A new kind of ‘disruptor’ has arrived in the world of funerals.
The Good Funeral Guide has long championed those who could be described as ‘disruptors’ – small, ethical, progressive companies who are trying to change the rigid funeral sector for the better.
Many of these have started up in unconventional ways, sharing facilities with established companies and hiring vehicles instead of having their own (expensive) fleet of cars.
With the companies on our Recommended list, this creative approach is always transparent, and the people involved are happy to explain and stand by their ways of working. We have absolutely no problem with this, in fact we welcome ways for intelligent, empathetic, emotionally mature people to find a route into what has traditionally been a very closed world of funerals.
What we are not so happy with is a new phenomenon that appears to be spreading rapidly in the UK – just like a virus.
These new ‘disruptors’ are something very different. They’re offering a quick fix to the problem of someone dying; a click of the mouse and a credit card transaction and ‘ta da’ – it’s all sorted for you, and in a few weeks’ time you’ll receive a neatly packaged ‘hand delivery of your loved one’s ashes’.
Rapidly growing, tech-based companies are targeting bereaved people, with online funeral arrangements cutting thousands of pounds off of the cost of a funeral, often by providing a direct cremation service where no funeral ceremony is involved. Huge amounts of money are being spent each month on Google advertisements, positioning digital businesses as local providers throughout the UK, promising ‘meaningful, beautiful send-offs at affordable prices’.
Many of these companies are opaquely anonymous, the names of the people involved, when you find them, are unknown in the funeral world. They are tech specialists, algorithm writers, engineers, brand experts. They are people who sense an opening in a sector ripe for ‘disruption’. People who sit at computers and deal with phone calls. Probably few, if any, have lifted the weight of a dead body. Or cared for a broken-hearted family. Or kept vigil in a chapel of rest over a coffin of a child that they have promised won’t be left alone. These people are not the kind of people who are called to work with the bereaved. They are not funeral providers. They are middlemen, white labellers of funeral products.
These companies dispense with the age-old customs of keeping our dead nearby, historically at home, or more recently in the care of a local funeral director. They dispense with the relationships between those who have chosen to work in the funeral sector and the bereaved people they serve. They dispense with the rituals and comforts involved in coming together for a funeral ceremony, and present bereaved people with a simplified, low-cost package, where all of the emotional labour has been sanitised and taken care of.
Understandably, a low-cost funeral is attractive to many people, but at The Good Funeral Guide, we view this new development of online funeral providers with deep concern.
(As do the existing main players in the funeral world, all of which have launched their own, online, direct cremation services in an attempt to stave off loss of marketshare to the new online start ups – you may not be aware but Simplicity Cremations are owned by Dignity PLC, Budget Funeral is owned by Funeral Partners Ltd, crematorium operator Memoria operate their own Low Cost Funeral by Memoria service, and Co-op Funeralcare also operate a direct cremation service.)
For many of the new online companies, there is no funeral home or mortuary, no place where they care for the dead. The collection and care of those who have died is outsourced to anonymous subcontractors or existing funeral companies who are willing to carry out the practical aspects of a funeral for a few hundred pounds.
With the online companies advertising their low-cost funerals for around £1,000, there is little room for manoeuvre if they are to make a profit – we have heard of some small companies being asked to provide an entire direct cremation service for one of the online companies for £700 (including the doctors’ fees of £164 and the crematorium fee). As ever, big business profits from the work of small companies, who have to cut corners in order to make a living – ultimately, the quality and calibre of the care involved has to suffer.
We regret so much that these online companies exist. If the funeral sector were functioning properly, there would be no space for them. But as they are here and rapidly advancing, with millions of pounds to promote themselves, and with many thousands of families unable to afford to pay the high prices asked by many existing funeral providers, we would like to suggest a few questions that you could ask them, if you are thinking about using one of them.
- Who are you? Who owns this company?
- Who will collect my relative?
- When will this happen?
- Where will they be taken?
- Will they stay there? For how long?
- How will they be looked after while they are in your care? Will you wash them? Will you dress them in their own clothes if we provide them? Who will do this?
- Will you place any items with them if we provide them?
- May we spend some time with them in their coffin before the funeral?
- What about any personal possessions? How do we get these back?
- Where will the cremation / burial take place?
- When? What time? Do I have any choice? How much extra would this cost?
- How will my person get taken to the place of cremation / burial?
- Can people be there to see the coffin arrive?
- Will there be a funeral director?
- Will there be anyone to say words of committal? Or a prayer?
- What if I want a ceremony? Can you arrange this? How much extra would this cost?
To make these enquiries is, we know, an additional stress and strain on people who have been bereaved. You shouldn’t need to be asking these questions of someone who is offering to help you, to minimise your difficulties, to make things easier for you. This information should be available on the shiny websites. But it’s mostly not. Instead, the focus is on how cheaply your dead person can be disposed of. And how you can move on with your life free of the awkward issues involved with a funeral.
Unsurprisingly, at the Good Funeral Guide, we think you deserve better than this.
A funeral is a hugely important life event, a public full stop to a life that was lived, even if that life only lasted for just a few seconds.
Even during the restricted times of the pandemic, with limited numbers permitted to attend, a funeral is a marker, a moment of proclamation that this person lived, a ceremony where the body that they lived in is honoured and bid farewell. It is a time of comfort for those left behind, an opportunity to say a public goodbye, to be supported by the love and respect that others had for the person who has died.
A funeral matters.
Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living; we need to have a way to make sense of death, and funeral ceremonies help to provide this. To dispense with funerals in favour of a direct cremation, to let this become the norm is to diminish us, individually and collectively.
Without a funeral, we are left with a simple disposal of the flesh and bones that were the physical embodiment of the person we loved. A disposal that takes place out of sight, at a time unknown, in a place unknown.
How have we come to this? How have we become susceptible to the clean lines and glossy allure of attractive websites with clever marketing and branding, offering to take all of the problems of organising a funeral away from us? How have we come to accept a distant disposal, an unknown incineration somewhere, unattended and un-honoured, as an appropriate ending of a life of a person we love?
Much of the reason for the success of the new online companies is the failure of the funeral sector to put the needs of bereaved people first. Despite the protestations of the main players, serving bereaved families has, for many years, come a poor second to serving the bottom line, to making the profits required to expand, to make good money for shareholders and owners alike.
Small, honest, decent funeral directors have always provided a good, value for money service to their communities, but the sector has gradually become tarnished by the greed of those who sought to take advantage of bereaved people. The general public’s perception is now that funerals are exorbitantly expensive, and this viewpoint is supported by annual ‘Cost of Dying’ reports that inflate the costs of funerals to five figure sums.
The recent Competition and Markets Authority Market Investigation has confirmed that the funeral sector is not operating properly and is implementing remedies this year – remedies that will apply to existing funeral providers, but which may not have the required scope to cover the online providers that are now entering the market.
Fenix Funerals, Farewill, Pure Cremations and Beyond are all private equity funded companies who are fast making inroads into the traditional funeral market, while assorted other smaller providers are also springing up around the country. Just do an online search for low cost funerals in your area and see what comes up.
Meanwhile, investment news shows investment banks and private equity firms pumping millions of pounds into the handful of new companies who are challenging the existing funeral sector; Farewill, possibly the most ambitious of the ‘disruptors’, has £30 million of investment behind it, and has used information gained from their will writing service to tailor their recently launched cremation service.
Matt Morgan, Farewill’s General Manager of Funerals wrote on Linked In, ‘As a will-writing company, we have a unique insight into peoples’ funeral wishes – what they want to happen to them after they die. We have seen that 90% of people don’t want a traditional, religious funeral, and 40% opt for a direct cremation, once they know of the service.’
He went on to say, ‘We are at a turning point in the industry. The brand, team and technology that Farewill has built put us in a unique position to take advantage of this opportunity.’
Eliot Kaye, investment director at Puma Investments and now a director of Pure Cremation after a £7.5 million investment into “a very disruptive business model within a very established market” was also quoted as saying “there are going to be more established American-based providers who may very well be interested in expanding into the UK and could therefore joint venture or acquire these guys in due course if they get it right.”
This is not the future we want for our society. Our dead need to be part of our lives, they need to be recognised and remembered and honoured. They don’t deserve to be treated like a logistics problem, transported and packaged and dispensed with.
Ultimately, we wish that everyone could have a meaningful funeral ceremony. Even those whose lives have ended without family to mourn them. No life should end anonymously, unattended, disposed of without ceremony – we are better than that, our society is better than that.
If you need to arrange a funeral and you don’t have the money to pay for it and are tempted to choose an online funeral provider because of their low prices, we urge you to contact a small local funeral director first.
Some of the best people in the world are funeral directors – you might find that you have one on your doorstep who will help you to find a way of honouring a life without it costing you the earth.