctors’ fees are completely covered as of today, so if I died tomorrow, if there’s a shortfall between what you’ve said I’ve got which is what £827.92 and what the crematorium and doctors’ fees are, that’s covered? I don’t have to worry? My family doesn’t have to worry?”

“Yes, so the contribution towards the crematoria fees, so at the moment it is worth eight hundred and whatever – let me just..”

“Yeah, eight hundred and twenty seven ninety two, so that’s covered, but you keep saying that everything’s guaranteed but it’s not, because if Oxford Crematorium is a hundred and – sorry, one thousand and seventy pounds now, my eight hundred and twenty seven pounds isn’t going to cover that is it, so my family – would my family have to cover that or do you?”

“But that rises each year in line with inflation.”

“Yes but if there’s – if I’ve only got eight hundred and twenty seven pounds in there, and Oxford Crematorium is one thousand and seventy pounds – that’s in eleven years I’ve accrued a hundred and eighty seven pounds, so I can’t imagine the costs are going to be even close to sort of being the same are they, as time goes on? So, all I’m asking, all I want is an answer, will my family have to pay the difference between what it actually costs and what I’ve managed to accrue in interest for the disbursements? Will they get a bill? That’s all I need to know.”

“They will, yes.”

“Right, in which case I’d like to cancel the plan please.”

“That’s absolutely fine.”

“Cool.”

“Give me one moment. I’ve gone through the additional checks with you. Now as – we do legally have to refund the same way that payment was taken so I just need to confirm your bank details with you just to make sure that they still match with what we hold, to make sure that we will be refunding the correct account, would you confirm the name of your bank for me?”

“It’s XXXXX”

“Thank you. And could you kindly confirm the sort code and account number for me.”

“Yeah it’s XXXXXXX and the account number is XXXXXXXX”

“Wonderful. So that still matches with what we hold. So the refund will be applied to that bank account within 14 days. On completion of the cancellation Miss XX we’ll also send you confirmation in the post so you will get a letter to confirm everything that I’ve discussed with you and that the plan is fully cancelled down. Is there anything else that I can assist you with at all?”

“No, that’s it, thank you, you’ve been really helpful.”

“Oh you’re most welcome, well thank you very much for your time Miss XXX. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, bye.”