The Mint spoke to funeral director, Sarah Townsend, about the cost of dying, and the spectre of financial sector miss selling. And we exorcised some misleading myths.

Funerals are emotionally complex events but in most instances few of us would be surprised to see sorrow and loss high in the mix. But today, for a growing number of people, the sorrow and particularly the loss are being added to by the misery of discovering that pre payment schemes sold to them or the deceased fail to meet the funeral bill.

The average bill to send off a loved one last year was just shy of £6,000 after the price of coffins, urns and other items are included. But it’s not just the high, and growing cost in itself that is saddening. There is, mounting evidence of financial players seeing the funeral sector as an opportunity to sell schemes, often to people who are anxious just to spare their relatives from the cost of their funeral.

Stories have emerged of aggressively marketed funeral plans promising peace of mind which only add to the misery when the small print reveals the funds aren’t sufficient to pay the funeral invoice. And the plan provider has pocketed hundreds of pounds in fees.

Since the beginning of June the Treasury, alongside the competition watchdog, the Competition Markets Authority, has consulted on introducing harder regulation of the £2bn a year funeral market.  Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen, as saying he was “appalled by the lengths that some dishonest salesmen have gone to in order to sell a funeral plan.” He went on: “It breaks my heart to think that our oldest and most vulnerable are being pressured into funeral plans that leaves their grieving families out of pocket.”

“It could be the next sort of PPI.”

More than 1.2 million people in the UK have signed up to a funeral plan that is meant to cover the cost of their last rites. And the market for funeral plans has become the focus for gathering media attention generating tales of fraudulent operations and people having to find money to pay funeral costs they had been duped into thinking were covered.

Sarah Townsend has been a funeral director for some 19 years. And she has seen, first hand, instances where people have contributed to a funeral plan only for their families to discover the plan won’t pay the full cost of the funeral as was promised or at least implied. “Certainly we’ve been told that it could be the next sort of PPI,” she says.

Sarah’s perception is that the misunderstandings with funeral plans have come with the arrival of financial players to the funeral market who are seeing it as simply business. She acknowledges that the money available usually lines up with the small print on the plan but people often don’t understand exactly what they have paid for. What’s more she has had to explain to those families that the funds from the scheme are inadequate: “It’s difficult to have that conversation, because they believe it’s been paid for,” Sarah says.

She goes on: “My advice to anyone would be go to a funeral director for a funeral. It’s such an important thing, and if you are minded to want to plan it, plan it with a funeral director. It’s difficult to think you would just send off for it.”

What people like her in the funeral industry doing about the disturbing tends she describes? The great white hope it seems is the prospect of the introduction of licensing.

“In the last 19 years the difference in funerals has been immense. When I started it was very much more male dominated.”

“Well this is where the licensing comes in that’s hopefully being put through Parliament. I don’t actually know what guidelines they can put in for that but they need to do something I feel.” On 1 August the government closed a consultation on “potential customer detriment in the sector and ways to improve how this sector is regulated.” It is crunching the numbers as we write.

The funeral industry is subject to self-regulation through the Funeral Planning Authority which was set up in 2002, but the authority has negligible legal powers over plan providers. But the heart of the issue is that funeral plan businesses are exempt from regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority.

The Treasury has already proposed that the exemption should be ended and the government has said it “believes the current self-regulatory framework for the funeral plan sector is not sufficient to ensure the fair treatment of consumers and believes a more robust regime is required. The call for evidence will help the Government design a new framework that is fit for purpose.

Meanwhile Sarah works for Midcounties Co-operative Funeralcare based in Swindon which has, over time, acquired a number of family firms. But she maintains that the more intimate treatment typical of a small funeral director is what people want and she emphasises that the cooperative has always preserved the branding of its acquisitions. “We would always put on our signs that we are the Co-Operative, formerly Bakers or whoever we’ve purchased.

“Yes, we do have a dark sense of humour. It’s a difficult question because you never feel like the public actually want to know that side of it.”

“We like to keep people in their local funeral home, because that is what people still want. People don’t to go to a trading estate or imagine that’s where their loved one is, they want them in these funeral homes and that’s what we do. But I know there’s been programmes on the television exposing different companies with big sorts of warehouses with deceased in.”

While the desire to have a personal link with the funeral director who will look after our loved ones’ funeral abides, there have been significant changes in the funeral industry since she joined the firm when she was 17:  “In the past 19 years the difference in funerals has been immense. When I started it was very much more male dominated. A lot more females are coming into it now. I think it’s seen more as a caring vocation now, where it never was. I think we bring something … I think there’s room for men and women, but it’s good to have both. Families like to have both I think.”

I don’t really know what has changed. I think it’s become a lot more open in the media now. A lot more people talk about death, death cafes – everything  – I don’t think it’s as much as a taboo. It’s more in your face than it used to be. So more people talk about the death industry, then they ever used to. And you see a lot more programmes on tele with females in that role in funerals.”

She says she was initially drawn to the business’ family environment: “We weren’t family, but it felt like family, and I think that just made a difference for me. I stayed here for a week, and then I stayed here for another week and then I’ve never left.”

The job, she says is “inspiring” working between three local funeral homes and others elsewhere. “When you’ve done a good job, and you hear the feedback from the families it’s very good,” Sarah explains. “Often you’ll have people who don’t want to come, but they feel they should or they’ve got something they want to say one last time especially when it’s been a very sudden death. When you’re able to show it’s not such a scary traumatic experience as they might think, it’s quite … you know, that’s quite powerful.”

A good funeral director she says “listens to the family, and lets the family tell you first what they would like, and then makes that happen.”  Funerals today, Sarah says, are more bespoke. “People are not using the traditional black hearse all the time, they’re having a tractor, they’re having a horse and cart, they’re having all sorts you know.”
But the reality of death – the decay and disfigurement – is never far away and Sarah acknowledges there is a growing influence from the US now to sanitise that to some degree. However it’s not something she is currently asked to do.

“In America it’s very much like that. People bring in a picture of a model or someone they want [the deceased] to look like. We don’t do things like that.

“I certainly don’t put a lot of like what you’d call ‘normal’ make-up on people.  We cover up any discoloration, or anything like that as much as we can but only to the point where they look the correct colour. We don’t go into cosmetics in such a big way like the American funeral industry.”

Despite her near 20 years in the industry she is not immune to the emotional pain that bereavement brings. “I always say it doesn’t affect me, but I think it has in the way especially since having children. We deal with funerals of children of all ages, and I think it’s more difficult in that circumstance as a parent, in as much as you think, goodness me you can’t image what these people are going through. I mean I felt like that before I was a parent, but when you’ve got children, you put yourself in that situation.”

” I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh God, are the coffins are definitely cremated? Do you take all the watches off?’ “

But then there is the humour… “Yes, we do have a dark sense of humour. It’s a difficult question because you never feel like the public actually want to know that side of it. I mean we have to. We come off a funeral, our ceremonials come off – we have to get back to normal life, because we have to go home to our families.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in this industry, with the crematorium, with the mortuary staff and the hospital with us. You know because we’re dealing with this everyday I think you get that.”

While Sarah and her colleagues are governed by their professionalism, their clients are not always so restrained. “Obviously we’re mostly seeing people at one of the worst times in their life. But everyone has different relationships with their family, I have heard all sorts in the Limousine from funny stories to celebratory music. It’s not for us to judge, so what we always say is, what a family does or says in the limousine, stays in the limousine. Some families do try and entangle us in their issues, but we have to be very strong in that.”

Sarah and the rest her profession are often dealing with people who are vulnerable in many ways. The bereaved are possibly highly susceptible to (say) suggestions that they might want to pay for items they don’t need and can’t afford. The dead can be robbed of jewellery. Stories around this theme abound. Sarah is familiar with all of this yet still apparently quite vexed by it: “There are always the horror stories with jewellery on the deceased. There’s all kind of ways, if you were minded to, where you could abuse your position. And actually, often when you say you’re a funeral director, people ask without thinking: ‘Oh do you keep the coffins?’ or  ‘Do you take the jewellery?’

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh God, are the coffins are definitely cremated?” or ask ‘Do you take all the watches off?’ No I don’t. I don’t know where these things come from.”

The funeral director’s role is clearly laden with a need for responsibility and trust. For many of the clients Sarah deals with it’s a once-in-a lifetime encounter yet one that can have profound and lasting impact. The recent associations of the profession with underhand dealing from new entrants from the finance sector can only be upsetting for Sarah and her colleagues.

Sarah’s tale of the value in personal service from a local funeral director offers a consoling counterpoint to the noise around funeral plans. Nevertheless the public perception of the funeral sector has been marred by financial sector avarice and has drifted away from the place of the dentist as described in Keynes’ quote. And it’s tempting to link that shift to the change in moral tone that gave us the 2008 financial crisis and to suggest that there is no contrition among the money people.

But perhaps a more meaningful parallel is in the thought that, while it’s not hard to see how treating something as emotionally charged as a funeral as a transaction might be wrong, the fact remains that a transaction in which the small print masks the truth can affect families and lives. And that is surely a good message to propagate at this time, ten years after a big, swinging moral compass guided us into a financial crisis that took away the jobs of ordinary folk while its architects kept theirs with bonuses.

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