A direct approach

words: Seán Martin, National SAIF Second Vice President
Diamond Partnership

What has driven the growth in direct cremation?

Public awareness has grown considerably in a few short years. Pure Cremation, one of the biggest direct cremation companies in the UK, was established in 2015 and quickly found a niche. Backed by investors, Pure has spent vast sums of money on TV advertising during primetime programmes.

Some of the TV advertising has really been quite glossy – such as ‘your funeral your way’, ‘avoid all the expense and the cost’, ‘keep things simple’, and ‘have the celebration later’ whilst headlining some very low prices. During the last two years, Coronavirus saw funeral choices come under considerable pressure – families were frightened and attendance at funerals was limited. This served as a catalyst for people to pare back on their funeral choices and look at simpler options. All of this has caught the public’s imagination and has been a catalyst for an explosion of growth in the direct cremation market.

What’s so bad about that?

The next generation of consumers go online for everything whether it’s car insurance, ordering groceries, buying holidays or clothes. Funerals are no exception and online direct cremation companies have used pop up advertising across social media to attract their attention. Consumers have become more price aware, but not all families have coped well with such decisions.

Direct cremation – an unattended cremation that deals with the mortal remains of the deceased in a clinical and emotionally cold way – without words or thought, where there is no opportunity to grieve and where proper farewell and remembrance is usurped by economics. The deceased goes straight for cremation and no family is present. Some families struggle with this further down the line and their regret cannot be undone.

If a kettle breaks, you throw it away and buy a new one. If a computer breaks, you just replace it. Is this to be the new benchmark as how society handles their deceased relatives? Are they just to be disposed of with minimum fuss and as little cost as possible? But there is a human cost to that and there are many families that are paying that price. Current advertising is not adequately clear enough about how emotionally bereft the service can be.

But that’s where the local funeral director, with high standards of care at their heart, can make a difference. If direct cremation is still suitable for their client, that’s fine, but it can now be offered at a competitive price and with consideration to the emotional needs of clients. A family can view their loved one and say goodbye. Perhaps local clergy may attend and deliver prayers for the individual. There can be support to acknowledge the life of the person who has died and they are properly remembered.

The funeral profession’s role is to care for people. Many SAIF members have served their communities for years and many for multiple generations – they know their families and they have developed very strong followings and reputations in those communities. They are seen as very trusted people – but they must be aware the consumer and the demographic of the funeral consumer is changing as well.

How is the funeral market changing?

Increasing numbers of younger people are now purchasing funerals because they have been very unexpectedly bereaved during the pandemic. Some of them haven’t got the money for even a simple funeral and have turned to direct cremation as a consequence.

The Church of England’s 2021 survey on funerals illustrated that cost was a major motivator as to why direct cremation is a fast-growing funeral choice. But it isn’t for everybody. Not everyone realises – and often people don’t realise until after the event – how much they have actually missed out on the need to grieve, the need to say farewell. The important need for remembering a life of someone who’s been part of your life for 50, 60 or 70 years, who suddenly isn’t there anymore. You need that hour to do it and that’s what the independent profession is there for, to care for those families, to help them remember.

What is SAIF doing to help families?

Westerleigh Group is the largest privately owned, best quality provider of private cremation in the UK. It was the last to enter the direct cremation market when it set up Distinct Cremation and given Westerleigh’s long relationship with Independent FDs, this move was a motivator for SAIF to have a very sensible and robust conversation with them.

The Diamond Partnership is not designed to increase or chase direct cremation business. The very favourable pricing is offered to allow SAIF members to compete favourably but encourage local clients to call on their offices, so they may have the opportunity of exploring a wider range of funeral options with customers and ensure they get the best outcome – which may be a simple funeral or traditional funeral. It is designed to encourage a conversation by making the FD look competitive.

After the discussions have taken place, whatever the decisions of the client, the deceased is cared for locally in the town where they lived and died, by local professional people and a local company who holds the respect and trust of its community. That has got to be a better outcome for the family and provide an opportunity for their grief to be recognised and dealt with sensitively.

In contrast, some of the major online companies offer no preparation of the deceased, no viewing, they will pick the body up from hospital and take the deceased down the country and wait several weeks before the cremation can take place because they’re so busy and the family doesn’t know where their relative is.

So, the Diamond Partnership is available to all SAIF members?

Yes, that is the underlying point of this deal.

For a funeral director who’s close to a Westerleigh crematorium can convey the coffin themselves for cremation and collect the ashes. Or, if their business is not close to a Westerleigh crematorium – and it doesn’t matter whether they’re in the Highlands of Scotland or Northumberland, Yorkshire or the remote areas of the Lake District – for an extra £75 they can arrange for Distinct Cremations to come in an unmarked ambulance to collect the coffined deceased, deal with the cremation at the closest Westerleigh crematorium and return the ashes to you within seven days.

But the key thing here is that the funeral director keeps control of the family and the arrangements. They bring the deceased into their care, care and prepare the deceased to their own standards, provide a coffin, they can even offer the viewing and any other services that they wish to offer and they invoice the family.

That seems a good deal…

Yes. SAIF has used its corporate strength and membership strength to negotiate these very favourable terms for the benefit of all our members.

Small funeral directors, perhaps doing less than 100 a year – and close to 50% of SAIF members are in this category – would never stand a chance of being able to negotiate these prices with a local crematorium, so SAIF has done it for them. It provides their businesses a fighting chance of taking on the national online direct cremator providers like Pure Cremation and Simplicity in their local areas. The only area where we haven’t quite got a solution is Northern Ireland as they can’t access the Diamond Partnership yet but we are working on that.

Why is it important that funeral directors offer this service?

Our research shows that out of every 100 consumers of unattended direct cremation only 23 of them believe their local independent funeral director will be able to provide the service they want. That means that 77 of those 100 people are going straight online without even going via a local funeral director.

That is a very worrying scenario and I think it is a wake-up call to SAIF members that they must be less reluctant about being frightened of direct cremation. They need to start talking about it and putting it on their social media and pricing it competitively against the online providers. This provides a catalyst to let their communities know that they provide modern funeral options so the family will then think ‘We won’t go online – why don’t we go and speak to our local FD people and take some wise advice?’

The largest single threat to the independent funeral profession is apathy, closely followed by direct cremation and not positioning their business to compete properly against the online providers and failing to let their community know that they can match that offering and improve on it.

How can funeral directors sign up?

Contact the SAIF Business Centre and express interest. Please log into the members’ area of the SAIF website and click on the Diamond Partnership link. All the information you require is there. There is a simple engagement form to be filled out and sent off.

The operational guidance will be sent out to you once you have made an expression of interest. And even if you send the expression of interest form and don’t use it, you haven’t lost anything. There’s no commitment or obligation at all.

How does this scheme satisfy the Competition and Markets Authority’s demands?

The Diamond Partnership is a trade-based partnership which provides more competition to the consumer and makes better priced unattended cremation available on a more local basis within the community. That is totally in the spirit of what the CMA was looking for in their investigation about bringing more accessible, low-cost funeral pricing locally. And it expands the availability of direct cremation beyond one or two national providers.

What should funeral directors do to support the scheme?

SAIF members should review their pricing for direct cremation and make sure that they’re competitive with what’s online. Being competitive doesn’t mean being cheaper than, it just means making sure the price is relative but then accentuating the improvements in service: local care, local care of the relative, reputation, being able to come into the chapel, being able to prepare and dress, which, which the big national providers don’t do.

Next, make it prominent on your website, make it prominent in your social media feeds, such as Facebook, don’t be frightened to talk about it, and be clever about how you word it. If someone does search for local direct cremation options in Google, hopefully your firm will come close to the top because you’ve got a page dedicated to it. Google will always favour local businesses.

Ultimately, SAIF members should be targeting the 77 out of 100 people who buy a direct cremation but who don’t come to your business in your community. Make them aware that you do offer this service because at the moment, that is a large number of consumers who are choosing not to come to your business.

Contact the SAIF Business Centre on 01279 726 777 or by email to express interest. See the members’ section of the SAIF website for more information.

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