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Hospice Funerals – an update

 

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.

 

St. Margaret’s Hospice Funerals

 

It’s here!

Today’s the day that the first Hospice Funerals branch in the UK opens for business.

The people of Taunton have been watching the refurbishment of the former charity shop over the last few weeks, as the grey paint (not dark and forbidding) was applied to the exterior and the shiny new furnishings arrived. 

Over the grey frosting on the windows, and below the statement (mysteriously missing the possessive apostrophe) Hospice Funerals Vision, the following legend proudly declares to the world in one long sentence, using the word ‘hospice’ four times and ‘exemplary’ twice just to hammer home the point: ‘To provide all hospice communities the choice and experience of exemplary 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.’

Phew. Try reading that without drawing breath. Particularly if you’re sitting in traffic alongside the new funeral business and the lights are about to change.

Anyway, on the day of the official opening of St. Margaret’s Hospice Funerals’ first branch, we thought we’d offer those considering copying this trailblazing franchisor and opening their own Hospice Funerals franchise partnership the results of the survey that we have been running for the last month.

Trustees of hospices thinking of following St. Margaret’s’ lead might be particularly interested in the responses to Q4.

In total, 719 people from across the UK responded. This is rather more than the 245 people from an unnamed North of England town where St. Margaret’s and their partners, Memoria Ltd, carried out market research prior to launching – and apparently received an astounding 82% approval of their Hospice Funerals scheme!

Our findings were somewhat different to their results. Although we obviously don’t know exactly what question they asked.

Here are our five simple questions.

Q1: ‘Before today, had you heard about St. Margaret’s Hospice partnering with Memoria Ltd to set up Hospice Funerals LLP offering other hospices the opportunity to set up funeral director businesses?’

293 people said yes they had.

423 people said no.

Q2: ‘Do you think there is a need for hospices to offer funeral services to their patients and the wider community?’

209 people said yes.

498 people said no.

(370 people offered their reasons in comments. We’ll add a few of these below to give a flavour of the things said.)

Q3: ‘Were you aware of the proposed £100,000 set up cost and £10,000 per annum franchise fee involved with each Hospice Funerals funeral director business?’

94 people said they were aware.

621 said they weren’t.

Q4: ‘Would you want your donation or fund-raising for your local hospice to be used to help set up and fund a hospice funeral business?’

65 people said yes

74 people said they wouldn’t mind how their money was used

573 people said no.

(102 people added comment to this question too.)

Q5: Are you (please tick all that apply):

A member of the public – 516 people

A staff member of a hospice – 12 people

A volunteer in a hospice – 17 people

A fund raiser for a hospice – 26 people

A donor of money or goods to a hospice – 91 people

A funeral director – 91 people

A staff member or volunteer in another organisation that has links to a hospice – 36 people.

Here are some representative examples of comments in response to Q2. (A complete list of all 370 comments received is available on request.)

“I think this could provide good continuity for families but only if it was done sensitively and not for profit”

“Offering funeral services to patients and the wider community is beyond the scope of health and hospice care, and a potential conflict of interest – i.e. hospice benefits financially from the death of patients. Alternatively, hospices could play a role to support the dying person and their family and carers, and the broader community, with education regarding ceremony and body disposal options, without recommending specific providers; the local community will be better served by each hospice providing information about or links to local, independent, support services and providers.”

“Firstly, I think there are enough Funeral Directors in the UK anyway. Secondly, I feel there is a conflict of interest if the “charity sector” is partnering with a profit making organisation.”

“It should be the patients and their relatives’ decision. At such a difficult time, it would be easy to use the linked funeral provider without it necessarily being the right decision. The whole idea makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

“Ethically the hospice should stand back and let the family chose the funeral director of choice not feel obliged to pay a linked company. All rather distasteful.”

“I feel that families may feel pressured into using these services in gratitude and grief.”

“Their job is to do the right thing on the right side of dying. It’s a conflict of interests to venture into the dead side of dying.”

“There are enough caring independent funeral directors. We don’t need another “big faceless player” on the scene.”

“Hospices provide a different service and conflating that with a funeral service appears to be predatory with grieving families as the victims.”

“There is no need for a linked funeral director, since hospices will all fall within the ‘natural’ catchment areas of a range of existing companies. There could be an argument for resourcing hospice chaplaincy better (Christian and other faiths) so that families are able to have a minister that they already know, and who cared for their loved one spiritually in life, take their funeral.”

“I don’t know a lot about this, but it seems like a helpful service for them to provide.”

“I believe these services should be kept seperate for ethical reasons, the preservation of the notion of hospice care, and for the mental well-being of those in care (I.e. the avoidance of a conveyor belt feeling, as though the living person is perceived as being a resource of value when dead).”

“There is a danger of this option being used by big corporate funeral firms for their own profits while all the time making out they are helping hospices with their funds.”

“I had never considered the idea before, and I suppose it might be the last stop on the continuum of care, but I don’t like the idea. It seems very creepy  to have one’s health care team circling like vultures waiting to make money off a funeral.”

“It is a saturated market. There isn’t a need.There should be a demarcation between health and business. The hospice has in essence a captive audience, I honestly think it is an abuse of their privileged position.”

And in response to Q4 – again, a representative sample of the range of comments received from 102 people, with the full list available on request:

“I am happy to help care for patients and to help hospices raise the money needed for their existence. They are an invaluable service. I would not want my money to be helped to support a conglomerate whose directors are set to take funds away from the Hospice.”

“I would NOT be happy to help fund a franchise which would control the business in the style of conventional  funeral provision.  I would be more than happy to contribute towards a not-for-profit co-operative service provided for & by the community.”

“Simply; because it stinks.”

I think most people would be shocked to hear that their charitable donations raised in loving memory of relatives they have lost would be used to invest in risky private ventures.”

“I would rather the hospices supported their patients by giving them and their families options to consider.  The alternative almost feels like a one stop shop.”

“Hospices need every penny to care for patients and that is why people donate. Using donations to pay for a franchise buy in would be a dishonourable use of funds.”

“I donate to ensure the best care is given at this most difficult time.. The client and family should be able to choose from a range of funeral directors of their choice. I would be very angry and would stop donating if the money was used in any way other than helping people to have the best quality of life until they die.”

“I am assuming that a funeral business would need to make money therefore I would prefer any donations I make would help people at a most difficult time. Perhaps an advice centre within the Hospice would be useful, letting people know what choices are available.”

“This is a ridiculously slanted question. Don’t bother to pretend this is research when it’s clearly a piece of push polling. Unethical.”

Now, we’ve been described as many things in the past, but unethical we ain’t.

We just wanted to know what people actually thought.

Now we’re going to watch and see how this new funeral business with the best branding in town gets on, in an area where bereaved people of the ‘hospice community’ already have a choice of twelve other funeral directors. Many of them are already providing a ‘caring, transparent and personal service’.

We’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOSPICE FUNERALS CAN BE THE BEST, NO QUESTION

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.

You’re welcome.

The business case for a hospice funeral service

 

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

Charles Cowling

Director and founder of the Good Funeral Guide

 

 

 

 

Disingenuous? Really?

 

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.