Consumer watchdog calls for major reforms to funeral sector

The Competition and Markets Authority has published a groundbreaking report that could transform the funeral sector. Poppy Mardall breaks down the most important changes and what they mean for the future.

At Poppy’s, we’re in the privileged position of getting to see what happens behind the scenes at other funeral directors, hospitals, crematoria and cemeteries. In some cases, we find brilliant and inspiring examples of death care. Unfortunately, we also come across unacceptable and sometimes stomach-churning bad practice.

So we were relieved when, in 2018, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into the funeral sector. The government’s consumer watchdog had identified a market that wasn’t working in the interests of the bereaved, who were enduring unethical price hikes, aggressive sales techniques and unacceptable care for the dead.

Following two years of investigation and consultation with the sector and the public, the CMA have finally published a punchy decision report that comes down strongly on the side of grieving people and the dead.

Here’s a run through of the most important changes and what they’ll mean for the living and the dead.

Pricing

Funeral directors will be required to provide detailed and transparent pricing both in person and on their websites. They’ll also need to be clear about the terms of payment. This should help make it easier for the public to assess and compare prices. It will also give people the chance to make realistic plans about how they’ll pay for a funeral.

The CMA will monitor funeral directors’ revenue and publish an annual review of their findings. This should stop the unreasonable year-on-year price increases, at twice the rate of inflation, that took place in the run up to the investigation’s 2018 launch.

Transparency

Funeral directors must now disclose the ownership of their business and any interests they have in price comparison websites. This means that people researching funeral directors can be clear about whether the business is independent, as many seem, or in fact owned by a larger chain.

It will also help people be wary of price comparison platforms that are partly or wholly owned by a funeral director.

Anti-bribery

Any payment, arrangement or exchange of services between funeral directors and hospitals, care homes or other institutions will be prohibited. This should stop funeral directors using bribery to solicit client referrals. It also means that people can trust the information they are given by care homes and hospitals is objective and without bias.

Registration and inspection

The CMA has recommended that all funeral directors be registered and also proposed an independent inspection regime. This should stamp out the very worst practices by ensuring that mortuaries, and other important spaces the public don’t normally visit, will be under independent oversight.

What they aren’t doing

For the time being, the CMA have decided not to introduce price controls. But they are leaving this option on the table to be investigated further following Covid-19.

Will these measures do enough to stop bad practice?

There are so many challenges standing in the way of excellence in death care. Our cultural fear of death and the dead means we don’t always harness the power that we have to demand the best. All too often, funeral directors tell us what is best, rather than creating space for us to make our own decisions . It doesn’t help that we tend to start thinking about death care right at the point we need it — when we’re exhausted, grieving and vulnerable.

These market changes can’t immediately solve the wider cultural challenge we face, but they’re a great start. Setting basic standards should help rein in some of the worst practices out there. And who knows, maybe a government department showing interest will signpost to the wider public that death care matters and is worth fighting to improve.

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