Trading standards’ funeral project

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Milton Keynes Council Trading Standards has recently undertaken a project looking at the funeral directors industry to determine if businesses are compliant with consumer protection legislation.

The trade within Milton Keynes consists of five single branch independents, three independents with more than one place of business and one larger company, in addition to the Muslim funeral service that is arranged through the local Mosque.

Of these 40 per cent belong to one or both of the funeral trade associations, either the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), or the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF).

In relation to disclosing business names 50 per cent were compliant with the legislation. Those that were not compliant failed to display either the registered name in relation to a limited company, or its business name and address in relation to an individual or partnership.

In one instance, where the registered name was not displayed it would have indicated that the business was actually owned by a large company with 30 branches under different business names across the South of England, rather than the perception given of it being an independent funeral director.

The use of small business names by the larger companies suggests that they are implying they are independent funeral directors when in fact they are not.

When questioned one larger company stated that the independent name had been kept as a business name due to the high regard in which the original company had been held locally.

In relation to pricing, 90 per cent of the funeral directors were compliant with the legislation where applicable.

Those funeral directors belonging to one or both of the trade associations’ offer, in line with the associations codes of practice, a ‘simple’ or ‘basic’ funeral service. Included in the price of this service is the cost of the coffin and no coffin options are available.

However, where a more bespoke service is offered with multiple coffin options then a price list was available.

Only one company did not have a price list for the coffin options.

Advice was given in relation to the descriptions of coffins to one company because in the descriptions of the two lower end price options, the cheapest coffin was described as being constructed from paper and the next, and more expensive as ‘wood veneer’, yet both were made of the same construction, merely a different patterned covering.

Two companies described ‘embalming’ as ‘hygienic treatment’ which they stated was an industry standard description. However, although this term was known by the other businesses in Milton Keynes only two businesses used this type of description for embalming. One company stated that although this description is used on their paperwork it is verbally made clear what this treatment is, and neither one offered or carried out the treatment on a regular basis.

One company however, have their own embalmer who carries out over 400 embalmings per year across two geographical areas, including Milton Keynes.

None of the other funeral directors carried out more than 1 or 2 embalmings per year.

In relation to advising customers of their right to cancel the contract, if the contract was signed in the home, only 30% were compliant with the legislation.

All of the businesses who were non-compliant undertook to make changes to become compliant with the relevant legislation and two have successfully applied to become trading standards approved on the Council’s Buy with Confidence scheme.

Karen Ford, head of trading standards in Milton Keynes states: “It is concerning that so many non-compliances were detected but I am reassured things will be put right.

“What is more concerning is the rate of embalmings, which are not always a necessary treatment. My advice to consumers, during one of the most difficult periods in their life, is to ensure they are still getting a fair deal by getting a full breakdown of costs and not to be pressured into paying for something that is not necessary.”

The following advice tips would be useful to bear in mind when arranging a funeral:

Know who you are doing business with

Get a full breakdown of what is being offered to you

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the need for certain products and services

Get a written estimate

Shop around for the best estimate and ask for help from friends and family to do this

The cost of the funeral is the debt of the estate of the deceased, not the relative who arranges the funeral. The bill should be paid by the estate when funds become available though the family may have to cover this cost initially

If asked for a deposit to cover disbursements, make sure you ask for a written break down of what these are

In relation to embalming, there is only a legal requirement for this to take place if the deceased is to be transported abroad.

In all other cases it is down to personal choice. If the body is to be viewed then you may choose to have them embalmed but this is not always necessary and you should be sure before you agree to this taking place.

Karen Ford also said: “We are delighted that HW Mason & Sons and Finch & Sons have been accepted onto the Buy With Confidence scheme. Our consumers can now make their choice knowing that at least two local businesses will comply with trading laws and treat their customers fairly.”

If you would like to read more about how the funeral industry has measured up nationally, Which? magazine has just carried out in depth research into the services provided and prices quoted.

Their findings were very concerning in that 6 out of 20 funeral homes were rated poor or very poor for their conduct or sensitivity and 2 companies out of 20 may have breached consumer protection legislation by mis-selling embalming. Furthermore, the need to shop around was proven with price differences as far apart as nearly £2,500.

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