On moving into the UK, SCI’s President, Bill Heiligbrodt had declared, “we are here now for the rest of time.” No so: in 2002, failing to increase UK prices as hoped and under financial pressure back home, the Americans threw in the towel and sold their UK interests back to local management^, now trading as Dignity plc. A similar thing happened here in Australia with SCI Australia becoming Invocare.
When Which? Magazine reported on funerals in March 2002 it noted “Overall we found the quality of service bore no relation to whether the funeral director was part of a chain or was an independent. There were good and bad advisers everywhere. However funeral directors owned by Dignity were clearly the most expensive and independents the cheapest.”
In most business sectors, the small man finds it impossible to compete with the larger multiples. No so with funerals. A good few staff who had worked for firms that were taken over and who now found themselves unhappy working in a corporate environment saw that they could set up on their own and undercut their former employers. Unlike the corporates they had nothing to fear from being open about their pricing and increasingly customers were starting to use the internet to investigate funeral options.
In 1997 I wrote that Age UK should be identifying those independent funeral directors who provide a high quality service at a reasonable price but they’d rather make money selling Dignity’s funeral plans. Thankfully in 2008 the Good Funeral Guide started up and maintains a register of inspected and recommended firms.
In July 2018 Dignity reported “The number of consumers starting their purchasing journey online has increased from 2% in 2012 to 45% in 2018.”, noting that “the number of deaths in the UK fell by 5.4% between 1995 and 2017. At the same time research has found that there was an 83% increase in the number of Funeral Directors between 1989 and 2017.” This is a key reason why funerals are so expensive: if (as is typical) a branch undertakes two funerals a week or less, you end paying half a week’s rent, arranger’s salary and other fixed costs. Not that the staff earn a fortune: Funeral Partners are [Jan 2022] advertising for casual funeral service operatives – duties include collecting the deceased, mortuary work, polishing hearses, acting as pallbearer etc – the princely sum of £8.91 per hour.
Dignity’s 2020 annual report and accounts for 2020 is available on the Companies House website. In his report Executive Chairman Clive Whiley (ousted May 2021) makes the following extraordinary admission:
“The Transformation Plan, launched with great fanfare and at considerable expense in 2018, in my opinion introduced too narrow a focus upon one element of the Group, without considering the capacity to grow the business organically across its full bandwidth. In short, that was tantamount to admitting defeat as a Group that had elected for many years to utilise the majority of its capital investment buying its way out of deteriorating funeral market share (2001: 491 funeral locations and 11.8 per cent funeral market share: 2019: 820* funeral locations and 11.7 per cent funeral market share). At best that consolidated the heritage of strong family businesses and staff that perform well to this day, at worst business integration ceased at legal completion: leading to Dignity essentially becoming the industry retirement plan for independent funeral directors.” (*80,300 funerals, an average of 98 per branch per year)
Meanwhile government had got interested. In 2020 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) completed its in-depth market investigation into the funerals sector which was followed up by an order requiring that, from 16 September 2021, all funeral directors must display a Standardised Price List at their premises and on their website. This list must include:
- The headline price of a funeral.
- The price of the individual items comprising the funeral.
- The price of certain additional products and services.
In addition, from 17 June 2021, funeral directors may not make payments to incentivise hospitals, palliative care services, hospices, care homes or similar institutions to refer customers to a particular funeral director or solicit for business through coroner and police contracts.
It’s taken 30 years but at last the funeral customer is in a good place. Hopefully you won’t find yourself having to arrange a funeral for a long long time, but when you do make good use of the resources now available to you. Giving someone you loved a fitting send off is important and the right funeral director or celebrant can help you do this.