Grave matters under scrutiny

Cross to bear … it can pay to do some homework to avoid a secondary shock after the death of a loved one.
Cross to bear … it can pay to do some homework to avoid a secondary shock after the death of a loved one.

The death of a loved one is hardly a time when you feel like ''shopping around'', but if you don't you could end up paying more for the funeral than you should, even after the state government moves to require greater transparency in pricing.

Sydney funeral director Karen Laing recently took over the planning of a funeral from another firm and was concerned to find the family had been charged more than $900 for the body to be moved from the residence to a funeral home about 200 metres down the road.

''Most other funeral homes in the industry charge less than $450,'' Laing says. Even the after-hours callout wouldn't explain the difference, she says. In the written quote for the funeral itself, which the family rejected, there was a fee of $72 for registering the death, when the actual cost is $46 in NSW ($27.80 in Victoria). The cremation certificate fee was steep too, she says.

The NSW president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA), Warwick Hansen, agrees the transportation fee seems high but says funeral homes, like any business, have the right to set their prices as they see fit.

However, Hansen says expenses such as death certificates generally are treated as disbursements and passed on at actual cost. If a funeral director claims the fee with a mark-up under the heading of disbursements they are making a false statement, he says.

Laing, of Lady Anne Funerals, says she went to Fair Trading NSW about the $900 transportation fee but was told there were no grounds for complaint because there was no set schedule of fees. ''It's a shame more families don't make inquiries with funeral directors before the time comes so they don't just accept the price given to them once someone dies,'' she says.

The chief executive of funerals group InvoCare, Andrew Smith, believes most industry participants do the right thing, something borne out by the low rate of complaint to regulators.

There is some state regulation of the funerals sector. NSW introduced a funeral information standard five years ago requiring funeral homes to provide consumers with either an itemised quote or a notice setting out the cost of a ''basic funeral''. A review of that standard now with the state government is expected to result in the written quote being required more promptly, to allow time for comparisons to be made.

In Victoria, funeral providers are required to have a price list of their goods and services freely available to anyone who inquires.

There have been 24 complaints to Fair Trading NSW about funerals in the past 12 months, most of them about service. Eight were about cost. Victoria's data for the 2011 financial year shows 138 inquiries and complaints, including 15 queries about price.

A director of Melbourne firm Lonergan & Raven, Nigel Davies, says: ''Even if you do shop around, you can think you're talking to four or five companies but what you're getting is four or five people from the same company giving you different spiels.''

Market leader InvoCare - with brands such as White Lady, Simplicity, Le Pine and WN Bull - accounts for 26 per cent of funerals nationally.

In Melbourne its market share is 29 per cent and in Sydney 44 per cent. Smith says the purchase of smaller businesses has been closely monitored by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the businesses retain a high degree of autonomy.

Davies says caution is needed even at the low-cost end of the market. Start out with a very low quote and ''you can end up with somebody who's trying very hard to twist your arm to keep lifting the price''. When multiple items are added on separately it can end up costing much more than a mid-range package, Davies says.

Head of funeral bond provider Lifeplan, Matt Walsh, says the average funeral bond Lifeplan arranges is for $7500. A mid-range funeral can cost between that and $12,000.

This story Grave matters under scrutiny first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.