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Funeral directors: does empathy mask poor advice?

Our recent undercover investigation into funeral directors found that some are using sharp selling practices, giving poor advice, or failing to provide clear prices. What are your experiences of arranging a funeral?

Arranging a funeral is thankfully not something most of us have to do very often. However, this does mean that we don’t necessarily bring with us the experience and knowledge base we do to other business transactions.

So when we get the empathy we need from a funeral director, we may well think we’re being given a good service.

But how many of us – at a time when we’re feeling at our most vulnerable – really know the technicalities of how long we’ve got to register a death? Or whether we’ve been given all the options we should have – such as whether you could pay for a cheaper ‘simple funeral’ that just covers the basics?

Our undercover funeral directors investigation

Our investigation, where we sent undercover researchers to funeral homes across the UK, exposed a worrying amount of poor advice.

Of the 20 visits, the advice given in 14 visits was rated poor or very poor by our experts (comprising of an experienced funeral director, a trading standards officer and an expert in bereavement support).

For example, our researchers should have been offered a ‘simple’ funeral under the industry code that around 80% of funeral homes are signed up to. Yet only nine of the 18 signed up to this offered a ‘simple’ option, meaning the bill would be significantly higher than necessary.

We even saw some questionable selling of embalming, a technique to preserve human remains, which our experts believe may breach consumer protection regulations. This leads us to ask whether there is a wider problem among Britain’s funeral directors.

We did see good practice too

However, even though our investigation found many examples of poor practice, there were many examples of empathy and good practice. For example, one Dignity visit was described by our experts as a ‘sensitively conducted and exceptionally good arrangement with amazing customer care and superb advice’.

Nonetheless, a good funeral arrangement is about more than empathy; it’s about correct advice, along with impeccable professional conduct which we didn’t always see.

A key problem is that it’s not hard to set up as a funeral director: you could walk away from your computer right now and put a plaque above your door. And there’s no compulsory training, licensing or regulation of the industry, although most high street funeral homes do belong to a trade organisation, such as The National Association of Funeral Directors and The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors.

Thankfully, both organisations told us that they want all their members trained sufficiently to meet high standards.

Arranging a funeral involves making difficult decisions at a time of considerable distress – funeral directors must get it right every time. Isn’t that the least we should expect at the most stressful time?

Sophie Gilbert says:
26 January 2012

I am not surprised to find that there are sharks in the funeral directing business as well as good people who want to earn a living but provide a top class service. It is a business like any other.

Rocky says:
30 July 2015

Do NOT use ”I did it my way” holm road sheffield)” why?? because we arranged a funeral with them they ”pretended” to be ”caring” at first) we explained dwp would be paying for majority due to one of my relations been off sick and in receipt of esa) and we would pay the excess))
Part of their written contract they gave us said they would pick up ashes and deliver them) THEY DID NOT) when we called and asked where our relatives ashes were – they replied they would hold onto them until paid) so we were been held to ransom over our relatives ashes – shocking, disgraceful and bad , callous practice which is against the law and also against their contract of picking ashes up and delivering them to us.


Steve Thomas says:
26 January 2012

As a Funeral Director of 30 years experience, I am increasingly frustrated with Funeral companies that flout the most simple part of our professional code of practice – that of displaying and making available clear price lists. Each company is entitled to charge their own scale of charges, but these should be available to the public.
Why doesn’t Which? name and shame those that gave poor & misleading advice and did not disclose openly their prices, also let’s know the ones that were rated good?
Steve Thomas
HAVEN Funeral Services, West London

I have this month arranged my mother’s funeral.
We were very disappointed in the business only attitude of the funeral parlours administration attitude which did not include any sympathy. Surprisingly unhelpful when we asked about commemoration plaques and only suggested a supplier of flowers. We were only given a catalogue to chose the coffin and adornments and had to ask about prices. We did consider going elsewhere but did not wish to go through possible the same elsewhere. Funeral directors appear to have the upper hand when one is in this distressed situation.
Thankfully on the day a much improved service took place with a well turned out group displaying the rightful curtsies to all.
We have had very pleasing experiences with this nationwide parlour before, however not again.

Judy Sharp says:
31 January 2012

The “DeathFest” at the Southbank Centre last weekend (27-29 January 2012) showcased many aspects of this difficult area. So much interest in it, so many people wanting information . . .
Good to see that it’s opening up at last.

Mike Morrow says:
25 February 2012

Will Which? share its experiences in this area of distress where many of us will either be a commodity or a customer? Name and shame seems to be the only thing some businesses understand.

I have had recent experience with funeral directors when dealing with mothers funeral and received not only sympathy, empathy and understanding but also a first class service. This was from a family run independent firm called Middlehurst in St Helens Merseyside. A totally professional service from start to finish unlike others. I am after the full report that was published by which last month. Apparently it compared private family run business with multi nationals and the coop. can anyone advise how to get it. thanks

Where can I find a copy of the full report please?

H.P says:
22 June 2012

I have been an embalmer for many years and am looking forward to seeing the documentary on Monday evening. I am totally frustrated with the funeral profession as a whole and have been for many years. Yes there are a few ‘good’ funeral directors but the majority treat the deceased as an inconvenience rather than the focal point of the ceremony about to take place. I love my work and care tremendously about everything I do and in my field of work I know I am in the minority. If the Funeral Director just knew more about basic problems associated with what happens after death and how to look after a deceased in their care it would be a starting point but they are seemingly unaware of the care needed. I have wanted to write a book for many years about my experiences as an embalmer but maybe after the documentary I won’t need too. Let’s wait and see!

sue says:
24 June 2012

I have had to arrange 2 funerals in the space of 11mth our funeral director in bradford west yorkshire was and is a really empathetic and excelent man. he treat my parents with dignity and respect as if they were one of his own.I would recomend him and his company every time i know someone who needs them, mine and our familys experience at the awful time of bereavement was one of kindness sympathy and everything you would expect, my parents just looked lovely like they were sleeping and he gave us up front costings and even knocked a few pounds of our fathers funeral with us having to use his services again in such a short time. i have no doubt that they are a few bad practices with some funeral parlors but not of the one we used I HAVE GOT ONLY GOOD MEMORYS OF MY EXPERIENCE with joseph hey and sons and i would thank them every day of my life for the way they treat me my family and our deceased relatives they are one of the good ones thats for sure

Mel says:
26 June 2012

Does anyone know if the channel 4 report on undercover funeral directors will be repeated. Unfortunately we missed last night’s programme

You should be able to find it on Channel 4OD online.

Hi Mel –

I like the idea of “undercover funeral directors” – conjures up some interesting scenarios!

According to the Radio Times website, the CH4 programme – “Dispatches: Undercover Undertaker” – will be repeated at 03:05 on Friday 29 June 2012 – a deathly hour but we shall be programming the recorder because we missed it as well and don’t like watching full programmes on the PC. Ch4 repeat everything [at least twice] in my experience so it should come around at a sensible time before long.

steven says:
15 September 2015

yeah we used them in sheffield (i did it my way) very shabby service clueless stay well clear we regret using them for our mum place is a dump as well

Liz says:
13 May 2018

I am still waiting for my mother’s headstone and surround to be replaced 18 months after she died. We keep being given a date for the refix and then when it doesn’t happen, they say they have to wait for the ground to settle. I feel that they have got their money and now that the funeral is over, they just can’t be bothered. We have been left with just an ugly mound of earth and the gravestone just flung to once side where it has become damaged on the uneven ground. This is a very large company and we thought we could rely on their reputation. It is causing the family so much stress and we don’t know what to do.

David says:
21 January 2020

We used I Did it My Way Sheffield on two occasions and everything was faultless.