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It has been said that township funerals are fashion events and good business for undertakers. But not all township funerals are fashion events – some are just plain daylight robbery. It has to stop.
My recent experiences after the death of a relative during lockdown are a case in point.
My grandmother had a standard funeral policy with a certain undertaker who, out of a consideration that was not shown to my family, I refrain from naming. But it starts with ’T’. She was entitled to an R8000 coffin, which the family wanted to upgrade to something better. The casket we preferred cost R57000, but after we found the identical casket in the showroom of a coffin maker for R10500, we told the undertaker we had our own coffin.
Fine, said the salesman at ‘T’, but we will charge you an R26000 ‘handling fee’. A handling fee! They justified this on the grounds that they could not vouch for the quality of the coffin and if the bottom dropped out while they were carrying it, it would reflect badly on them.
In addition, they said, we could not donate the R8000 coffin we no longer needed to another grieving family. We would simply forfeit that benefit of the policy.
Fair enough, we said (though the handling fee seemed far from fair) – in that case we will select a less expensive upgrade. We settled on a R21700 casket.
We assumed we could deduct R8000 from this price, since an R8000 coffin was already covered. The upgrade would cost us R13700.
Now my grandmother’s policy (for which an aunt paid R350 a month) also covered a tent, chairs and food for 100 people, four vehicles, a floral arrangement for the casket, and programmes. ‘T’ said, in view of lockdown, they would provide a smaller tent, chairs and food for 50, no floral arrangement and no programmes.
So they were making a huge saving. But they would not entertain the idea of giving us a reduction on the price of the coffin.
We could not afford R13 700. We felt that in view of the savings T was making in not providing much of what the policy covered, they might entertain a lower offer. After phoning around to family and friends, we were able to offer R12 500. They refused! The situation was unbearable – emotions were high, and ‘T’ was not budging.
Finally, we resigned ourselves to exactly what they policy covered, no upgrade.
If I were to describe to you the quality of what we got you would hardly believe it. ‘T’ provided 50 dirty chairs, a small and dirty tent, and one filthy portable toilet that did not flush. We had to clean it ourselves before use. The message was loud and clear: ‘We know you won’t be using our services again – so this is what you get.’ The R8000 coffin was a dull wooden box, not even polished with a bit of Mr Min.
The experience left a very bad taste in the mouth, and gave rise to much discussion after the funeral. Every single guest had a story to tell of being ripped off in similar fashion. You don’t upgrade – you get the lowest-rung treatment. You provide your own coffin, and the undertakers refuse to transport the body. You upgrade, and you get charged exorbitantly for items that you know cost a fraction of what you’re paying.
We need to start a national conversation about the practices of undertakers, who take advantage of people when they are grieving – especially now during Covid-19. The Competition Commission should look into price hikes and the profit made during lockdown conditions, where undertakers offer no rebates in relation to the reduced package they now offer. No flowers, no programmes, half the number of chairs and food!
One thing this undertaker, ‘T’ should know, is that every guest at the funeral left saying they were going to change their policies to cash policies only – and those with ‘T’ will cancel. It is not acceptable to reduce the items provided (even if forced to, indirectly, by a law prescribing smaller funerals) without offering a commensurate reduction in some other item. Our parents and grandparents pay through the nose for years, only for their families to be ripped off by unscrupulous practitioners who see an opportunity for enhanced profits during Covid-19 conditions.
Note I say ‘unscrupulous practitioners’. No doubt there are some practitioners that do things in a way that is above board.
Either the Competition Commission or the association of undertakers (if there is one) should permit the following:
- Families be allowed to bring in their own coffins, if preferred, with no ‘handling fee’.
- Families should have the option to choose what they want from the undertaker:
- Only temporary storing, washing and transportation of the body.
- The above plus handling of the coffin at the funeral – the full service.
- Coffins/caskets should be SABS approved and any coffins/caskets that are not approved should incur a handling fee prescribed by the competition commission with associations.
- Reduce the permitted markup on coffins. I understand that these are businesses, but a 500% markup is excessive.
- Funeral policies should include a very clear description of the coffin that is covered for the monthly premium – if necessary by means of a photograph. It seems they may be relying on the fact that families invariably reject the plain coffin covered by standard policies, and almost always upgrade. Fancier coffins come with heavily loaded price tags.
- Lastly, and most importantly, the large insurance companies which underwrite for undertakers should release only a portion of the payout to the undertakers before the funeral. The balance should be released only after the grieving family have signed a consent form/certificate of satisfaction confirming that they received what they paid for.
The goal here is not to run undertakers out of business. They are businesses and have a right to make a profit. What we are against is the unethical treatment of mourners – the lack of choice, the exorbitant prices of coffin upgrades and, during Covid-19, the delivery of much reduced packages for the price of the full package.
What are your experiences? Have you felt powerless to argue with an undertaker because you’re surrounded by family members and don’t want to look unduly focused on money? This is what they’re counting on, in my view. We need to hold undertakers to account and start demanding more freedom of choice, more leverage for families by means of signing powers for the release of funds, and an immediate investigation into the prices charged for coffins.
Photo Courtesy of Freepik