Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, who has campaigned against funeral poverty, said: “This is such a distressing time for people ordinarily, but with coronavirus on top, [people are] dying prematurely with very little money… there should be urgent action to set up a funeral regulator.”
The Co-op distanced itself from The Telegraph’s findings and disputed the scale of profits on its coffins.
Sam Tyrer, the managing director, said: “We do not recognise the picture of our professional and caring business painted by these allegations. They are unrepresentative of our approach to business, our services for bereaved families and of our people, who are the best trained and most caring in our sector.”
The ‘hard sell’ awaiting the bereaved
The Co-op is a household name when it comes to funerals, with plaques in branches promising customers that it will handle them with “care, respect, clarity and reassurance”.
It claims to recognise how expensive the process of laying a loved one to rest can be, and commits itself to guiding families towards a funeral they can afford.
But an investigation by this newspaper has raised major question marks over some of those undertakings.
The Telegraph found one senior manager dictating sales practices apparently designed to channel families – many recently bereaved due to the coronavirus – towards its more expensive funeral options, while restricting access to a more affordable package.
The Co-op Funeralcare regional manager, responsible for overseeing 39 branches in south London, was also not averse to encouraging his staff to use hard-sell tactics.
“The two single biggest additional services that affect our financial position as well are limousines and embalming,” Russell Turnbull informed his staff in an email sent earlier this month.
Reaching for the upper case on his keyboard, he added, “When you talk to your families about limos, don’t ask IF they need any, ask HOW MANY THEY REQUIRE.”
The sales tactics outlined in Mr Turnbull’s emails are reflected in the attitudes of some staff, who believe it is acceptable to use “little tricks” in order to help part people from their money more easily.
One manager said it cost the company just “peanuts” to manufacture products, such as the coffins themselves, which it then sells to customers with a big mark-up.
Another manager estimated that the Co-op sells the coffins for 10 times the cost of making them.
An undercover reporter was also faced with some staff showing anything but respect both to the dead and the living. Bodies were ridiculed for being overweight or given the nickname “Stinky” if decomposing.
In the case of miscarried foetuses or suicide victims even worse epithets were used. Then there were customers who were derided by some staff, such as those from the Traveller community who were labelled drug dealers and thieves, to be tolerated only due to the large amounts they spend on their funerals.
Our investigation was conducted in the light of an ongoing inquiry by the government’s consumer watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, into overpricing in the funeral industry. A Telegraph reporter worked at Co-op Funeralcare, which is the biggest funeral provider in Britain.
Covid 19 may have had a major impact on the Co-op as a business, but based on the reporter’s experience in south London it also made them surprisingly cavalier when it came to potentially spreading it.
A manager based at one of the Co-op Funeralcare hubs told him: “We are not necessarily the best people at the whole social distancing, we are a little bit huggy and a little bit touchy feely.”
A lawyer for the company later told The Telegraph it was “shocked” to hear that the Co-op’s “clear policies” on protecting its staff may have been flouted.
The manager explained how the lockdown had affected the Co-op.
“As a business, we packed a lot of funerals in and we did an amazing job of keeping as many families going as we could, but because we weren’t doing things like flowers, we weren’t doing limousines, we weren’t doing coffin choices, we weren’t making a huge amount of money. We need to try and reap some of that back.”
What is apparent from many of Mr Turnbull’s emails, replete with performance tables and analysis, is the absence of the word “selling”.
Clearly, given the sensitive industry in which they are operating, efforts have been made to avoid the negative connotations associated with that word.
“We are not asking you to sell anything and never will,” Mr Turnbull wrote in one email last December. But the regional manager, who formerly worked in the used car industry, appears to have simply substituted the word “promote” for “sell” in his emails. One recurring theme was his desire for staff to “promote” the £3,405 Traditional funeral option over the £1,895 Simple one.
“With funerals slowly getting back to normal and having asked you all to promote Traditional funerals over Simple, I have to say a massive well done!” he wrote in August.
“Last week you achieved the 2nd highest level of Traditional funerals in the South [of the UK], a huge achievement and one that has and will affect our profitability in the months to come.”
Celebrating the fact that the average price of a funeral had “shot up” to more than £3,000 – a “massive £485 increase” – Mr Turnbull could not disguise his joy, writing, “I am so proud of you all right now I could burst!”
Michael Pengelly, head of operations for funeralcare, appeared to feel similarly, sending an email in which he thanked staff “for everything you are doing”, adding, “the client choices you are offering are starting to show”.