How you’re coping with rising costs

Rising costs

Many funeral directors have not witnessed a winter like this for years, with increased demand for funerals pushing businesses to full capacity for many months at a time from December 2022 and into the new year.

Despite the current ‘cost of living crisis’, funeral directors have reported that, while there has been some increase in families’ direct cremation requests, business owners are also feeling the crisis in a lot of ways. They are having to absorb increased costs on everything from fuel and energy to coffins and crematoriums, which is putting pressure on them to pass these extra costs on to families through higher prices – but many are holding off at the moment.

SAIFInsight spoke to five funeral directors throughout the UK in mid-January to get their insights on how the cost of living crisis is affecting the sector, and how they are tailoring their services to help the families they serve in their local communities.

Is there a cost of living crisis?

Like many of the others, Nick Armstrong, proprietor of Armstrongs Independent Funeral

Service in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, has not seen a great difference in the type of funeral requests he normally receives.

Nick said: “We undertake around 300 funerals a year but we haven’t noticed a massive decrease in what people want to spend on funerals. We have seen a few more direct cremations but not a massive jump. Although we are in a reasonably affluent area I think that people still want to give their loved ones a good send off, particularly if they experienced funerals subject to Covid restrictions where only a handful of relatives were allowed to attend. I think the strong demand for full service funerals is a reaction to that period.

“In fact, we’ve had quite a few families who have been relieved by our prices after reading about the SunLife survey report in the media that the annual cost of dying was £8,864, which includes a lot of extras. They are very pleased when we break down the options for them and they can choose a much cheaper funeral package.”

Spending on high quality

Edward Poole at A J Sellman Family Funeral Directors in Cannock, Staffordshire, said he has seen a reduction in spend on funerals, such as the number of limousines people want, and more of a focus on the celebratory wake rather than the funeral itself. However, he does not believe this is related to the cost of living crisis.

He explained: “I haven’t seen much of a change in funeral choices related to the cost of living crisis but more of a change in the modern culture towards funerals. Fewer people are going to church, so we have more services at the crematorium and they are wanting the wake as the main celebration of their loved one rather than the funeral service. I think this is also behind the slight increase we have seen in direct cremations.

“Also, a lot of the people we look after are over 55 years old so are financially secure and have generally made an allowance for funeral expenses, which is evidenced by the 150-200 funerals we do each year that come from pre-paid funeral plans.”

David Massam of Massam & Marshall Independent Funeral Directors, based in Southport, Merseyside, has seen a big increase in demand for direct cremations, which he believes is down to his company’s marketing activities to help people understand this new concept, rather than from a requirement to save money.

He said: “It’s the job of the funeral director to put people’s minds at ease and to reassure them that a funeral doesn’t have to be all about the pomp and ceremony, as a simple funeral can speak volumes too. At the end of the day it’s our job to advise people what they can do. We’re not salespeople, we’re problem solvers, so we discuss ways that we can save people money while, at the same time, still caring for their loved one.”

Although Inez Capps, CEO of Kinton and Daughter Funeral Services, based in the Nottingham area, has not witnessed a reduction in funeral services from her clients, she is still mindful of their budgets.

She said: “A lot of families still want to have all the funeral options available to them, but only last week I had to reason with a family to consider changing their plans from a burial to a cremation for their loved one as the burial fees were triple the cost as the lady was out of the area. Luckily, I was able to persuade them that I could provide a very dignified funeral for their mother at a cost of £3,200 instead of the £5,500 they were planning.”

Local suppliers feeling the pinch

If there is one area that is feeling the pinch at the moment it is businesses that cater for wakes and post-funeral celebrations, as David explained about his local area: “We always work with a number of local suppliers such as hotels, restaurants and large pubs but we have recently found that some clients are not wanting the expense of catering for large numbers at these venues or, if they use them, some clients are not providing food.”

Oliver Towner of Arthur C Towner in Hastings, which undertakes 1,000 funerals from three branches in the area, agreed: “We’ve seen a reduction in the size and number of wakes we have usually organised in the past. I think most people are now tending to have smaller funerals, and then maybe receive mourners at their own houses rather than a venue as before.”

In Bury St Edmunds, Nick has seen some reduction in the demand for floral tributes, but he said people still want limousines.

Increased operating costs

One aspect of the cost of living crisis that is really hitting home to funeral directors is fuel and energy costs, and David freely admits to turning off the heating in the office when it’s not being used. As regards the costs of running a fleet of limousines, he’s reduced his costs by between a quarter and a third by getting rid of his vehicles and using a third-party supplier to hire them when he needs them.

He said: “We got rid of our fleet last year and have found we’ve probably saved between a quarter and a third of the costs of running our own vehicles and we don’t have the hassle of managing the ongoing running costs as well as the tax and MOT. It works well for us.”

Bigger overheads

Edward is also in a fortunate position regarding fuel costs, as a new crematorium has opened in his local area, halving the distance he normally had to travel for funerals. But Inez said she has seen her fuel costs for her new fleet of five limousines, three hearses and two removal vehicles increase 10-fold – her largest operating cost after her staff.

Staffing is another area where funeral directors are looking to make economies but many, especially with recent increased demand, are stretched to the limit already. Inez said she has reorganised the structure of her team so that instead of having four people working part-time, she now has two full-time people.

She said: “We are funeral service providers so it made more sense to make the team more rounded to provide all kinds of roles, including bearers, drivers and office staff, which gives us more flexibility as all the team can now multitask when required.”

Passing on costs

With increased overheads, Oliver has regretfully taken the decision to raise his prices from 1 February.

He said: “I’ve tried to be very fair with our pricing and we are definitely one of, if not the most, affordable places in town, but we are having to pass on these costs to protect our sustainability.

“However, I would love to be in a position in six months when things settle down that would allow me to put the prices down a bit. That would be the right thing to do.”

Edward has also put his prices up to reflect increased overheads – once in September and another rise at the beginning of the year.

He said: “We’ve had suppliers that have put up their prices a couple of times over the past 12 months, so we have had to pass these on, which had added an extra £85 to the cost of a funeral.”

Inez said she was waiting until April to see what other Independents do about putting up prices but has had to already raise the costs of coffins slightly as manufactures’ have increased their costs and are now adding delivery charges.

Nick is also reluctant to pass on rising prices, as he explained: “From speaking to other funeral directors, I think we’re all looking to put our prices up in the near future. To be fair, we’re all trying to keep our prices level, certainly in our area, but crematoriums just keep increasing their prices.

“I think most Independents are waiting to see what happens with the corporates and to see if and when they will raise prices.”

All the funeral directors said interest in funeral plans was heightened during the Covid pandemic but the cost of living crisis has not really made a significant impact on sales. Oliver said: “After Covid, we saw a number of people wanting to discuss funeral plans but I wouldn’t say that, at the moment with the cost of living crisis, we’ve seen a direct impact on that in a positive way.”

Edward added: “In terms of funeral plan sales, our experience is that more people are paying for plans up-front, perhaps because they feel that the savings they made during the Covid lockdowns could be put to good effect in a funeral plan, but I don’t think that is linked to the cost of living crisis.”

While the cost of living crisis is making headlines in the media, what is not making the news is the chronic under capacity in the funeral sector this winter.

All five funeral directors – and many others who were unable to talk to SAIFInsight because they were working flat out – are working all hours, seven days a week, to deal with the growing backlog of people needing funerals.

Winter demands

Inez is one of those funeral directors working under pressure, as she explained: “This winter we’ve had a massive increase in funerals – the worst I’ve experienced since Covid times. Back then we were able to deal with numbers because it just required a hearse to the crematorium, but today we’re doing full service funerals back to back.

So not only are we doing more funerals, they are lasting much longer and that is having a knock-on effect on our capacity to fulfil more funerals.”

Oliver agreed: “Our funerals have massively increased this winter and we are seeing levels similar to during the pandemic. At the moment we are having to explain to families that there is at least a three-week wait and we have been at capacity for at least two months now, if not more. So, in addition to increased costs, we are also struggling to find space to bring people into our care.”

Inez added: “At the moment, I can’t even think about next week. To be honest, we are just working day by day at the minute, looking after our funerals and trying, when we can, to support other independent funeral directors when they’re struggling – it’s actually petrifying.”

Direct cremations

While there has been an increase in direct cremations over the past several months when the cost of living crisis came into focus, many of the funeral directors SAIFInsight spoke to do not believe it shows a real flight to low-cost funerals.

More than money issues, they feel it represents a change in attitude to funeral provision.

David Massam said: “We’ve seen a big increase in the amount of direct cremation we’ve been asked to do, but I believe that is because of the marketing we have been doing. Particularly marketing on Facebook to explain about the concept and how it is part of our funeral services. We’ve explained it simply but carefully so families can see exactly what they get and it has taken off quite strongly with our local community.”

Direct cremation

Edward Poole has also been marketing direct cremations: “We are known as a very traditional funeral directors, so I’m keen that people understand this is a service we offer. It is not so much as a result of the cost of living crisis but to get over to our community that we can provide direct cremation that is designed around the families’ wishes and distinguish it from internet-based providers like Pure Cremation.”

While funeral directors are happy to add direct cremations to the portfolio of services they offer, some are frustrated by the strategy of some crematoriums which have increased their prices for their service.

Nick Armstrong explained: “We don’t want to raise our prices at the moment but it’s frustrating when crematoriums (and cemeteries) can increase their prices to funeral directors and families that want a Monday to Friday, nine to five service, but yet, decrease the price of their direct cremations.”

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