Turmoil over 'pay now, die later': Attempts to reassure the public about pre-paid funeral plans have divided the professionals. Vivien Goldsmith reports

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A SPLIT in the ranks of funeral directors looks likely to lead to two separate codes of conduct to offer the public reassurance over pre-paid funeral plans.

This increasingly popular way of paying in advance for your own funeral is not covered by any consumer legislation.

Consumers hand over the current cost of a funeral and are assured that this will be delivered upon their death, whenever that occurs.

Funeral directors are keen on pre- payment as this secures future business for them.

One group, the National Association for Pre-Paid Funeral Plans, run by the National Association of Funeral Directors, has a draft code with the Office of Fair Trading.

This sets up an arbitration procedure to handle complaints and insists on a separate client fund under control of a separate body and a 14-day cooling-off period.

The organisations that have grouped under this banner include Chosen Heritage, run by Great Southern; Dignity in Destiny, run by Plantsbrook; Perfect Assurance Funeral Trust, run by the NAFD, and several smaller outfits.

Chosen Heritage, for instance, offers three plans at pounds 825, pounds 998 and pounds 1,480. They can be provided by Great Southern's own 150 funeral directors and a further 350 directors, each covering a different region. This means that Chosen Heritage customers do not get a choice of undertaker once they sign up for the plan.

It runs a pounds 32m trust fund with 90 per cent of the funds invested in index-linked gilts.

The average age of joining the scheme is 68, and the funeral takes place an average of 11 years later.

The other group, the Funeral Standards Council, is composed of Co-operative Funeral Directors and Golden Charter, which is used by small independent funeral directors. Together they have more than 2,000 outlets.

Gordon Kee, chief executive of Glasgow-based Golden Charter, said the council was working towards its own code, to be called a Client Pledge.

'The most important facet is freedom of choice,' he said. 'The public should be able to choose their own funeral director.

'We are committed to seeing one code and a united profession. We will get to the stage where we will get together to talk. The funeral profession is going through turmoil. It will be a difficult few months before the big picture comes out.'

Golden Charter offers four plans at pounds 850, pounds 1,050, pounds 1,250 and pounds 1,750. There is also the opportunity to take a menu approach and select different items.

The Office of Fair Trading encourages the setting up of codes of practice that offer the public greater protection than their statutory rights, but it does not endorse any code.

A spokesman for the National Association for Pre-Paid Funeral Plans said suggestions from the OFT had been incorporated into the latest draft of its code.

The price of the average funeral in England and Wales, according to a survey at the end of last year by Chosen Heritage, was pounds 1,048. This represented an increase of 8.5 per cent over the previous year.

This masks considerable regional differences. The South-east is the most expensive, with an average cost of pounds 1,165, followed by the South-west at pounds 1,081, and Scotland at pounds 1,035. The cheapest area was East Anglia at pounds 877, followed by Northern Ireland at pounds 882 and Wales at pounds 883.

The flat rate charging structure of some plans means that there is a cross-subsidy from those living in the cheaper regions to those in the high- cost areas.

(Photograph omitted)

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