They’re salesmen, not counsellors: Choice probe slams funeral providers for sneaky costs

Choice has carried out an investigation of the funeral issue with results revealing a significant difference in prices from varying organisations around the country. Source: Getty

Choice has slammed the funeral industry for sales practices that the consumer advocacy group claims forces grieving families to fork out thousands of dollars unnecessarily for basic funeral services.

After sending out its team of mystery shoppers, Choice reports that almost half of the 36 funeral providers it investigated failed to hand over written information on their charges within two days of a ‘customer’ making a request for a direct cremation (that is, a cremation without an accompanying funeral service). Ten of the 36 providers gave lump-sum quotes that provided no cost breakdowns, while nine providers didn’t respond with a written quote at all.

Where Choice did obtain quotes, it found big variations in prices for the same goods and services, which included transporting and storing the deceased’s remains, filling out paperwork, liasing with a crematorium and providing a coffin.

The mystery shoppers approached funeral providers in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Hobart, taking in 10 White Lady Funerals outlets, 10 Simplicity Funerals outlets, four Propel Funeral Partners outlets and 12 independent funeral homes. The investigation also included a survey of 548 people who recently organised a funeral.

“We found large differences in costs for a direct cremation with no ceremony, with prices ranging from $1,200 to $5,600,” Choice investigative journalist Saimi Jeong said. 

“A White Lady funeral home quoted $5,600 for a direct cremation in our mystery shop. When we looked at the costs, over half of this was made up by an opaque ‘professional service fee’. We saw unexplained price differences for services like body viewings. On one end of the scale a provider was charging $110 for people to view their loved ones, while another charged an outrageous $1,600.”

Choice reported that the Propel funeral homes did not provide written quotes for direct cremations, while Simplicity funeral homes quoted between $3,000 and $3,900. Low-cost provider Value Cremations, mid-range Simplicity and premium White Lady are among the brands owned by InvoCare, a stockmarket-listed company that is Australia’s biggest funeral provider. Propel, another listed company, typically runs funeral homes under their local names rather than as large chains, and is Australia’s second-largest provider.

The independently owned funeral homes weren’t better, however, when it came to providing itemised quotes, with five of the 12 approached by Choice providing no breakdown of costs at all.

Where there was a breakdown of costs provided by both big-brand and independent funeral homes, it was typically for the lower-priced items such as flowers and a celebrant, not for more expensive items such as a coffin, Choice said. Other, pricier services were typically grouped under ‘professional service fees’ in the quote; these fees can cover mortuary care or the use of facilities or transport.

Choice’s survey participants, all of whom had recently organised a funeral for a loved one, weren’t convinced funeral directors offered value for money. “Remember, they are not grief counsellors, they are salespeople,” one respondent commented.

But half of the people surveyed also said that at the time they were organising a funeral, they had no idea how much a funeral should cost, while two-thirds said they didn’t attempt to negotiate on price.

InvoCare, meanwhile, hit back at the Choice report, saying in a statement that it embraced price transparency and strict regulation of the funeral sector, and that all of its brands provided itemised quotes.

“InvoCare provides a full range of products and services, and through our multiple brands we aim to cater to all Australians at their time of need,” the company said. “We do not consider our brands to be expensive and the vast majority of our customers have stated the value they received met or exceeded their expectations.”

Choice has previously reported on the many legal but lesser-known ways Australians can save money on funerals, including by keeping a loved one’s body at home and building a coffin. However, state and territory regulations can make it hard for the bereaved to cut their costs, by restricting who can register deaths and deal with crematoria to professional funeral directors.

The findings come as New South Wales Fair Trading considers new rules that would force force funeral providers to list costs at their place of business and website. Choice supports that move, which it would like to see followed by other states and territories.

A survey by Australian Seniors released in July found that the average cost of a standard burial was $9,403, and $5,591 for a standard cremation. But costs will go well over the $10,000-mark when newspaper notices, a celebrant, flowers, a memorial book and audio-visual presentation is included, the survey found.

An unnamed funeral director told Australian Seniors that providers had been swallowing rising costs for a long time without passing this on to customers. These costs including increased rents for their premises and higher costs of maintenance for crematoria or cemeteries they may own.

Have you planned a funeral recently? Were you hit with unexpected costs when doing so? Do you think changes need to be made in the industry?

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