Forget the rules: there are meaningful ways to bury spiralling funeral costs

4 min read

This article appeared in The Guardian on February 16th 2020. There are many alternatives to having a traditional funeral. Check out Aura to learn more about the different options here.

Forget the rules: there are meaningful ways to bury spiralling funeral costs

As bills soar, is there any loss of ritual or tradition in cutting costs? We look at the less expensive choices

It is getting more expensive to be put to eternal rest. The cost of funerals has risen by up to 10% in the last year – meaning that if the deceased does not have enough money in their estate, their death could be met with a growing bill for their relatives.

SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying Report puts the average bill for a death in the UK at just under £10,000 when estate and professional fees and the reception are factored in. Such is the concern about the spiralling price – up 130% in the last 15 years – that the Competition and Markets Authority has launched an investigation after years of above-inflation rises.

However, leave aside a cortege of limousines, pallbearers and an oak coffin, and the bill will be less onerous. It can be reduced even more by having a cremation with no service. But is worrying about the bills at a hugely emotional time going to create more problems than it solves?

Cutting cremation costs

No family, no friends, no ceremony – a grim farewell for some, but a necessary saving for others. Direct cremations, where there is no service and the ashes are kept or delivered to loved ones, cost from £1,000.

David Bowie, who died in 2016, famously helped raise awareness of this option when he chose to be secretly cremated without family or friends present after telling loved ones he did not want a funeral service. His ashes were scattered on the Indonesian island of Bali.

But direct cremations still account for only 4% of all cremations each year. David Collingwood, director of funerals at Co-op Funeralcare – which handles one in six deaths – says interest is growing. It charges £1,395 – but he says the decision is often led by practicality more than cost, particularly if family members are overseas.

“The service can be ordered over the phone or online,” he explains. “And families often have a ceremony with the ashes at a later date.”

Costs are relatively low – less than a third of a cremation with a service. The body goes straight to the crematorium in a plain coffin, and the process takes place at a time convenient to the facility. “For some, it is appropriate to have a full service with family carrying the coffin and laying flowers,” Collingwood says. “For others, that is not the priority. They choose to focus on a memorial service or a ceremony to scatter the ashes.”

Keeping a sense of occasion

There are, of course, other ways of keeping costs down while maintaining a traditional sense of occasion.

The average burial cost is £4,975, according to SunLife, and a memorial service, flowers, order of service sheets, venue hire, catering and limousines will add around £2,300.

Fran Hall, chief executive at the Good Funeral Guide – a not-for-profit organisation offering impartial advice about the industry – says it is best to discuss plans in advance.

“Families often feel shame in trying to keep costs down,” she says. “We need to move away from that idea. People can create a meaningful service and still maintain the rituals without spending a fortune.”

Families should consider whether they need limousines, while the first slot of the day at the crematorium is often cheaper. Using a bamboo or wicker coffin can result in lower bills as they are cheaper than solid wood.

There are a glut of companies offering prepaid funeral plans for those who want to put aside cash monthly. Using a comparison site to find the best value allows people to weigh up if it is worth the outlay. But paying in instalments over a number of years will result in much higher bills, as interest is charged.

Natural burials 

An undertaker or funeral director is not an absolute necessity.

Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre, a charity which offers impartial advice on family-organised, environmentally friendly funerals, says more people are looking at natural burials – there are now around 350 sites in the UK.

“Some people find it hard to get their heads around the fact there are no rules when it comes to a funeral,” she says. “Families can collect the body from the mortuary, bring it to a natural burial ground under their own transport, dig the plot themselves if they wish, then bury the body and plant a tree. It is very moving. Families can add whatever personal touches they like. In my 20 years of working in this area I have never heard anyone say they regretted doing the funeral themselves.”

Amy House runs the Eden Valley Woodland Burial Ground in north Kent with her husband, Martin. Burial plots are £770 and interment, including tree planting, is £400 to £500. Plots for the interment of ashes start from £300 and House says many people buy a family plot in advance that has space for multiple burials or ashes.

The shrouds, coffins and linings used must be made from natural, biodegradable materials, such as cardboard and bamboo. There are no headstones or memorials.

Religious services are permitted and ground can be consecrated. House says they have held ceremonies for many different religions.

“It can be cathartic for families to be practically involved,” she adds. “Many want to take ownership of the day. You don’t have to spend a lot to make it feel personal.”

Who pays?

Typically, if the funds are there, the funeral is paid out of the deceased’s bank account. The executor or estate administrator will access the money, as accounts will be frozen after the person’s death.

The government’s Funeral Expenses Payment (Funeral Support Payment in Scotland) is available for people on certain benefits who need help paying, but it is unlikely to cover the full amount.

Coffin Club’s flat-pack option

Independent funeral celebrant Jane Morgan believes people can spend too much on funerals – sometimes even ending up in debt – because they don’t know about possible options.

She runs courses to discuss and plan for death, including ways to spend less – with people even building and decorating their own coffin.

Morgan has been delivering end-of-life ceremonies for eight years and ran London’s first “Coffin Club” in Tottenham, north London, in October with the aim of helping people understand more about the funeral market and dispelling myths.

As part of the six-week course, which includes talks from various professionals in the industry, members can buy and decorate their own £250 “flat-pack” wooden coffin.

The Coffin Club concept was started by a palliative care nurse in New Zealand, and set up in the UK in 2017.

“Some people might have had bad experiences with family funerals. Just talking through the issues can be a big relief,” says Morgan.

Article by Jo Thornhill, Journalist – The Observer (Guardian)

The Guardian