The following is an informative opinion piece from our latest Premium Member – Chapter House Funerals

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Opinion piece by Troy Upfield

A recent blog post by the head of Tobin Brothers James MacLeod with unsubstantiated accusations about funeral directors was most likely unnoticed by many; however, given the gravity of the allegations, there should be enough for the public to be alarmed and authorities to request more information. Mr. MacLeod said, “There are many businesses around Australia, in particular in Victoria, who will register a business name, produce a website, have a mobile telephone number and a station wagon, and then use their home garage to store other people’s loved ones. I am aware of one business that was, and maybe still is, using a shipping container as storage for the deceased in their care”.

Mr. MacLeod’s blog post prompted me to write this opinion piece.

Over the last 20 years, many businesses have been streamlined to the benefit of both the sides of the consumer and the service provider.

However, I believe there are two market segments that we as consumers have lucked out on. No matter how fast-paced the world has become, and information at our fingertips certain community standards and expectations have been lost.

I have experience in both of these worlds. After a 23-year career in banking, I went in search of a new path. While it took five years after banking, I found end of life care rewarding and a space that I believe a difference could be made.

Banking to the everyday person is almost impossible to navigate when you need help and speak to a real person. Sure, the ATM was a significant advancement but was soon succeeded by online business, to pay pass to now just waving your mobile device to pay for goods and services. However, when you need help, who is your local banker? Who do you call? What is their name? I remember as a 16-year-old, my parents sent me to San Francisco to stay with extended family (lucky me). Dad sent me armed with traveller’s cheques and a Visa card. To have access to both of these, Dad collected me from school and we had a meeting with his local bank manager. After a short interview, the bank manager approved, albeit guaranteed by Dad. However, it was only signed off by the bank manager after he met with me. It was essential to meet your local bank manager, someone that understood your family, its short-term needs, and longer-term goals, ensuring you succeeded (paying back your loan of course) but supported you and appreciated your needs and invested in your future.

The funeral director was always identified by their name in the community. He or she was a person of trust and part of a family business you could rely on when needed. Corporate takeovers of the local family funeral homes have all but destroyed the local community’s funeral director. Over the last decade, InvoCare, Australia’s largest provider of funeral services and crematoriums, has taken over many family-owned funeral homes. This has led to years of community engagement, trust, and integrity’s being purchased for corporate gain. We didn’t see it coming as most never think about a funeral service, let alone the provider, unless a loved one has passed. The amalgamation of small funeral homes took the industry away from the community while we went about our daily lives.

Good people work for InvoCare. This is not about the individual that cares for your family in need; it takes a special person to take this on. However, the service has been broken; these kinds of people do what they are told to ensure the corporate engine never shuts down. Is this the system you want taking care of your loved one?

Now, going back to comparing with banks, we know the Big 4 in Australia. Well, I have termed the Big 3 in the Victorian funeral industry. InvoCare, Allison Monkhouse and Tobin Brothers. There are over 18 brands, most of which are household names all under control of the Big 3. While Monkhouse and Tobins are family owned, their sheer size and marketing machines make it difficult to deliver a truly personal service to the community.

Allison Monkhouse owns the following brands: Allison Monkhouse, Mannings Funerals, S.A Hollibones, Andrews Funeral Care, T.J Andrews, Rosebud Funerals, and Gateway Funerals.

In Victoria InvoCare owns the following brands: Le Pine, White Lady, WD Rose, Southern Cross Funerals, Tuckers Funerals and Bereavement Service, Simplicity Funerals, and Value Cremations

Tobin Brothers owns the following brands: Tobin Brothers, Herbert King Funerals, Abbey Funerals, and Frances Tobin Funerals by Women

It is common practice for staff of multiple brands to swap ties, scarves and magnets on the side of hearses in between funerals to represent the brand to which you made the ‘first call’. If you contact the Big 3, you get the same person, lead company, staff, hearse, and service, just a different brand with a separate marketing budget.

I am a big advocate for serious regulatory changes in the funeral industry. My aim in writing this opinion piece is not to take it all out on the Big 3; there are many smaller entrants taking advantage of the low barrier to entry.

Our community is now conditioned to believe once a person passes, the ‘funeral must be in the next few days’. I’m sure you have heard this before. Well yes, the approach is to get the first call, then book it in, next, please.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Families can take their time. In fact, they don’t need a funeral director at all. History tells us the undertaker was usually the local carpenter or joiner who only supplied the handmade coffin to the family home. It was the family who was responsible for looking after the deceased until burial. As time evolved, undertakers took a more significant role and provided care for the dead at the time of death to a grave. I’m not suggesting we go back to this, as I’m sure most are happy the undertaker evolved to what we know today as a funeral director and assists with funeral arrangements. However, the law never changed. You can care for your deceased family member any way you feel appropriate. The only requirements are the final resting place requires either authority for interment at a cemetery or authority for cremation.

My message is to slow down if you want. If you need time, you should be provided with options that allow this. Allow your funeral director to lead you, not control you, through a difficult time without having to feel like it just is done, now, this way, and no, you can’t do that. As you would know your local GP, you should at least know of your local funeral director; a good funeral director should make themselves known in your community by supporting such things as local events or sporting teams.

I don’t believe banking will ever return to the way it was. However, I firmly believe the local family funeral director will be back in your community. I find it amusing the modern funeral home has progressed to takeovers, revenue focused, cheap coffins made offshore, but the couch in the reception area has never been upgraded since the 1970s.

About the author:

Troy Upfield is a former banker with 23 years industry experience as Executive Director and Head of Securities Lending at Goldman Sachs and JBWere. Troy has also served as Vice Chairman of the Cerebral Palsy Education Centre and a board member of Solve Disability Solutions. Troy is currently a Funeral Director and Principal Founder of Chapter House Funerals Pty Ltd.

Chapter House is a privately owned and currently has arranging offices at 400 High Street, Kew and Level 27, 101 Collins Street, Melbourne. Future arranging offices are planned across Melbourne. All Chapter House offices are and will be operated by partners of Chapter House Funerals Pty Ltd.