No one likes to think about their own funeral, but it is important to consider the costs. Direct cremations – which dispense with the pomp and ceremony of a traditional send-off – could save your family money. Moneywise looks at the benefits of this increasingly popular option
Death is an expensive business. The cost of the average cremation using a funeral director is £3,247, rising to £4,267 for a burial, according to figures from life insurer Royal London. It’s a lot of money before you even consider additional expenses like the ceremony, flowers and the cost of food and drinks for mourners afterwards.
And costs have soared too, so much so that in May 2018 the Competition and Markets Authority launched an inquiry into the funeral market. Its preliminary results found that over a decade, funeral directors’ prices have risen by 68%, while fees charged by crematoria were up 84%.
This doesn’t leave the funeral market shrouded in glory. However, for those individuals who do not have their heart set on a conventional funeral there is an alternative, and cheaper, option. Direct cremation – or direct disposal as it is sometimes known – removes the most expensive part of the traditional process.
A funeral director is not required, nor is an expensive coffin, embalming service or hearse. After death, the body is collected and transported directly to the crematorium in a private ambulance where it is held in a simple casket. Nobody attends the cremation, but afterwards the ashes can be returned to family members should they so wish.
With prices starting at around £1,000, this is undoubtedly the cheapest way of dealing with a deceased’s body.
The practice is relatively mainstream in the US, where 38% of all cremations are conducted on this basis, but while it’s much less common in the UK, accounting for just 2% of cremations, demand is growing and fast. Between 2017 and 2018, Simplicity Cremations says it saw a 230% increase, while Co-op says one in 25 of its cremations are now done in this way.
“It’s being done because this is what the deceased wanted”
At first sight this ‘no-frills’ approach might not seem to offer the most dignified send-off for a loved one, but customers don’t view it this way.
Co-op Funeral Care launched its first direct cremation package last year after a successful trial. Kate Ablott, its proposition manager, says: “People were coming into our funeral homes and asking for a direct package. They didn’t always know what it was called but they knew what they wanted.”
However, she stresses that customers aren’t just requesting it because it is the cheapest option. “It’s not about money or emotional distance. It isn’t being done because somebody isn’t loved – it’s very much being done because it is what the deceased wanted,” she adds.
Mark Hull, group head of marketing at Simplicity Cremations agrees, adding that just because an individual opts for direct cremation doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t get an appropriate send-off.
“People choose a direct cremation for a variety of reasons, and often it’s not just down to cost. Some people just prefer the lack of fuss and formality that a direct cremation can offer, and the flexibility to choose how, when and where they say goodbye to their loved one. Others would prefer to spend their money on a later event where the loved one’s life can be celebrated by friends and family.”
Ms Ablott adds: “We had a customer whose family held a celebration of their life at a country house in the summer when the weather was better. In other cases, people gather together to scatter the ashes.”
Ring the changes
So-called ‘back to front’ funerals are also becoming more popular. “This is where the cremation takes place and then a church service takes place afterwards without the body,” says Ms Ablott. “Others just choose to have a quiet moment of reflection – it is all about personal preference.”
James Dunn, co-founder of Beyond, a website that helps people arrange funerals, including a direct cremation option, says that for some the service can be “cost-effective and dignified”, but he admits it isn’t for everyone.
“We do talk to some people about it and they decide to go for a full funeral. Direct cremation isn’t suitable if you want a service with a body there.”
However, if it is an option that appeals to you it is worth shopping around for the right package and letting your family know what you would like to happen after you die.
There is a big variety in both price and service offered, so it’s important you know what is included, but more importantly that the deceased is treated with dignity and respect.
A key difference with a direct cremation is that once the deceased’s body has been collected, loved ones will not be able to view it in the funeral home, as they would with a conventional funeral.
Taller clients may need to pay for a larger coffin
However, Ms Ablott explains that this doesn’t mean the deceased is treated any differently once the body has come into their care.
“For our colleagues this work is like a vocation and bodies are not treated any differently just because the funeral is lower cost. They will be in a simple coffin, which will have a name plate, and they will be dressed in a gown. Prior to cremation, our colleagues will pause for thought just as they would with any other cremation.”
Mr Dunn stresses, too, that though companies offering these services will be bound by health and safety rules, funeral directors are not regulated.
“Check out the business before you commit and make sure someone is there to answer any questions you might have. They should be able to help and guide you over the phone.”
Beyond offers customer support 24/7. It will also ensure that you know when the cremation is taking place.
In an unregulated market, he also advises potential customers to find out where the deceased’s body will be held. “Check that the business is using professional refrigeration facilities.”
With many direct cremation companies promoting themselves as a low-cost option it is also important to ensure you know what is included in the price of the package and that you are aware of any hidden charges.
Not every provider will include the crematorium fee, says Mr Hull. “This can add another £500 if not.”
“Some services will charge more if collection is from home or if out of hours,” explains Ms Ablott. This can add another £150-£250 to your bill. The Co-op, however, can bring the deceased into one of their funeral homes at any time of day or night, from a home or a hospital, without charging an additional fee.
Check, too, if mileage limits apply. If the deceased needs to be transported outside a specific radius there could be additional costs.
If the deceased is likely to require a larger coffin you should also be sure this will be covered. Mr Hull says: “Are there charges for bariatric clients? Such clients often require larger coffins and specific facilities in order to accommodate their needs. You could be charged around £250 for this.” Taller customers may also need to pay for a larger coffin.
Another point for every customer to check is whether doctor’s fees for signing cremation forms are included. This will be a total of £164 (two payments of £82) for deaths in England and Wales. “Some companies may quote without and then charge extra for this,” Mr Dunn points out. This fee is excluded by the cheapest provider in our tables, Memoria, bumping up the real cost substantially.
However, if there is any uncertainty as to how the deceased died and the body goes to the coroner there is no need for these forms to be signed. So, if doctors’ fees are included in the price make sure that this money will be returned to you in the event that a coroner’s investigation is required.
Finally, you will need to understand what will happen to you or your loved one’s ashes. Most services allow for ashes to be collected from the crematorium free of charge but if you want them delivered there could be an extra fee. Co-op, for example, charges £95 for delivery by a specialist courier, but if customers prefer to pick them up they will make sure the cremation takes place at a local crematorium. Pure Cremations, however, will return them within 21 days free of charge.
If you don’t want the ashes returned there may be an option to have them scattered in a garden of remembrance.
Ashes and what happens to them can be an emotive subject. Mr Dunn says aside from delivery and collection arrangements it is worth finding out how they will be returned to you. “It can be distressing if they are returned to you in a way that is not expected.”
The ashes will not be given to you in a fancy urn, for example. Beyond provides ashes in a bio-degradable container while Simplicity says they will come in a ‘simple’ container.
If you don’t want a traditional funeral but aren’t entirely comfortable with a direct cremation, some firms offer a half-way house. The ‘Intimate’ package by Simplicity Cremations allows up to 12 people to attend the cremation and say a few words in the chapel before the committal. However, mourners will not get any say in the timing or location of the cremation.
This isn’t a direct cremation in the purest sense but as the market grows, services will adapt to customers’ needs. As Mr Dunn says: “There will be a blurring of lines as the market becomes more responsive.”
Changing attitudes to funerals
While lots of us have very clear ideas about our final send-off, Sun Life’s Cost of Dying report found we aren’t so great about sharing those plans with loved ones. Only 1% knew exactly what the deceased wanted, while 18% didn’t know any of their preferences.
The research also found that 98% did not want a lavish funeral while 31% of people wanted it to be as cheap as possible.
Close to half of people arranging funerals (47%) had not heard about direct cremation. However, once it was explained to them, 19% said they would have considered it for their loved one, and a more significant 44% said they would consider it for themselves when they die.
Shunning a traditional funeral leaves bereaved loved ones with more money to spend on their own memorials.
Some of the more unusual examples featured in the Sun Life report include:
- Turning ashes into glass
- Burying ashes on a football pitch
- Putting ashes into fireworks
- Using ashes in tattoo ink
- Requesting everyone at the funeral wears pink and drinks prosecco