Watchdog’s funeral probe blown off course by Covid-19 as death rate soars

The competition watchdog has been forced to abandon many of the remedies it was considering to fix a funeral sector that is “not working well” because the coronavirus pandemic has made them unsafe to implement.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it would require funeral directors and crematoria to be more up front with their pricing, but could not take some of the more radical measures that it had considered.

“Given the inherently distressing circumstances in which people arrange a funeral, we want to make sure they can be confident that they are not being overcharged and that their loved one is cared for properly – this is what our investigation has focused on,” said Martin Coleman, who chaired the CMA’s inquiry panel.

“The later stages of the investigation have been conducted in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused a tragic increase in death rates and has materially changed how funerals are carried out. This has had a big impact on how far we can immediately address some of the issues we have identified.”

The CMA said it struggled to get the right data from funeral directors and crematoria – who are overstretched during the pandemic, and could therefore not forecast the impact of price controls on their business.

It said the pandemic has created “insurmountable obstacles”, but plans to consider if it needs to carry out another investigation when conditions are more stable.

The industry has been waiting for 17 months to hear the CMA’s findings.

Critics of the sector’s current set-up have long argued that people burying a loved one are not in the right emotional state to shop around for the best deal on the market.

It has, they say, led to runaway prices in the sector, and sometimes unnecessary cross-selling of other products.

“The fees charged by funeral directors and crematoria increased at a rate well above inflation for at least a decade,” the CMA said.

There is also little hope of escaping the runaway costs, as attempts to shop around online are often thwarted because many funeral directors do not list their prices on their website.

Critics have also pointed out substandard service from those looking after deceased relatives.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are no barriers to calling oneself a funeral director – it is not a regulated profession like doctors, and funeral directors do not need a licence to practise.

The CMA said that while most funeral directors give a good service, “some are providing unacceptably low levels of care of the deceased”.

Clive Whiley, executive chairman of funeral provider Dignity, said: “Dignity has engaged openly and collaboratively with the Competition and Markets Authority throughout the funerals market investigation.

“We will take the time to fully assess the CMA’s provisional decision report and its recommendations, and will continue to constructively engage directly with the CMA through the statutory process.”