Ken West – regular columnist for ‘More to Death’ and a man renowned for saying it like it is, reveals a darker side of the cremation industry and some of the most recent trends within this very efficient little earner.
I can readily get heated up about cremation; not the emissions this time but that boring old word transparency. Forty years ago, when life was simple, a local authority opened a crematorium, issued a table of fees and everybody knew precisely what the charges were. But in recent decades the increase in private crematoria has changed all that, and my question is, why?
This question arose when I had to arrange the cremation of a member of my family some months ago and my internet search was enlightening, but for all the wrong reasons. As it was, I used Milton Keynes Crematorium, local authority managed and their fees were on their website. If that appears too simple then think again; it all depends on where you live.
The Westerleigh Group website states, ‘We are dedicated to serving the bereaved in an atmosphere that is caring and professional’. Those words caring and professional convey little and neatly sidestep other words like consumer and rights, as no fees are shown, not even for the memorials displayed. Four of their crematoria, at Bristol, Aberystwyth, Basildon & Bury St. Edmunds, offer natural burial and, again, no prices are shown
Those people living in Craigton, Stockport, Grenoside (Sheffield), Lichfield and Shrewsbury have a crematorium managed by the largest consumer organisation in the world, the Co-op. Their CE was on television recently highlighting their ethical stance, but the words ethical and consumer seems to have bypassed their crematoria as well as their three natural burial sites at Hinton Park, Poole & Wimborne and Mayfields, Wirral, with none displaying a fees list.
I also have to ask who is the Co-op? For instance, Havant Crematorium is managed by Southern Co-operative, and they have a fees list on their website. Is all this complicated, or what?
Ken West’s frank and well researched appraisal of UK crematoria
The company Memoria operate two crematoria at Cardiff & Glamorgan, and Kirkleatham (Redcar & Cleveland) and their website adopts the flowery language of the other companies in expressing their ‘mission to provide exceptional standards of service’. Perhaps a list of fees is unexceptional; anyway, they didn’t bother to include one. Neither do Austin’s, a firm of funeral directors, who operate Harwood Park Crematorium near Stevenage, nor Manchester Crematorium Ltd. situated up there in the North, nor funeral director managed Roucan Loch Crematorium (and green burial site) near Dumfries.
At least these crematoria have a website, something I could not find for the London Cremation Company, a subsidiary of The Cremation Society. They operate crematoria, apparently, at Golders Green, Banbury, Garden of England (Sittingbourne) and Woking.
How untransparent is that?
An absence of a fees list and a general lack of transparency go hand in hand, for instance, where you might want to arrange an Independent (DIY) funeral. The Co-op are unequivocal, and certainly not ethical, in stating, ‘We cannot arrange a funeral directly’. They insist that you must choose ‘which funeral director you wish to take care of all the funeral arrangements’. No help there then, nor with Dignity, who state that, ‘Your funeral director will assist with all of these arrangements’. None of the other crematoria mention independent funerals or offer any information or help.
This lack of transparency also has a financial implication if we consider what happens to precious metals from jewellery and teeth, as well as that contained in prosthesis (hip joints, etc.), which remain in the ashes. All these crematoria must be aware that the Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management (ICCM) operates a transparent scheme to reprocess these metals and the scheme donated over a million pounds to charities in 2013. Only Westerleigh mention waste metals, and then only via their ‘Latest News’ pages. Although the Co-op pose and answer many questions on cremation, they make no reference to waste metal. Dignity state, ‘All that is left is a small quantity of bone’, which is incorrect. Austin’s do not mention the income from waste metal and yet make a feature of their ‘Charitable Fund’. The remaining crematoria say nothing, yet they all have waste metal.
I am considering around a quarter of all UK crematoria in this article, and they also represent nine natural burial sites, none of whom are members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG). Indeed, the lack of a meaningful standard is apparent. The Westerleigh Group and the Co-op have adopted the Charter for the Bereaved at just one site each and yet without a fees list they do not meet Charter requirements. With such poor transparency, it is surprising that councils consider these firms as suitable partners for the outsourcing of public crematoria (and cemeteries).
The more cynical amongst you might ask whether these crematoria recognise the bereaved as customers at all. Indeed, Memoria state that their staff are dedicated to working with funeral directors. If funeral directors are the real customers then this implies a cosy monopoly intended to shut out troublemakers, those consumers who want to know what they are paying, or those seeking help and advice to avoid using a funeral director and maintaining the traditional funeral, the status quo.
If you doubt my analysis then consider the new and emerging ‘Direct Cremation’ option via the internet. This service was started in Canada to enable the bereaved to circumvent the expensive American style of funeral. It is possible that the few companies advertising this service in the UK are existing funeral directors, perhaps those aware that the breakdown of the funeral monopoly is on the cards as the internet impacts on the market.
For around £1000, they collect a body, have it cremated without ceremony, and the ashes either retained at the crematorium, or placed in the Garden of Remembrance. They can be returned to the applicant for an additional charge. The family can then hold a service over the ashes if they wish. By avoiding a funeral director, hearse, limo’s, embalming and viewing, this is the cheapest funeral, at least where the Independent DIY option is not feasible. Consider also that, unlike local authorities, who do not have the legal powers to act as a funeral director, every one of the private crematoria I mention could offer a local Direct Cremation Service, but they choose not too. That fact rather defeats the Westerleigh statement that ‘… we want to anticipate peoples’ needs and be open minded about what services we should provide’. They choose not to, of course, because it would upset the traditional funeral directors, their real customers.
The visual standards at private crematoria are, without question, very good so why this consistent absence of a fees list? because, if it were the case that, unlike local authority crematoria, they were to offer a discount on the cremation fee and guessing that this might be worth £50.00 per cremation, then a funeral director carrying out 200 cremations a year would be discounted £10,000. If this encouraged funeral directors to use a private crematorium rather than a public one, then that would be a restrictive practice.
I have made many assumptions because, similar to the bereaved, I only know what I can see on the internet. Overall, I accept that the bereaved may be perfectly content with what they experience at private crematoria, and low transparency might be a satisfactory trade off for quality services. But the monopoly influence on the market is not good, neither for the bereaved as consumers, nor in creating conditions that might support more innovation, not least in reducing funeral costs and, consequently, funeral poverty. Neither can we move forward the Charter for the Bereaved or the ANBG; they are shut out.
My final point is that these crematoria, together, are a significant contributor to global warming. Sure, they mention abatement but most state that they cremate same day, just as always. They go no further, such as batching cremations on one or two days a week to reduce energy needs and emissions. In fairness, most public crematoria are no better, and it does not appear that the bereaved are asking these environmental questions either.
So there you have it. I see the impact of this regularly, when members of the public phone me for support having been treated abruptly by jobs-worths who do not seem to comprehend and are unaware of consumer rights. “You cannot pull up outside our crematorium in anything other than a hearse – it is not dignified”. “No, we will not allow you to come here without a funeral director”.
I hope that the companies mentioned above will respond; I would like to publish their justifications for being so unhelpful in some areas.
Has Ken hit the nail on its head when identifying their real customers as the funeral directors?
Is there really a £50 back hander going on?
Having been inspired by Ken’s article, I decided to google council crems and see what advice I could find. Most said nothing about funeral director- free funerals and many did not have a website but there were two that stood out as shining examples of transparency.