Benjamin Franklin famously said that ‘the only certain things in life are death and taxes.’ Whereas recent headlines about organisations such as Google and Amazon show that we’re more than willing to talk about taxes, death is a less popular topic of conversation. 60% of UK adults don’t have a valid will, and 37% die without having made plans to pay for their funerals. The numbers of local authority funerals provided under the Public Health Act 1984, when no one is willing or able to take responsibility for the arrangements of the deceased, have been increasing year on year, with 2,580 occurring last year.
Further, not everybody knows the many options available to them. Though most people know that they can donate their body to science or be buried at sea, did you know you can have your ashes shot in to space in a specially adapted rocket, be buried in your back garden (as long as it doesn’t interfere with water supplies), or be stored in a niche in a long-barrow columbarium? Your relatives may not know either, and only 9% of adults have written down what they want to happen to them after their death.
APSE, however, has been bucking this trend. We recently set up a new advisory group for Council staff, elected members and Unions working with bereavement services. Our Performance Networks conference included a workshop on the most current issues, and we will shortly be holding our second national Cemeteries and Crematoria seminar.
APSE’s Solutions team has also been working on these issues. In 2015, we held a workshop with member Councils from around the UK, which looked at commercial opportunities in bereavement services. Whereas most Councils will charge for things like cremations and burial plots, the workshop recognised the bulk of the costs for the average funeral will be paid to the undertaker, for taking the deceased to a mortuary and chapel of rest, and making the arrangements for the funeral. There will also be ancillary costs for items such as flowers, catering, venues, and so on – many of which Councils could provide themselves.
Three Councils decided to take this further, and jointly commissioned APSE to work with them to develop a business case for offering an end-to-end funeral service, where the Council takes on the role of undertaker, as well as providing other essential services.
We used APSE’s ‘five case’ model to assess the legal, strategic, commercial, financial and operational cases and found that Councils are well placed to make a strong business case for providing an end-to-end service. They have commercial advantages in terms of trust, reputation, partnerships and resources that would enable them to move into this industry.
Our research showed that legally, there are no more restrictions on Councils to trade in this area than there would be for other types of trading. Taking the average cost for a funeral, which is £3,590, and statistics from the ONS, the UK funeral market is worth around £2.1 billion annually, with the two biggest providers, Cooperative Funeral Care and Dignity handling around 36% of the market.
Despite this, the range of options offered to customers is often poor, with the emphasis on a traditional funeral model that has not changed since Victorian times. Funerals are a ‘crisis purchase’ with people being required to make quick decisions about substantial expenditure when they are emotionally ill-equipped to do so, and so not likely to shop around and make the sorts of comparisons they would for other services. Alongside this, funeral poverty is increasing with more and more people unable to meet the cost of the type of funeral they might want, or that they believe the deceased would have wanted. People take on debt, including pay day loans, to meet the costs, and only 59% of applications to the social fund are successful.
APSE will continue to work with the three Councils, providing further support for them to move forward with their business models.
In the meantime, the knowledge and experience we have developed from carrying out this, and other work, means we are well-placed to work with bereavement services in order to carry out needs assessments for cemeteries and crematoria, provide support with burial and cremation planning for input into Green Space strategies and Local Development Plans, and deliver workshops on commercial development and trading issues.
For further information, contact Karen Dyson, APSE Solutions Senior Consultant. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0161 772 1810.