The Climate Emergency. Could your funeral plan be part of the problem?

As the UK government congratulates itself on its decision to expand UK fossil fuel exploration, something that is perceived internationally as disastrous, it seems timely to publish this latest piece from our green correspondent:

“We’re starting a journey. We want to understand how funeral plans are potentially fuelling climate breakdown. 

This is a new campaign by the Good Funeral Guide which aims to help people who buy funeral plans better understand the environmental impact of their investment. 

We’re going to start with some numbers:

According to the Financial Conduct Authority there are around 1.6 million funeral plans in existence, held by 26 regulated firms. This does not include those life insurance policies that cover funeral expenses.

Now, according to Funeral Solution Expert calculations, the cost of a funeral plan is between £1,400 and £4,400, depending on whether you opt for a basic or a higher level plan.

The average cost of a plan is £2,800. The total value of held plans is therefore, by our calculations, currently somewhere between £2.2 billion and £4.5 billion. 

These plans are typically held by trusts and whole life funds, which spread the funds across a range of assets such as equities, infrastructure, credit, diversified growth and index-linked gilts.

Equities, diversified growth and credit are all exposed to fossil fuels, meaning that these asset classes are funding the extraction of and exploration for oil and gas. The burning of which is the predominant cause of the climate crisis.  

Analysis by the Good Funeral Guide suggests that between 15% and 60% of a typical funeral plan is invested in equities. 

Let’s say the average is 30%. Would that then mean the funeral planning industry currently has something like £1 billion of funds exposed to fossil fuels, contributing to the destruction of Earth’s life support systems?

Of course, not all of the £1 billion is invested in fossil fuel companies but it’s likely that the figure runs into tens of millions of pounds, at the very least.

How plan providers stack up

We’ve trawled the websites of some of the UK’s best known funeral plan providers for information about how they invest the money that people trust them with. 

Golden Charter – around £459 million of Golden Charter’s funds are invested in global equities, diversified growth and multi-strategy credit, suggesting that potentially at least 35% of its £1.3 billion-fund is exposed to fossil fuels. It’s good that Golden Charter makes its investment information available in the form of annual reviews, however, the reviews lack granular detail about environmental impacts.

Golden Leaves – Golden Leaves funds are managed by the Golden Leaves Trust and according to its website these are invested in index-linked gilts. These are likely to be UK government bonds and are said to be as exposed to fossil fuels as the wider economy. 

Golden Leaves website also states that some plans (zinc, silver and gold) when taken as fixed payment plans are used to buy a whole life insurance policy from SunLife. SunLife is part of the Phoenix Group, whose investments are currently exposed to fossil fuels. However, the business has published a plan to be net zero by 2050.

Open Prepaid – According to the company’s website, the Open Trust Fund invests in equities, which as we’ve learnt are directly exposed to fossil fuels. We were unable to find information about the breakdown of assets held. 

Avalon Funeral Plans – Avalon Funeral Plans website appears to offer no information about the nature of its investments, other than to say that its trust invests through “recognised investment funds”. We can safely assume that there is some exposure to fossil fuels.

Ecclesiastical – Ecclesiastical’s funeral plans are held in an insurance policy which is linked to investments that could be exposed to fossil fuels, our research suggests.

Co-operative Funeralcare – according to our research, Funeralcare’s funeral plans are Royal London life insurance policies, which will be exposed to fossil fuels. However, Royal London has made the same commitment as Phoenix to be net zero on investments by 2050. 

Dignity – Dignity’s website states that funeral plan money is held in the UK Funerals (2022) Trust. We were unable to find information about which assets this invests in, but we should assume exposure to fossil fuels. Dignity’s National Funerals Trust 2022 report shows potentially huge exposure to fossil fuels as equities and credit account for 74% of assets held. 

Our summary

As we said at the start of this blog, we’re on a journey of understanding here. We welcome information from funeral planning companies that clarifies their funds’ exposure to fossil fuels. 

If we have it wrong, we’ll correct the record. But we will accept no opaque comments. We want figures and percentages that deliver clarity to the funeral plan-buying public.

In summarising our research, we make the following four observations:

1. Funeral plans for gas-powered cremation funerals are funding climate change, as the end product or service is a fossil fuel-based process.

2. No funeral plan provider’s website FAQs section has a question about the environmental impact of their investments. This needs to change. All funeral plan providers should publish a public statement outlining their current environmental impact status, detailing the steps being taken to reduce exposure to harmful financial products.

3. Despite FCA regulation, funeral plan investments are incredibly opaque. The public will struggle to find any user-friendly information about the types of assets held and what they mean.

4. Most worryingly of all, no funeral plan provider has a green investment plan. Or if they do, they are doing a fantastic job of hiding it on their website. 

Next steps

Thank you for reading this blog. The next steps are to apply pressure. And we can all do this.

We will be writing directly to all UK funeral plan providers once this blog is published, asking them to provide us with direct and up to date information that we can share with our readers. 

If you are someone who holds a funeral plan to cover your future funeral costs, then please write to your plan provider and ask them for accurate and easy to understand information about their investments and the environmental impact involved. Ask how they are reducing their exposure to / investment in fossil fuels and the timescale involved. They have your money, and you have a right to ask them what they’re doing with it.

If you’re a funeral director – and an appointed representative to provide funeral plans – and feel you should be fully informed about the environmental impact of the funeral plans you offer, please write to your plan provider. We have a template letter here that you can download and use.

Join us on our journey to understand this opaque, multi-million – or billion – pound market, and if need be (it will be!) – to start pushing for change.

Let’s make sure funeral plans are what they are sold as; a way for people to plan for and pay in advance towards their own future funeral costs, not covert vessels for contributing to planetary destruction.”

‘Mooving Funerals’

We recently had our attention drawn to a new campaign that has been launched by the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF), in conjunction with Westerleigh, the cremation company. The campaign (described as a toolkit) is intended to aid small funeral businesses faced with the aggressive marketing tactics of large direct cremation companies.

We understand how the rapid advance of direct cremation is changing the funeral landscape, so we were interested to see how the trade association for independent funeral directors has responded to this threat to members’ businesses.

Unfortunately, as you will see, it seems that they have got it very wrong indeed. In our opinion, anyway.

One component of the ‘toolkit’ is a video, apparently designed to ‘educate and engage consumers about the value of attended funerals.’ 

It features a farmer, a herd of cows and some men carrying a coffin into a crematorium, with the finishing strapline ‘A mooving funeral can really help your herd say goodbye’

There are various clips of the full video that are suitable for use on social media, and SAIF members are encouraged to share ‘this simple but powerful video on your platforms to remind people why funerals matter’.

On behalf of the GFG directors, and with their full agreement, I wrote to the SAIF Chief Executive and the Executive Board of SAIF at the end of June, detailing the multiple issues we have with this video. Our letter is below: 

Dear Terry and Officers of SAIF Executive 2023

I am writing in response to the ‘Mooving Funerals’ publicity campaign that you have launched, and that you are encouraging SAIF members to adopt.

I would like to make some observations about the campaign, both from the personal perspective of a bereaved person, and secondly from a professional standpoint.

To begin with my personal perspective, I feel strongly that the campaign shows a lack of understanding about why the term ‘moving on’ is profoundly unhelpful for bereaved people. It is now widely understood by grief specialists that ‘moving on’ is what those surrounding the bereaved often wish they would do – not something that the bereaved are able to do. Rather they (myself included) need to be supported to integrate the grief and come to terms with it. To find a way to grow from it – and live with it. The lame play on words and the imagery of docile livestock used to support your theme compounds my disquiet; I find the cattle imagery particularly offensive. 

I have shown the campaign material to other bereaved people, who have all reacted in the same way, with surprise and annoyance both at the use of this unhelpful term as the basis for a trade association sponsored PR campaign, and at the visual interpretation of  wordplay on the ‘moving on’ term of a herd of cows representing a bereaved family. 

From a professional standpoint, this campaign does not appear to contend with the serious issue of the increasing numbers of direct cremations and the impact this is having on the profession.  It does not address the many reasons why people choose a direct cremation;  a SAIF campaign that sought to do so could have been a great opportunity to show how creative, involving and therefore helpful (therapeutic?) an attended funeral can be. Instead, we have a blend of attention-grabbing animal casting along with the usual, tired images of men carrying a coffin into a crematorium.

Even if some viewers find the video cute or funny, I very much doubt that it will make anyone think clearly enough to change their mind about direct cremation. There is no attempt to address the underlying motivations of choosing an unattended funeral, or the very real consequences of missing out on the chance to say a collective farewell. The critical purpose of the video fails because of these fundamental flaws.

For all the reasons above, I am extremely surprised that SAIF has decided that this campaign is appropriate for members to adopt and use in their advertising and social media. 

I am very concerned that should any members choose to do so, individual companies will risk offending many people in their communities, losing potential future business while simultaneously failing to stem the haemorrhage of attended funerals in favour of the aggressively marketed direct cremation companies. 

I would urge you to reconsider your support for – and promotion – of this campaign.

With best wishes

A few days later, we received a response which read as follows:

Dear Fran,

Thank you for taking time to express the views of the GFG on the first iteration of the SAIF Direct Cremation toolkit.  The video is one component of the toolkit.

It is never easy to address the theme of death in our society.  Interestingly the retired English cricketer, Andrew Strauss, wrote about his wife’s death in 2018 from lung cancer and how the subject is still a difficult subject to raise in our society.

The video is for those who are making plans, so to inform their options in order to avoid the potential risk that an unattended cremation may harm their grief journey when they may not fully understand what they are entering into.

Your letter has been shared with the SAIF leadership as requested.

Warm wishes

It seems, therefore, that SAIF are committed to this bovine-centric video campaign as a way of addressing the rapid advance of direct cremation companies into the funerals market.

We will be curious to see how SAIF members respond. Is this something that SAIF members welcome from their trade association? Or is there a similar level of disquiet as we have about the messaging? And what about the public reaction?

We would be very interested to hear what readers of this blog think – do please comment below.

(We did inform SAIF that we would be publishing both our letter and their response on the GFG blog)

St. Margaret’s Hospice Funerals. It’s over.

It gives us no pleasure at all to report that the ill-fated venture embarked on by the CEO of St. Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset back in 2017 has come to an end. A statement on the website was posted today, and today’s edition of the Somerset County Gazette confirmed an email that we received this morning telling us that the funeral business had closed.

Back in November 2017, when we first heard about the plans for a well loved and respected hospice to go into partnership with a company operating crematoria around the UK and offer a franchise scheme for other hospices to do the same, we sounded the alarm in a post on this blog.

We followed this up the next month with a letter that we sent to the board of trustees of every single hospice in the UK advising them against following St. Margaret’s Hospice into what we considered to be a foolish and costly venture – we published the letter here. We were supported by many funeral directors from across the country who shared our concerns and added their names to the letter.

Further posts on the GFG blog on the same topic from December 2017 can be seen herehere and here. We were taking it very seriously indeed, as you can see. The use of funds donated to a hospice to set up a funeral directing business seemed to us to be foolhardy in the extreme, and the franchise idea was a folly that we hoped no other hospice would be tempted to embark on.

Undaunted, St. Margaret’s Hospice went ahead with their plans, and on 22nd January 2018 they opened the doors of their first branch in Taunton – we wrote about it here and shared the results of our survey , evidencing that the vast majority of donors to a hospice would not be happy for their donations to be used to set up and run a funeral franchise. These findings were referenced in a BBC Points West programme that covered the controversial closure of St. Margaret’s in-patient hospice ward in Yeovil.

In August 2019, we wrote another post with updates about the venture, including the disappearance of Low Cost Funerals as a partner with the hospice. St. Margaret’s were going it alone.

Then it all went quiet. Other things took priority as the whole world was affected by the pandemic. The success or failure of the hospice funeral venture in Somerset was not on our radar until today’s email arrived.

Looking back, and reading back through our public expressions of concern, it is still astonishing to consider the naivety – or foolishness – of the trustees who supported the idea of a hospice investing funds into offering funerals to its patients and the wider community, in a town where there were plenty of funeral directors already. It is difficult to understand the business case that persuaded them. And it is difficult to understand why the many, many warnings were not heeded.

The hospice apparently assured anyone who questioned them about the ethics of offering patients a funeral provided by their trading subsidiary that they wouldn’t be ‘pushing’ the funeral service at patients and families’, so it couldn’t be that patients would be encouraged to choose the hospice funeral service. It must have simply been confidence in the idea that local people would be attracted by the idea of supporting the hospice through electing to use the funeral service they operated. A risky basis for investing such a considerable amount of donated funds, as we pointed out at the time.

(Reading Ms Lee’s comments to the Somerset County Gazette today, one could be forgiven for wondering quite what she means by this statement ‘Mrs Lee added: “More recently, a change in regulations has also limited how we talk to patients and their families, and because this venture has not realised a financial return for the charity, it is now necessary to close our funeral business”. How exactly were patients being talked to about the funeral business?

St. Margaret’s Hospice most recent trustee report (dated November 2021) states that the decision was taken to “impair the intercompany balance that the funeral business owes to the Hospice. At this moment in time the Board cannot say with certainty that this balance will be recovered, there are too many unknowns in the future projections for the funeral business. The Trustees have therefore recognised a £508,000 impairment provision in the accounts to reflect this uncertainty”.

The report goes on to state; “We are proud of the decision we took to enter the funeral marketplace and saw this as a strategic and natural extension of the services that the hospice provides, as well as an opportunity to diversify and generate a new and sustainable income stream for the charity. Our aim was to disrupt the marketplace, challenge funeral poverty by encouraging more transparent and fair pricing, and provide our community with alternative options, which we have achieved. The financial return has not yet been achieved, but a new pricing and marketing strategy is being implemented with the aim to do just that.”

And yet, here we are. 

Exactly where we and so many others predicted we would be. Hundreds of thousands of pounds spent, a charity shop specializing in baby and children’s items closed to convert into a funeral home, irreparable damage done to the reputation of a much -loved hospice and, presumably, several local people losing their jobs.

It’s hard to find out how much money from legacies and fund raising has been wasted on this foolhardy venture, Companies House shows the most recent accounts for St. Margaret’s Funerals Ltd. (Company No 10985626) as at 31st March 2021 with a deficit of £427,946. The accounts for Hospice Funerals LLP(Company No OC419616) as at 31st March 2021 show a deficit of £328,348, while there are no current accounts for Hospice Funerals Trading Ltd (Company No10953084), the second company in the LLP with St. Margaret’s Hospice Funerals. 

Interested parties – of which there are likely to be many – will have to wait until the trustees’ report from St. Margaret’s Hospice reveals the extent of the losses.

In the meantime, we are very sorry that we were right. 

If only someone had listened.

It’s my funeral

Louise Winter
Louise Winter, Editor, The Good Funeral Guide

Dearly beloved of Funeralworld and beyond,

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m the new editor of The Good Funeral Guide, under the mentorship and guidance of the wonderful founder Charles Cowling and CEO Fran Hall.

Far from facing its own funeral, the need for a sustainable GFG has never been so strong. In my exciting new role, I’ll be continuing the amazing work Charles has put his heart and soul into over the last ten years.

My aims are to raise the public’s expectations of funerals whilst helping the industry to improve standards and ensuring that the Good Funeral Guide remains the trusted, independent, not-for-profit resource for helping the consumers of today and tomorrow to arrange the funerals they actually want.

The tiny team here at GFG HQ has got its work cut out. There are plenty of funeral directors to accredit, many coffins to try out, awkward questions to ask of the crematoria, progressive funeral types to meet for tea and cake and innovative death events to attend.

Whilst we figure out what the future of funerals and the GFG might hold, I want to hear from you. Send me your ideas, thoughts, frustrations, questions, event invitations and stories from the funeral frontline. Or, if you’re a disgruntled member of the funeral industry wondering what I’m doing here, you’re welcome to send my favourite rotting funeral flowers my way. I’ll turn them into art.

Fran and I will be tweeting about our adventures in Funeralworld at @greatfunerals. You can also stay up to date by liking us on Facebook.  Getting in touch via old fashioned email is good too, but unlike most of the funeral industry, the GFG doesn’t have a fax machine.

In life, in death, and everything between.

Louise x

Get in touch
@poetic_endings or @greatfunerals

Louise Winter

About Louise Winter
Louise Winter is the newly appointed Editor of the Good Funeral Guide and the founder of modern funeral service Poetic Endings. She trained with Civil Ceremonies to earn a National Qualification Level 3 Diploma in Funeral Celebrancy, and has volunteered at St Luke’s Hospice and Weston Park Hospital in Sheffield.  Known as the Mary Poppins of Death, she hosts innovative events about death, dying, life and living around the world as well as creating relevant and meaningful funerals for her clients.

Louise completed a degree in Fashion Promotion at the London College of Fashion in 2009.  Following a stint as Deputy Editor of LFW’s Vauxhall Fashion Scout, she launched a magazine for struggling twenty somethings, Dirty Laundry.  Previously, she brought her unique creativity and storytelling to the world of brands, working with Value Retail, Jack Daniel’s, NASA, Arcadia, Bestival, ASOS and Time Out, amongst many others. She’s lived in London, Paris and New York.

She loves life, death and everything in-between.




Frankly speaking

In a report published today the Work and Pensions Committee says the UK Government should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and conduct a broad review of burials, cremations and funerals, with a view to making changes that have a long-term impact on funeral inflation and reduce funeral poverty.

The Committee also says evidence it heard in its recent inquiry into publicly funded bereavement support suggests the funeral industry may not be operating in a way that serves bereaved, vulnerable people well. This evidence on the operation of the funeral industry has been passed to the Competition and Markets Authority.

Frank Field MP, chair of the Committee, said: “We did not set out to inquire into the funeral industry but it soon became apparent that the interaction between an opaque and outdated public system of bereavement support and a market in funeral services which simply does not operate “normally”, is causing problems.

Read the full report here

The NAFD has issued a statement in response calling into question ‘some highly inflammatory and unsubstantiated remarks made in the report’ – read it here

So it goes

Posted by Vale

Have you ever thought what it is to be a King or a Queen?

You are, usually, born to it: it is your life and your duty. Our own Queen clearly feels this keenly. As far as a commoner can tell, for her, the coronation oath confirmed what birth had bestowed: she became Queen for life, a vow as absolute as a nun’s.

Others, apparently, see it differently: Queen Beatrice and King Carlos have just unthroned themselves and nobody seemed to mind.

Who’s has the right of it? Our queen or the continentals?  Who cares? It’s strange now to remember that, once upon a time people fought and died over just this question. Did kings rule by divine right? Could you dispose of a bad one without sin or was it really the worst of crimes – worse than murder or treason, an affront to the very order of the universe?

Suicide used to carry a similar stigma. It was both self-murder – a broken commandment – and a direct affront to god. Our lives aren’t our own. Choosing to end them is to fling the gift of life back in god’s face.

In this week of debate about assisted dying, I do wonder how much its opponents arguments are rooted in these old beliefs. The feeling in our bones that suicide, however rational the argument, is still taboo.

Of course assisted dying is more complicated. It raises different, difficult questions. At its simplest, it’s about the way that others become implicated in a personal choice, blurring the line between suicide and murder.

But we need to work these issues through because attitudes are already changing – starting with suicide itself.

I need to be careful here. I am not praising or promoting suicide. If you are a celebrant or funeral director you know only too well what suicide means – the agony of families ruptured by the loss; the disbelief; the unanswerable questions; the terrible feelings of failure regret; the anger.

But there are occasions when it is not like that.

I took a service recently for someone who had lived a very full life. She was clever, accomplished and active.

She had known hardships and grief – her husband was dead and, many years before, her daughter had died. She had faced both losses with courage and great resource.

Without family now, she was connected to a wide network of good, loving, friends. She was involved, loved to to learn new things, enjoyed writing and painting.

Then Parkinsons was diagnosed and, as it progressed, she realised that her life was dwindling. It was becoming more about staying alive than about living so, well before she needed to, she made her arrangements and killed herself.

The service we planned was full of the thoughts and poems she had left us. The crematorium was filled to overflowing with all her friends. There was sadness and a deep sense of loss but there was respect too for her decision and her determination. We sympathised with her. I suspect that many of us were thinking about our own old age, wondering if we would be as brave as she had been.

Is helplessness and incapacity a universal fear these days? Is it feared now more than death itself?

There was no horror, though, or despair; just reflection and a determination to honour and celebrate our friend’s life. We wanted to do justice to her courage.

Too many things have changed now for lawmakers to avoid the hard questions. As we age we know what awaits us. We know that medicine now has powers to both save and destroy us.

People are already making their own choices, beginning to join that old stoic Seneca saying:

The ship that I sail in, I choose; the house that I live in, I choose; so will I choose the death by which I leave life.

We need to support people in their choice. We will need support ourselves when the choice comes to us.