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.