Freeman Brothers Manager, Abi Pattenden, explains the reasoning for an industry investigation
You may have recently seen lots of publicity in the press about the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) investigation into funeral pricing. Having spent the last six months in a preliminary investigation, the CMA has announced it wishes to launch a full investigation.
There are two halves to the CMA’s examination: the first is into the cost and provision of crematorium services and the second is into funeral directors’ charges; how easy it is to compare between different funeral directors and how well people understand what they are paying for at a time when some people can be distressed or vulnerable.
At Freeman Brothers, we have always been open and transparent about our prices and how we structure them. We have posted them online ever since we have had a website (you can find them here) and we were one of the first funeral directors, certainly locally, to have a website at all! However, the difficulty with giving a clear idea of funeral costs is the variety of services available for people to choose, and how circumstance affects things. The purchase of a funeral is analogous to buying a hotel from an airline when you also buy a flight. Theoretically, if you choose the same hotel on the same dates, the price will be the same whether it is the low-cost airline or the premium one which sells you the room. The price differential is with the airline and their offer; what time the flights are, what airports you can use and so on. Some airlines will include refreshments or luggage as standard. You customise this further by adding on things not included in the basic fare: an additional suitcase, extra leg room, paying more for your preferred seat. In this example, the airline is the funeral director, who has a range of services for you to choose at a variety of costs. However, the effects of choices can have large effects on funeral costs, as the following example shows:
Mr X dies unexpectedly at home and his family decide they would like a simple service, led by their local Horsham minister, at one of the local crematoria. They want the service early in the day because their friends who wish to attend will travel down the previous day and go home later that day. The cost for Freeman Brothers to arrange this will be around £3,300.00, including the fees paid to the crematorium and the minister, and all of our services.
Now let’s say that Mr Y dies in hospital, and he has been expected to die. His family would like the same as Mr X’s family, but choose a different crematorium. The costs for that funeral will rise to just under £4,000.00. This is because, for a funeral where someone was expected to die and is cremated, there are doctors’ fees, which add £164.00 to the cost, and the two crematoria vary in their fees by £445.00. Freeman Brothers’ charges of £2,542.00 will not alter.*
This is for two funeral services which are ostensibly the same and does not include all of the many additional variables which it is possible to choose from; including printed orders of service, limousines, notices in local or national newspapers, plans for the ashes which may incur costs, or additional arrangements for which we ask the family to make their own provision, such as floral tributes and a reception. Burials are different again. Every funeral, as with every person we care for, is unique and it is truly impossible to give any more than a range of costs until we know exactly what is wanted. There is no ‘one size fits all’ option and it would be wrong to suggest there is.
However, at Freeman Brothers, there are many ways in which we help you to understand the costs of a funeral and suggest alternatives. These are the commitments we make to all our clients:
–If you know your full requirements, we can provide you with a full quote, verbally, by email or in writing.
-We will ensure we explain which costs are ours and which are those of third parties so you can make meaningful comparisons.
-We will always publish our prices online meaning you are able to access them at a convenient time.
-We will ensure you understand the cost implications of your choices and what alternatives are available.
-We will always provide a full, written estimate, which you can compare to our final itemised account, so you can see where any changes which have affected the total cost have taken place.
-We will always discuss the cost implications of any changes you wish to make to the planned funeral arrangements.
Additionally, our professional, experienced, and fully trained staff are committed to working with you to ensure that, whether the funeral is small or large, simple or grand, it is meaningful, personal, and appropriate to your wishes and those of the person who has died. Making a funeral personal does not need to be costly. Some of the most beautiful funerals we have arranged have been simple services full of unique touches.
We understand that the CMA has concerns about the practices of some companies but we feel our commitment to transparency and fair charges for our excellent quality of service means our clients can rest assured that these should not apply to them. We welcome any intervention which ensures that bereaved people are fully informed of their options and ensures a level playing field across the industry.
However, we hope the wider investigation now announced will also examine what can be done to educate people in advance of needing to use the services of a funeral director. The CMA itself has identified that people’s unwillingness to talk about plans for the end of their lives is one of the key drivers which prevents them making informed choices. While we would be no means characterise everyone we meet as either vulnerable or distressed, we acknowledge that a lack of information about what services they require can leave them less prepared than they could be. We know that cremation without ceremony, instances of people shopping around, and families making more diverse choices are increasing and so those who are comfortable with having these discussions are clearly having the confidence to make their wishes known. However, the significant minority of people who have no desire to have these discussions will remain ill-informed and so we encourage the CMA to explore how the general public can be educated to understand the benefits of talking about end-of-life planning and funeral wishes. This could be done through education in schools, public information campaigns or many other means.
We would also like to see the CMA acknowledge something which was missing in their initial report- the deficiencies in the Social Fund Funeral Payment. This is a benefit which is supposed to help contribute to funeral costs for those who qualify but has not kept pace with inflation and doesn’t include key features you would expect, such as a coffin. It also will not cover the costs of even the simplest service. For those people who genuinely have no funds at all, the cost of a funeral is irrelevant because it cannot be borne; and therefore we also need to see the level of support increase for those people to enable them to have a decent, respectful funeral for their loved ones.
In short, we welcome the CMA’s further investigation and the potential it has to improve transparency within funeral service. However, we hope it will be wide-ranging and examine the underlying factors at play within society’s reluctance to discuss death. We also hope any recommendations made will be reasonable and proportionate and ensure that companies such as Freeman Brothers are not adversely affected, when we have always prided ourselves on our clear and open communication over our costs and services.
A timeline for the further investigation has yet to be announced, but we look forward to following this with interest.
*Freeman Brothers’ charges: £2,542.00. Mr X’s crematorium fee £625.00 and minister £203.00, total £3,370.00. Mr Y’s crematorium fee £1,070.00, minister £199.00, doctors’ fees £164.00, total £3,975.00.
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