Large fluctuations in the costs of funeral services across Australia have become the norm according to new research, leaving grieving families facing varying prices depending on how they choose to organise a procession, who they purchase it from and where they live.
In a report released from the University of Sydney Business School on Monday that looked at a sample group of more than 100 funeral service providers, Professor Sandra van der Laan found the average national price of a budget funeral ranges between $4132 and $5646 depending on whether buyers sought out service quotes online or directly from funeral directors.
Despite this, the report's findings also show that all regulatory requirements for disposing of a body can be met for as little as $1200.
Van der Laan told HuffPost Australia this difference in price often comes as a result of funeral directors offering combined service packages at an unexplained total cost rather than itemising each aspect of a funeral for buyers to see exactly what they're purchasing.
"A large proportion of the cost is paying for a funeral director to act like a wedding planner and organise everything for you," she said.
"When you buy a funeral service, it's very hard to unpack that product. It's very hard to get a funeral director to tell you what the amount of money per product in a package is.
"What we found is that companies or funeral operators that provide prices online tend to be cheaper than those that don't."
Online market research and cold-call surveys conducted of funeral companies around the country showed the average national cost of a budget funeral when organised online to be $4132 and $2215 for direct committals whereas the same services were found to be priced at $5646 and $3346 when organised directly through a funeral director.
"Upselling is also common with funeral directors basically hinting that if you loved the departed, you should consider a more expensive coffin which might be marked up by a thousand per cent," van der Laarn said.
"In the end, a lot of what you're paying for is the funeral director's fees and all they really do is organise to get the body from the hospital to the funeral service and then to the cemetery or the crematorium as well as ensuring all the paperwork is in order."
In Australia, ASX-listed funeral home, cemetery and crematoria operator InvoCare occupies 40 percent of the funeral industry market with over 30 brands including White Lady, Simplicity, Guardian, Hansen & Cole and W.N. Bull.
According to van der Laarn, this industry stronghold is another factor that influences high prices across the country, particularly in NSW where InvoCare controls up to 80 percent of the market.
"If you are a member of Invocare brands, that's another thing that drives prices up," she said.
"In NSW, the primary differences [in pricing] we found are basically in terms of the fact that Invocare dominates in NSW."
Van der Laarn said the figures in each of those two states are influenced by InvoCare's strength in eastern Australia as well as the need for funeral service providers to travel greater distances in WA for processions.
"There tends to be a bigger variation of prices in urban areas than there is in remote areas. The remote locations tend to have different overheads which were more expensive than the urban locations but urban locations tend to have a bigger variation in prices," she said.
Average Prices Of Funeral Service Products
When organised online:
Direct Committal - $2215
Budget Funeral - $4132
Cremation Fee - $875
Casket - $961
Transport - $322.50
Service - $2604
Certification - $146
In response, a spokesperson for InvoCare told HuffPost Australia the organisation refutes the claim it drives high service prices in the industry and said that cost fluctuations are dependent on the needs of individual buyers, rather than where they live or how they went about organising their plans.
"We dispute that InvoCare is a key driver of high prices. We are fully aware of the vulnerability of people when dealing with the loss of a loved one and we go to great lengths to ensure they have a complete understanding of what service they are to receive, whether it's the most affordable option or a full-service funeral," the spokesperson said.
"InvoCare believes every family has the opportunity to farewell their loved one in the way they would like and to have as much choice available to them. Throughout the funeral planning process, we provide price transparency upfront so that our customers can select an option to best suit their needs.
When it comes to a comparison of costs across states, the report showed that NSW and Western Australia were the frontrunners in both high average service prices and the range of available rates available to buyers.
"There are no fluctuations in cost. The cost of a funeral service is based on the family's wishes. While one family may opt for a full service bespoke funeral, another family may opt for a simple service. The total price is therefore relative to their needs."
The organisation also said it believes there should be a greater level of transparency in the funeral services industry when it comes to pricing, which it has been working towards with the launch of its online cost comparison service Funeral Planner.
"Funeral Planner is an online comparative aggregator that gives families an opportunity to find the right services and products to suit individual needs in the comfort of their own home. The site offers transparent pricing, greater choice, and more affordable options," the spokesperson said.
"Even though Funeral Planner is a useful resource and starting point, the simple fact remains you cannot organise a funeral without the expertise of a qualified funeral director. Funeral directors offer the highest level of service and professional knowledge, experience, and expertise.
"While consumers are entitled to use whatever options or alternatives they want, the vast majority of consumers expect professional support and guidance from an experienced funeral director who is able to manage all aspects of the funeral process."
Average Prices Of Funeral Service Products
When organised directly with funeral directors:
Direct Committal - $3346
Budget/Essential Services Funeral - $5646
According to the Head of Media and Communications at consumer advocacy group Choice Tom Godfrey, the findings present buyers with "real concerns around the transparency" of the funeral services industry.
"Consumers often feel vulnerable when organising a funeral, so it's critically important the industry does everything it can to ensure transparency around costs," he said.
"While many of us may be reluctant to look for a better deal when a loved one dies, sourcing three itemised quotes and avoiding unnecessary items can help alleviate some of the financial burden."
Godfrey also told HuffPost Australia it's important for consumers to know their rights when it comes to buying funeral services and to check for any pre-organised financial arrangements or entitlements that may help prevent monetary strain.
"With funerals costing upwards of $4,000 it's important to know your rights and understand how the industry operates," he said.
"Before you engage a business to take care of the funeral, ask for an itemised price list prior to signing up for a package or meeting with a funeral director.
"Check if any financial arrangements have been made in advance to pay for the funeral [and] check if the deceased person belonged to a club, pensioner association or trade union as they could be entitled to a funeral benefit."
ALSO ON HUFFPOST AUSTRALIA