Funeral industry shares gloom

16 August 2020 - 05:00 By JANE STEINACKER

One industry that may have been expected to see brisk business during a global pandemic, the funeral industry, has also been hit by the economic hardship South Africans are facing, with fewer funeral policies sold during lockdown and higher claims. Bridget Mokwena-Halala, CEO of Assupol Life, which has more than 2-million active funeral policies, said the Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on Assupol's ability to generate sales.Gareth Friedlander, the deputy CEO of Discovery Life, said the business, which has a relatively small book of individual funeral policies and a larger exposure in the group market, has not "seen an increase in new policy purchases during the lockdown, primarily given the closure of work sites and the funeral business relying on work-site marketing". Dushen Naidoo, managing executive for the insurance division at Absa, said that funeral cover has continued to "see firm interest from customers", but there was a slight downwards adjustment on sales during level 5 and level 4. Sales improved once lockdown restrictions eased during level 3, but the strained economic climate continued to affect customers' ability to afford policies. Standard Bank, however, noted an increase in the purchase of funeral plans. Felix Kagura, the head of long-term insurance at Standard Bank, attributed this to a new solution called the Flexible Funeral Plan, which allows policyholders to tailor the benefits and amount of cover to their needs. He said he believed sales numbers would have been higher, "but the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown reduced our distribution as many of our branches were closed".Wikus Lategan, CEO of Calgro M3, a property development company that develops memorial parks, said the effect of the lockdown brought pre-sales of burial sites to a standstill. These usually make up between 50% and 60% of its sales revenue. And while sales of polices and burial sites have slowed, claims are on the increase. Mokwena-Halala said Assupol experienced 28% more claims in June year on year. On average it received almost 13,000 funeral claims a month between April and June. July statistics haven't been finalised, but the figures indicate a significant increase in funeral claims for the month, she said.It is also possible that the lockdown restrictions affected the ability of policyholders to source and submit the required claims documentation, she said, and she is expecting late submissions.Lategan said that traditionally there are more funerals during winter.Naidoo concurred, saying Absa Life typically receives more claims during winter, when cold weather adversely affects customers with underlying health conditions. "Only a small percentage of these claims are Covid-related," said Naidoo. Kagura said the same trend is evident at Standard Bank, with about 10% of its claims for deaths related to Covid-19.Both the insurance providers and Calgro M3 have allowed for some flexibility on payments for customers who are in financial difficulty. Lategan said funeral costs have decreased due to the restrictions placed on the number of guests, and Calgro M3 has also reduced the costs of its services by an estimated 13%.Naidoo said that Absa made product changes on March 27 to provide additional premium payment relief. This temporary concession is at no extra cost to the policyholder. It has also not increased prices, changed benefits or changed product rules due to Covid-19.Kagura said the new product on offer has what he refers to as "a never-lapse" feature that allows clients flexibility on their premiums in the event that they run into financial problems.Assupol has also allowed policyholders to miss up to three consecutive premiums before a policy is ended due to nonpayment. Mokwena-Halala said unpaid premiums do, however, affect the cover the client can receive, so clients are encouraged to make up these missed premiums as soon as possible.

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