By Edward Lucas in THE TIMES, 3 December 2018
The person involved is dead and the customer is miserable and distracted. It is a recipe for profiteering. Not before time, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is turning its attention to the cosy backwater of Britain’s funeral industry, whose annual turnover is about £2 billion. The watchdog’s interim report quotes an anonymous undertaker who describes funerals as “the ultimate distress purchase”. It is one made infrequently by inexpert, emotionally vulnerable customers, making decisions under pressure — and about services provided by ruthless and greedy experts.
The death business is not only a scandal in Britain. When I lived in Germany, I investigated funeral pricing there. No undertaker in Berlin had a published price list. I invented a prospective customer — an ailing but thrifty relative who wanted to make sure her estate would not be frittered away on funeral charges. “Then I suggest an anonymous cremation,” said the undertaker curtly, escorting me to the door before I could disrupt his business model further.
The economics are certainly strange. The CMA notes that the costs of the essential elements of a funeral have risen by more than two-thirds in the past decade; annual price rises of 6 to 8 per cent are common. Big chains have been particular offenders; the report stingingly dismisses their arguments that higher quality of service justifies the price hikes. At issue is not a sudden fashion for lavish wakes. The largest element of the average £4,300 funeral bill is undertakers’ fees, and the second biggest is cremation costs (which have also been rising sharply ahead of inflation).
Shopping around, the CMA says, would provide savings of up to £1,000 on the typical funeral; family-owned undertakers tend to offer lower rates and fewer hidden extras. Yet the bereaved are in no mood to bargain. It seems stingy to close your wallet when you are yearning for other people to open their hearts.
Unscrupulous funeral directors exhibit the same unmerited, richly rewarded complacency as private schools dealing with success-hungry, time-stressed parents. When family happiness, honour or hopes are concerned, rationality goes out of the window. In any case, finding out costs is hard. I am an experienced internet user, but even after 15 minutes on the website of one of this country’s biggest funeral chains, I failed to find a price list.
It is the secular customs that are the real frozen relics. Why do undertakers wear 19th-century formal gear? Why, when we want to splash out, do we use horses with tall black plumes? Why should hearses be black and shiny? Why embalm corpses, pumping them full of toxic chemicals to slow down the inevitable decomposition? Why do coffins need to be made of expensive hardwoods? Who cares what kind of handles, engraving, lining are used, or any other feature of the lengthy and morbid menu offered by the undertakers?
Little if any of this supposed tradition makes sense. You do not really honour a dead person’s memory with costly, fancy fittings that are going to rot in the ground. It may make you feel better, but only with a strikingly low ratio of money to comfort, and a rather good profit margin for the person selling boxes and people to carry them. My coffin will be made with something more suitable for burial, such as recycled cardboard. My mourners will be encouraged to write messages on it.
Other ideas need rethinking too. Burning bodies — which happens in three-quarters of British funerals — is a dreadful waste of gas, and pollutes the atmosphere. Much better is “water cremation”, where the remains are hygienically dissolved in a caustic chemical, leaving water and ash.
I enjoy visiting cemeteries and graveyards and looking at the inscriptions and marble angels. But, especially in urban areas, they are running out of space. Instead of paying for our graves that will last for eternity, we should move to the continental practice of time-limited plots. After ten or twenty years, the bones can go into a shoe-boxed sized container in an ossuary, marked by a small plaque for those who want to pay their respects.
A small but thriving alternative funeral industry does offer choice to those turning away from the flimflam and rip-offs. Coffins can be made with imaginative, green — and cheap — materials such as banana leaf, wicker or wool (though I still prefer cardboard). An ingenious entrepreneur called Jason Leach runs “Andvinyly” which will turn a loved-one’s ashes into a vinyl LP, with music to match (We’ll Meet Again, perhaps, or Wish You Were Here) You can buy a dissolvable urn for burial in water; the law is pleasingly relaxed on this. Another offering is a compostable urn containing a tree seedling. That combines well with the increasing trend towards woodland burial.
Before deciding to go for a full review of the industry, the CMA is appealing to the public to share their stories of overcharging and murky practices that may prevent, restrict or distort competition. But even more important is that we ourselves stop feeding the sharks with our misplaced sentimentality.