Internet reshapes funerals

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Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014

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Growing pressure on funeral directors to be more transparent about the cost of their services is leading to some of the bigger names promoting their prices online.

Late last year the Law Commission recommended funeral directors be legally required to prepare an indicative price menu that would be available on their websites or given to the public on request.

The Commission felt the public needed readier access to such information because most people are grief-stricken when organising a funeral and have a relatively short period of time to research their options.

It's a message that stung funeral directors and it appears to be one of three driving forces behind funeral directors acknowleding the time is right for transparent pricing.

The other drivers are the rise in people researching funerals on the internet coupled with a trend towards people being price sensitive when organising funerals. The going rate seems to range from $4000 and $12,000, depending on whether you go for a simple cremation or a more traditional burial.

Funerals in New Zealand are already big business, and with an ageing population, are heading for a boom.

ASX-listed funeral business owner Invocare claims a market share In New Zealand of just less than 20 per cent. Its sales in its last full financial year of $37.7 million provide a good indication of total industry revenues of around the $185m mark or around 30,000 funerals a year.

Stephen Dils of Dils Funeral Services in Albany, and vice president of the Funeral Directors Association, said many families still relied on word of mouth when choosing a provider, but the internet was playing a growing role.

"We are just coming to grips with the media age of people shopping around on the internet. We don't put our prices on the internet, but we are moving that way," he said.

Graeme Rhind, chief operating officer for Invocare's New Zealand business. said it liked to think it was a leader in this area. "We very much encourage price transparency."

Invocare has developed "packages" giving those shopping online an idea of the starting point for costs, though some rivals warn a "package" approach could confuse customers.

Neil Little from Davis' Funerals, one of the larger family-owned funeral businesses, was concerned about the promotion of "packages" or published prices preceded by the word "from", when those prices exclude things that would be reasonably expected to be included in a funeral.

Funeral directors do a lot of mystery shopping of each other to keep abreast of competitive pricing, and her research online left Mary Melville from J Wier & Co Funeral Directors in Onehunga unimpressed with the prices published.

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"There were all these things that weren't included including the reception area hire, funeral notices, and flowers that people would assume are part of a funeral."

Little was concerned a focus on price alone could disadvantage companies that pride themselves on the quality of their service and had invested in top-end facilities to deliver those.

"I know what some funeral directors charge compared to us and it will often be very similar, but I also know what they offer and it's nothing like the service we do."

But despite the concerns, Davis Funerals is one of those consdering moving its pricing online, Little said. It had already prepared itemised estimates for various kinds of funerals which it provided to the public on request.

Online researching is not the only change in the way the industry interacts with the public.

Rhind said there was also a small, but growing trend for people to transact simple cremations online without even setting foot in a funeral director's offices.

Souly Cremations, an online business doing fixed price cremations starting at $1795 for a simple removal of a body, cremation and return of ashes, is an example of this trend. Melville points out that all funeral directors offer that particular service.

Dils said out of a dozen funerals he was handling, four were cremation-only.

Invocare is also likely to announce a move into this direct cremation space soon.

Rising price sensitivity and a recent unexpected downturn in the number of deaths was making life hard for smaller family-owned businesses, Melville said. She fears for their future, despite the expected industry boom in coming years.

"They won't be around much longer as they are caught between the companies operating out of a station wagon and the overseas owned corporation dominating the market."

Certainly, Invocare intends trying to double its market share through further acquisitions and growing its existing businesses, bringing more under the Simplicity banner.

DEATH CEREMONY TRENDS

Funeral directors say there are several emerging trends in the way New Zealanders handle death, though funerals remain fairly traditional.

Idiosyncratic send-offs: Some communities like the Chinese remain attached to traditional funerals, but others tend to choose to retain only the bits of tradition they like and want a funeral that reflects the life of their loved one.

Cremation is becoming more popular following rapidly rising cemetery charges, particularly in Auckland.

Simple cremations: There has been a gradual rise in simple cremations with no services. Sometimes that's because a family want to hold their own wake. Other times its because people have lived so long, they have lost touch with all but their immediate family.

Fractious funerals: Squabbles, arguments and antagonism are more common features of the job as blended and broken families meet to arrange and attend funerals.

Despite all the talk, eco-funerals remain a minority.

And despite the mass-advertising of funeral insurance, funeral directors say they are not noticing a rise in the number of funerals paid for by insurance pay-outs.

In Australia, pre-paying for your own funeral is relatively popular. Few do it in New Zealand, though funeral directors see the odd person with terminal illness take a hand in planning their own funeral. Invocare says the number of pre-paid funerals is dropping here.

- Sunday Star Times

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