This week Australia's largest funeral operator InvoCare scored a Shonky Award for its dubious pricing policies that exploit families at their most vulnerable. It's just one of the disturbing trends we uncovered in our extensive investigation into an industry plagued with stories of profiteering, hidden fees and upselling.
Losing a loved one is devastating enough for families without businesses making it more difficult and confusing than it should be. That's why CHOICE is campaigning for industry-wide price transparency and greater consumer protections to make it easy for mourners to compare quotes and arrange a service that best suits their needs.
Here's five reasons to join our fight for a fairer funeral industry, starting with upfront pricing.
Frustrated like we are? Email your minister for consumer affairs now.
1. Funeral pricing is inflated, confusing and exploitative
That was the alarming finding of our investigation into the funeral industry, headed up by investigative journalist Saimi Jeong. Her investigation took in months of research and interviews, as well as the experiences of 548 recent funeral customers, 36 enlisted 'mystery shoppers' and one scathing industry whistleblower.
Shockingly, it revealed a range of damning issues and dodgy sales tactics from many operators that could see families pay thousands of dollars extra for even the most basic funeral services. These include:
- inflated, bundled funeral package deals
- opaque and problematic fees
- evasive misinformation from operators
- pushy sales tactics
- monopolistic market practices by funeral business chains, with details of business ownership obscured.
"It is far too hard to find out what exactly you're paying for when you hire a funeral home," explains Saimi. "In our national mystery shop, 14 of 36 funeral providers failed to hand over written cost information within 48 hours of making a request."
"Ten eventually provided only lump sums with no cost breakdown, though some had to be chased even for these. Others emailed quotes with varying levels of cost itemisation."
Journalist Saimi Jeong spent months investigating the funeral industry.
The mystery shop also uncovered wildly different prices for a cremation with no ceremony that ridiculously ranged between $1200 to $5600.
"A White Lady funeral home quoted $5600 for a direct cremation in our mystery shop. When we looked at the costs, over half of this was made up by an opaque 'professional service fee'."
It is far too hard to find out what exactly you're paying for when you hire a funeral homeCHOICE investigative journalist Saimi Jeong
"We saw unexplained price differences for services like body viewings. On one end of the scale a provider was charging $110 for people to view their loved ones, while another charged an outrageous $1600," reveals Saimi.
2. Even funeral industry insiders admit there's problems
It's not just CHOICE journalists who've discovered dishonest tactics in the details. After our investigation made headlines last year, an industry whistleblower contacted us with a tip-off about a mysterious fee charged by Australia's largest funeral operator, InvoCare.
The publicly listed company owns more than 250 funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoriums, including the popular White Lady Funerals, Simplicity Funerals and Guardian brands.
It is a straight out revenue grab from unsuspecting, vulnerable customersFuneral industry whistleblower
The insider revealed InvoCare businesses regularly charged a $352 late fee – vaguely listed as an 'administration fee' on invoices – before payment was even late. A lower on-time total was included in the fine print, but it's easy for customers to overlook or forget to deduct when you're organising a funeral.
"It is a straight out revenue grab from unsuspecting, vulnerable customers," the source told CHOICE, adding that the company "knows full well that the majority of customers will not notice, never complain".
They pointed out the $352 fee ($320+GST) would in some cases cost more than flowers, clergy and other items on a funeral invoice, "but the customer gets nothing for it. If it was a genuine late fee, $352 is out of line of any reasonable or justifiable cost. It is a complete gouge of customers".
An invoice showing the 'Administration Fee', which the customer paid in advance, not realising it was a late fee they didn’t need to pay.
In response, CHOICE submitted a complaint to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, arguing that InvoCare has breached consumer law, which states that businesses must provide the minimum total price of a product or service as a single figure.
In a huge win in February this year, InvoCare pledged it’d remove this fee from its service.
3. Dishonest practices hit grieving families hard
Farewelling a family member is one of the hardest things we ever have to do, and it shouldn't be made harder by unscrupulous funeral fees and upselling. As our investigation revealed, such tactics can cause financial hardship, deep sadness and forever sour a final tribute to a loved one.
"Grieving families trust funeral providers to help them lay their loved ones to rest, and that shouldn't be exploited," says CHOICE campaigner Amy Pereira.
"Families deserve respect and transparency in the process. CHOICE is determined to protect these vulnerable people from the predatory profiteering we've uncovered and change the industry for the better."
"Families deserve respect and transparency in the process," says campaigner Amy Pereira.
4. We've had a big win in NSW, but there's more work to be done
If this all sounds grim, we've got some good news. Not only did our investigation and campaigning lead to InvoCare dropping its dubious 'administration' fee earlier this year, it also prompted the NSW Government to introduce rules requiring operators to display more transparent funeral pricing.
Now funeral providers need to show the itemised price of their goods and services, including the cost of their least expensive package. They must also give cost-itemised quotes in writing before entering an agreement and display their prices on their website and in store.
It's a promising step forward, but right now, it only applies to New South Wales. So if you live in another state, you'll still struggle to get a clear price online – that means you'll have to contact each company and cop the full sales pitch and upsell to get a quote.
While Australia's biggest operator InvoCare has complied in NSW, disappointingly they haven't implemented the new regulations proactively to its businesses in other states, which is why we gave it a dreaded Shonky.
InvoCare is profiting from keeping grieving families in the darkCHOICE campaigner Amy Pereira
"InvoCare is profiting from keeping grieving families in the dark," says Amy. "NSW made funeral companies display their prices so families wouldn't be taken advantage of. Companies like InvoCare have done the bare minimum, leaving grieving families in the rest of Australia behind. InvoCare needs to be upfront with all Australians and provide itemised costs for services online."
NSW is a key win but we here at CHOICE think all families across Australia deserve transparent pricing, and we're still fighting to make it happen.
Update: Our campaign is working! Already InvoCare has publicly told the ABC it's commited to display price lists nationally. In other positive news, WA Consumer Affairs Minister John Quigley has agreed the funeral pricing reforms are "appropriate and reasonable" and will look into introducing them in WA.
The White Lady and Guardian brands are owned by InvoCare, Australia's largest funeral operator.
5. Joining our fight for upfront funeral costs is easy
As our investigation has uncovered, there's plenty to improve about the funeral industry but upfront pricing nationwide would be a positive first step.
If, like us, you want it to be the norm and not the exception, we're urging everyone to email the consumer affairs minister for their state or territory now.