Competition regulators today said the upheaval brought by the Covid-19 restrictions on funerals had meant it had to curb its investigation into rip-off prices and poor service.
The Competition and Markets Authority launched a probe into the funeral market in March last year amid concerns that families were being exploited in their most vulnerable time by firms often selling expensive funerals with little choice.
High prices and poor service will now be particularly difficult for hard-pressed families if the recession drags on for a lengthy period.
Today the CMA said it had been considering imposing price caps and regulation of the industry, but that the huge numbers of deaths from Covid since March had meant undertakers had been so busy they had not been able to supply the data the authorities needed.
Also, strict curbs on the kinds of funerals people are allowed to have and the numbers of mourners have temporarily meant a total change to the kinds of funeral services being offered, with only a stripped back, basic service and small congregations. At one stage that meant a maximum of six although that has now been relaxed to up to 30 if social distancing can be observed.
That has also made it impossible for the CMA to form a proper and considered view of the way the market normally runs.
It has also hit hard the profits of funeral directors such as Dignity and Coop and crematoria operators - another factor that has made setting reasonable price controls impossible.
Finally, the CMA recognised that local authorities, devolved and central government who would have to implement some of its recommendations were too busy due to the pandemic to do so.
However, while its wings have been clipped, the regulator has still made it clear that the market is not working and reforms are needed to protect the public from being overcharged and offered sometimes poor service.
As a stopgap, it is ordering funeral directors and crematoria to be clearer in setting out the prices of their various services and packages and called for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to set up an inspection and registration regime to monitor the quality of services. Such a regime already exists in Scotland.
The CMA found
::people generally do not shop around due to the distressing circumstances around bereavement, only going to the nearest crematorium and using a local funeral director usually recommended by a friend.
::pricing and product information is not provided consistently, making it hard for consumers to compare offers
::Fees for undertakers and crematoria have increased at well above inflation for at least a decade
::Most people believe funeral directors are regulated when they are not in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
::Crematoria are usually the only one within a reasonable distance meaning consumers have no real choice about where to go.
Dignity, one of the biggest funeral chains in the UK, has seen its share price hammered by fears of a major crackdown from the CMA. It warned earlier this year that its profits had been hit hard by the basic nature of the funerals it was now having to offer due to Covid-19.
Covid-19 has meant funeral homes are having to offer cheap, basic services for the deaths of elderly people who would, had they lived their full lives, have had traditional, expensive ones, meaning a portion of the future market has been holed out for funeral directors.