NAFD responds to ITV’s ‘Funerals: A Costly Undertaking?’ documentary

It was encouraging that the ITV documentary ‘Funerals: A Costly Undertaking?’, broadcast on 3 November 2016, highlighted the importance of the work undertaken by funeral directors to support families in saying farewell in the way that they want to, and that there is much more to a good funeral arrangement than handing a coffin catalogue to a bereaved person.

The programme also made some very important points about the need for Britons to think about their eventual funeral, revealing data which showed that almost three quarters of adults hadn’t done any research on the subject and two thirds didn’t know how much a funeral would cost.

However, despite highlighting these important truths about the British reluctance to plan for their funeral, the programme failed to reflect the hard work of NAFD member firms across the UK and instead allowed anecdotes and allegations made by a small number of interviewees to prevail largely unchallenged.

It was also a shame that the programme makers chose to focus almost solely on planning for the cost of a funeral rather than looking at broader issues such as the importance of considering standards and service, as well as cost when choosing a funeral director.

The NAFD was actually interviewed for the documentary. However, three hours of interviews with NAFD spokeswoman Jenny Gilbert, a compassionate and dedicated funeral director from Leicestershire, ended up compressed into a few, short voiced statements by the presenter. Although positive comments were made about the profession by other participants such as funeral director Lucy Coulbert, who is not a member of either the NAFD or SAIF, many of the challenges laid at the door of the profession went unchallenged.

Equally, the case studies focused solely on families who, for various reasons, were uncomfortable with their experience of a funeral director. There were no interviews with the tens of thousands of families every year who are satisfied with the services of their funeral director and comfortable with how much the funeral cost, which would have represented a more balanced approach.

We have contacted the programme’s producers with these concerns, together with details of some factual errors made during the programme and would encourage any members with concerns to share their views by emailing Tonight@itv.com.

It would have been a refreshing change, for example, to hear from people like Alan Dawson, who lives in Stirlingshire in Scotland and speaks for many thousands of people when he says:

“(The funeral director) listened to our wishes and provided a clear estimate with no hidden charges or artificial discounts. He was straightforward and I liked that. Our first meeting was very tough but he couldn’t have been lovelier. He is clearly very experienced and skilled at his job but his character shone through. Clearly…being a funeral director is more than just a job. He took time to listen, to empathise and to build rapport with us, chatting with my mum about her home town. He was diplomatic, articulate and eloquent and he gently and clearly explained what would happen.”

However, setting aside for a moment our concerns about balance, two key conclusions were drawn by presenter Adam Shaw in the programme and they are ones the NAFD wholeheartedly agrees with:

1. Britons need to plan and set money aside in advance – your funeral is inevitable.
2. Britons need to act as savvy funeral consumers, just as they would for any other purchase in life.

The NAFD believes that the combination of a British unwillingness to talk about funerals and a society that is no longer saving for a rainy day is the key reason behind the challenges facing many families in funding the funeral of someone close to them.

Researching funerals means getting hold of information in advance. During the programme, Quaker Social Action’s Heather Kennedy highlighted the importance of funeral directors offering easy access to clear price lists, something that the NAFD also requires in its members. Under our Code of Practice, we expect members to provide a transparent, itemised price list and we are also encouraging all our members to have prices online by 2020 – with 25% of them already having done so.

The documentary also considered what help is available for the poorest families in the UK. The NAFD was pleased to hear funeral director Lucy Coulbert rightly highlight the inadequacy of current government bereavement benefits, saying that the £700 Social Fund funeral expenses payment, unchanged in 13 years, doesn’t even come close to covering the essential costs of a funeral. However, she was wrong to suggest third party costs were guaranteed to be paid as this is not always the case and may have given the impression that everyone is eligible for support, which is again inaccurate.

In this documentary, ITV acknowledged how important funerals are in the journey we make through grief when someone dies and, although the programme looked at simple disposal options and DIY funerals, the general sense was that these would be choices for a very small percentage of the population and the NAFD would agree. Overwhelmingly, the British population – some 95% – continues to choose a funeral director to arrange the funeral of someone that has died.

NAFD member firms carry out their responsibility to bereaved families with great pride and integrity and are respected in their local communities for the work they do. As the UK’s largest funeral industry body, we share ITV’s concerns about those funeral directors that do not meet the high standards we set for our members. However, these firms are in the minority and should be held to account, rather than allowing them to be viewed as in some way representative of the entire British funeral profession. Certainly if we are provided with evidence that any NAFD member has breached our Code of Practice they will be fully investigated through our Professional Standards process.