Substantial Price Variations in Funeral Services – Extreme Low Transparency on Services and Charges

15 August 2019
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Substantial Price Variations in Funeral Services –  Extreme Low Transparency on Services and Charges

Burial and funeral service charges are very expensive and often reach as high as tens of thousands dollars. Generally, consumers have only little idea about the rundown and details of the funeral services and are unable to assess whether the scope of service and charges are reasonable let alone protecting their rights and interests. The Consumer Council has conducted a survey on 20 funeral service providers in relation to the information as to the extent of their services and related charges. The report showed that some of the service providers gave only limited information, such as the minimum service charges, and their prices differed widely from one to another because of the many variations in computing service charges, causing it difficult for consumers to make comparison. Some items covered in the packages, such as rental of the funeral room/hall, the type of coffin, the funeral ceremony and the service hours of the service attendant etc, could all affect the level of charges. Changing the package items may incur extra charges and consumers should therefore understand clearly beforehand if the services are what they really need.

At present, there are 125 licensed Undertakers of Burial of which 7 also held Funeral Parlour Licence. The Council initially contacted 93 licensed undertakers but 14 of them rejected outright to join the survey. In April this year, the Council again wrote to the remaining 79 service providers to collect information on their scope of services and related charges. In the end, only 20 of them responded, comprising 6 funeral parlours and 14 coffin shops which was a rather low response rate, reflecting the conservative nature and low transparency of the industry that are detrimental to consumer protection. 

 According to the information from the trade, some funeral services in Hong Kong are family business with low operation transparency, and information is provided to consumers only when they are in need of the services. Even in the same shop, different salespersons may quote different prices to prospective customers. The industry is urged to adopt an open attitude to enhance information transparency by providing clear information as to the charges and services so as to allow consumers to make informed decisions in choosing the services. 

Of the 20 service providers, 13 offered packages for different funeral ceremonies, including Taoist, Buddhist, and non-religious ceremony (to be held on the premises of the funeral home), as well as services directly at the hospital or mortuary premises for which service halls are not required. As the charges for Catholic or Christian funeral service packages are similar to non-religious ceremony, the survey covered only the aforementioned 4 services comprising a total of 48 packages, including crematorium and minimum charge services. 

Packages for funeral service at hospitals or mortuary premises requiring no service hall rental can save considerable charges in rent and decoration of the service hall. However, consumers should take note that even among the 13 minimum charge packages for such services, they varied by almost a double from the lowest ($7,980) to the highest ($15,000). As for the 12 non-religious packages, they also varied from the lowest ($13,520) to the highest ($35,800), a difference of almost 1.5 times.

For peace of mind, some families, though without any religious belief, would still opt for the considerably more expensive Taoist service or Buddhist funeral ceremonies, which mostly included the ritual ceremony and over 20 items of paper offerings. Among the 48 packages, 18 were of Buddhist or Taoist rituals, their minimum charges differed by nearly a double, from $27,780 to $56,800. Though the service items included in the packages are similar, industry practitioner revealed that the funeral rites performed or prayer services provided are intangible, but the qualifications of the officiating priests and the sect they belong could affect the level of charges.

For instance, the number of nuns or monks for the chanting prayer is different for some packages, and if an extra number is needed, the costs of hiring monks are higher than nuns, the difference could be doubled. According to some service providers, the prayer service charges for 4 nuns would be $4,000 or $1,000 each while the costs for 5 monks would be $12,000 or over $2,000 each. The hourly rate of an apprentice service attendant would be between $100 and $200, but a fully experienced master could charge from $300 to $500. Without such knowledge, consumers cannot be expected to assess whether or not the related charges are reasonable.

In general, the lack of knowledge on funeral services has driven most families to rely on the proposals of funeral service providers. However, complaints lodged with the Council have indicated a wide disparity in the service quality of the industry. A family member of the deceased who had purchased the so-called “all-inclusive” service package only discovered later that it did not include the coffin and the funeral rituals. A complainant was  also charged a total sum different from the original quoted prices, but the funeral service companies would just give equivocal replies to the queries about the prices. Despite there are training courses for funeral service in the community, industry practitioner stated their certificates and qualificantions may not be recognized, and that qualifications accreditation mechanism was yet to be setup. Hence, it is difficult for consumers to discern if the quality of service they provide is professional and reliable.

Regardless of whether the funeral service is tailor-made or just a preset package, out of the 20 service providers, with the exception of 7 that indicated customers were not required to pay a deposit or the full amount, the majority (12 providers) would request a deposit upon confirmation of the order, from $1,000 to $5,000 or 10% to 50% of the total sum. Alternatively, consumers can first pay the funeral home rental and cremation service charges, and settle the balance upon completion of the funeral/burial services. Once an agreement is signed with deposit paid, the company is deemed to be formally appointed to provide the service. According to the information from industry practitioner, it is a trade practice that no change could be made in respect of the designated farewell room/hall and any request from family members for change would be subject to another rental charge.

In view of the acute shortage of public niches, coupled with the pending licensing of private columbaria, storage for the deceased ashes has become a big problem. Among the 20 service providers, 15 also offered temporary storage service to ease the problem. Relatives of the deceased may consider “green burial” service to scatter the cremated ashes at gardens of remembrance or in the sea. 

Consumers should pay attentions to the following when arranging funeral services:

- Never leave important documents to the hand of others for convenience sake. Keep the deceased’s Identity Card and Death Certificate to avoid being deprived of their choices and incurring extra costs in procuring funeral services, and the storage of the body and ashes;

- Shop around funeral parlours and coffin shops for price quotations. If the service provider does not provide a written price quotation, take down the charges in writing and discuss with the family before making any decision;

- Give careful consideration to the choice of religious ceremony - Taoist, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, as the complexity of the related rituals may affect the prices. Consumers should evaluate their own financial ability and needs before making any decision on the number of priests to be hired and respective quantity of offerings for the funeral ceremony. They should never compare with other people but should carefully control various items of expenditure within the budget; 

- For preset service package, consumers should enquire clearly about the inclusive items, including the number of people the venue can accommodate; the design and dimensions of the coffin; the hours of service of the service attendant; the number of the priests performing the funeral rituals; the quantity of funeral/burial paraphernalia; and other miscellaneous items, etc;

- For cremation, choose a less sturdy coffin with cheaper price;

- Most funeral service expenses, once decided, cannot not be refunded or changed to another date, such as the funeral service hall and cremation date. To avoid monetary loss, consumers should reach a consensus with their families before deciding on the date and venue for vigil, etc.

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