$1 billion funeral industry ‘taking advantage of people'
WHEN Professor Sandra Van der Laan's sister died suddenly three years ago, she was forced to delve into an unfamiliar world.
Planning the funeral while still grappling with the shock of her loss, she was confronted with an "impenetrable" industry that guarded its pricing like a state secret.
Linda Taylor was just 59 when she died with no assets, so Prof Van der Laan started ringing around for quotes from funeral homes.
She was taken aback by how difficult it was to compare prices, because of the way funeral homes bundle products and services together.
"It's quite impenetrable," Prof Van der Laan told news.com.au. "Everybody's emotionally fragile, people aren't in a good place to be making what for some is a significant financial decision - because they'll have to pay it off or borrow money to pay for it."
The experience prompted the University of Sydney Business School academic to embark on a study of the funeral industry, which found that providers were "obfuscating" consumers, while charging anything from $4000 to $15,000.
Upselling and exorbitant mark-ups were making funerals thousands of dollars more expensive than they needed to be in an industry that was "shrouded in secrecy", the study found, with the average Australian funeral costing $6000.
It recommended greater uniformity of regulations between states and increased information for consumers on cheaper funeral alternatives.
"They should disclose prices and have a product information statement, to give people an opportunity to buy only the items they want," Prof Van der Laan said.
CALL FOR TRANSPARENCY
It comes as a campaign to make funeral home sales pitches a thing of the past gather steam, calling for new laws to force providers to publish detailed price lists online so that people can plan to farewell their loved ones without the risk of being ripped off.
Change.org petition creator Colin Wong has slammed the $1 billion funeral industry for the "lack of transparency" he says is targeting people when they are most vulnerable.
Mr Wong, who spent a year compiling a searchable database of funeral homes and their prices after a frustrating experience planning his late great aunt's service, said operators would try every trick in the book to avoid giving a quotation over the phone - even though fair trading regulations required them to do so.
"They tell you 'every funeral's different, but things like whether to include flowers or newspaper notices will only add on an extra couple of hundred," Mr Wong said.
"People just can't bear to do the ring around and talk about money at that time, to be bargaining around someone's funeral and be perceived as only caring about money."
He said the pressure of having to make a decision in a matter of hours meant that many people, himself included, simply went with the first funeral home they approached.
"The reason why they don't want to give out prices is that they want to get the family in front of them," Mr Wong said.
"Once the family has spent two hours going through the process, they don't want to back out - or they'll have to go through it all against with another funeral director."
A VULNERABLE TIME
Perth widow Felicity Johnson backed the calls for reform, citing her own experience planning a service for her late husband Michael, who died after battling leukaemia in 2013 - shortly before what would have been the pair's 50th wedding anniversary.
"My husband's funeral cost was a shock and after the horrendous medical costs for him when he was dying, I was left with a huge hole in my wallet," Mrs Johnson said.
What made her most upset were the hidden charges, with the funeral home slapping on costs they had told her were included.
"It's your grief. They get you at a very vulnerable time," she told news.com.au. "I asked for a car to take 10 people to the service and they said it was included. I thought 'that's great'; but then when I got the bill I saw they'd charged me for it."
Even when she disputed the charge, she said, it was only when she mentioned her handwritten notes documenting the initial quote that the funeral home backed down.
The service still cost her about $9000, even though she asked for a plain coffin as she was certain Mr Johnson would have wanted one.
"I'm quite a strong person, but a lot of people are not, and they come out shocked at what it costs," she said.
FUNERAL HOME CONTESTS ESTATE
Another family is embroiled in a legal dispute with a funeral home they say exploited an elderly grandmother.
"My elderly grand parents were exploited when they paid vast sums for prepaid funerals only to then have the funeral home require my parents to pay again," the young man, who did not want to be named, said. "The funeral home was very sneaky and duplicitous."
He said his grandmother, who died last year, had prepaid a supposedly all-inclusive funeral plan priced at about $7000.
"Then when Nan did pass away, we were going through the grieving process and having the funeral home take care of everything as planned, they lumped on extra costs for service and food - things that we were under the impression had been paid for and planned over a year in advance," the man told news.com.au.
"Hidden costs were only mentioned at the time of grieving ... It was just very sneaky, and seemed to take advantage of my mum's grieving."
The funeral ended up being thousands of dollars more expensive than planned, and the service provider sued the estate for the extra cash.
"At no point was it made clear that they were extras," he said. "It seemed very exploitative and tactical."
INDUSTRY HEAVYWEIGHT RESPONDS
Australia's biggest funeral provider has backed its prices while supporting calls for "greater industry-wide transparency".
InvoCare, the parent company of funeral home brands including White Lady, Simplicity and Guardian, said its operators "provide price transparency upfront so that our customers can select an option to best suit their needs".
"We are fully aware of the vulnerability of people when dealing with the loss of a loved one and we go to great lengths to ensure they have a complete understanding of what service they are to receive, whether it's the most affordable option or a full-service funeral," a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
"InvoCare believes every family has the opportunity to farewell their loved one in the way they would like and to have as much choice available to them."
The company this year launched an online Funeral Planner allowing people to compare products and services across its providers.