On funerals 2: The Americans

I finished part 1 with the American SCI moving in on the UK funeral industry. Corporate acquisition of funeral businesses had three key aims:

1. Where possible acquire businesses that would complement ones you already owned with the aim of stripping out duplicated back office facilities and maximising the use of vehicles. So when the Richmond-based T.H.Sanders was acquired, its hub at Preston Place, Richmond was sold, its functions being transferred to F.W.Paine’s Kingston hub. To a degree efficiency is a good thing but … My father died on a Sunday and his funeral was the following Friday. Now, even pre-Covid, a delay of two weeks or even more was not unusual. Of course, this might be what the family wanted. I do wonder though if it’s a question of a local branch trying to back-to-back several funerals whilst the vehicles are with them?

2. Acquired businesses would keep their existing names, with no corporate identification (now not the case). In Kingston the once deadly rivals Farebrother and Paine faced one another off across London Road for many years, likewise in my native Twickenham, Sanders & Higgs and Wake & Paine ‘compete’ with each other 25+ years after falling under the same ownership.

3. Aim to increase prices. The claim at the time was that people were being offered a wider choice. When I arranged my father’s funeral in 1988 I went to Sanders & Higgs, then family-owned. In response to my enquiry about price the duty manager replied “we’ve got various options but rest assured you will receive the same quality of service regardless of what you choose and you’re not to feel under any pressure to spend any more than you want”. Not long after they were taken over by Great Southern, then SCI. A TV documentary sent an undercover reporter to another Sanders branch. The arranger denied any knowledge of cheapest option – one which he knew existed.

In the mid-1990s the corporate ownership of funeral homes came under increasing scrutiny from the media. The one thing that I took from these exposes was that decent caring people at the sharp end were being pushed into a place they didn’t want to be. Stories came out of funeral arrangers being placed on a sales league table with those failing to sell up being humiliated. They were told to offer sweeteners in the form of a laying out payment to old people’s homes: one arranger interviewed on TV said that she felt so bad the first time she made the offer, she never did it again. A home owner said that it was something they always did as a last service to their client and this was an insult.

This coverage culminated in SCI placing full-page ads in the mainstream press apologising for past misdeeds and promising to do better in the future, which by all accounts they have done. Perhaps on reflection SCI UK’s then bosses were being leant on by their American masters to maximise sales at any cost and were as much victims as villains?

While all this was going on Age Concern continued to sell SCI funeral plans, with not a word about the misdeeds being reported elsewhere. In 1997 I sent them an open letter ““… Chosen Heritage [SCI’s then branding for its prepaid funerals] (and to a lesser extent, some other schemes) represents a threat to independent undertakers, many of whom provide a high quality service at a reasonable price. Within each local area Age Concern should be working to identify and support such firms …. Instead Age Concern/Age UK has worked hard to weaken such firms by ensuring that at a time of death they will not be engaged no matter how good they are”.

It wasn’t all bad news. Several London independents – John Nodes, Gillman and Albin – were the subject of fly-on-the-wall TV documentary series, each firm coming across in a very positive light. The first two are now owned by Funeral Partners. Gillman was one of the first firms to put funeral prices on their website; on being taken over the price list disappeared but thanks to the wayback machine we know that in 2002 they charged £1,085+coffin+disbursements for a traditional funeral = £1,810 in 2021 pounds. Their current charge for a similar funeral is £3,425, nearly double.

Next: Customer power at work

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