With the average send-off costing £4,000, letting your loved ones know your preferences – or making your own plan – could save them upset and money. We give you the lowdown on arranging a conventional burial and look at the growing trend for more unusual ceremonies.
Arranging a loved one’s funeral is an emotional time, but it can also be a very expensive one. Figures from insurer SunLife’s Cost of Dying 2017 report show that the average funeral costs £4,078 – an increase of 5% on the previous year and more than double the cost when it started tracking them in 2004.
There is plenty of variation in this figure too, with factors such as where you live and whether you choose a burial or cremation making a difference. Figures from insurer Royal London’s National Funeral Cost Index on the most and least expensive places to have a funeral show that while a burial in Kensal Green in London will set you back £9,809 due to a shortage of burial plots, a cremation in Belfast will only cost £2,943 on average.
However, while some costs are unavoidable, it is possible to give your loved one a highly personal and memorable send-off without spending a fortune.
Part of the problem is that as it’s such an emotional time, many people just go to their local funeral directors and choose a ready-made package.
Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of The Natural Death Centre, a charity that provides help and advice on funerals, recommends shopping around. “Funeral directors can be very different, both in terms of price but also in the service they offer, so speak to a few and pick one you like and trust,” she says. “You can even arrange a funeral yourself: there is no legal requirement to have a funeral director.”
While few people do organise the entire funeral themselves, they are taking on elements of it.
“We encourage families to pay tribute to their loved one with their own skills wherever possible. This could include arranging the flowers, transporting the coffin or giving the service,” says Rosie Grant, director at Natural Endings Funeral Services in Manchester. “It’s not right for every family, and not every funeral director can accommodate it, but it can make it a very personal funeral.”
As an example, a couple of the families she has worked with have built the coffin themselves.
“In one case, the deceased was a second-hand wood dealer, and his son and daughter wanted to make it for him. It was very moving to see them in his workshop, using his tools,” she says.
Even if your woodworking skills aren’t up to it, you don’t need to have a coffin and can choose a shroud instead. There are plenty of cheap deals online, but Ms Inman-Cook recommends using one of the manufacturers listed on the charity’s website (Naturaldeath.org.uk).
“You can get a shroud or cardboard coffin for between £150 and £200,” she says. “For a woven coffin, which some funeral directors charge £1,000 for, you could pay £600 or less.”
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Change the venue
Many other elements of a funeral can also be adapted to cut costs and make it more personal. For instance, while most funerals take place in a crematorium or place of worship, you don’t have to be tied to tradition.
“You can hold a funeral anywhere you like as long you don’t offend common decency,” says Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide. “It can make the service much more relaxed and you could even use your own home or garden if you like.”
For example, Natural Endings’ Ms Grant arranged a funeral in the home of a lady who had taught piano. “The coffin was placed next to her grand piano and her family, who were all musical, brought their instruments and played during the ceremony. It was beautiful.”
Other venues that could be considered include museums, wedding barns, pubs and football grounds. And even if you do decide to stick to the crematorium, Adrian Pink, owner of Town and Country Funeral Directors in Surrey, suggests checking the fee.
“Some charge less for an early morning service,” he says. “This could save you £100 or so.”
There is no need to go for the traditional black hearse and limos either. As well as hiring a more unusual hearse such as a motorcycle and sidecar hearse or a camper van, it’s also possible to use your own vehicle.
“I’ve spoken to families who’ve been told they have to use a hearse or that they need special insurance for transporting a corpse. Neither is true,” says Ms Inman-Cook. “If your vehicle is large enough and you’re happy to do it, use your own car.”
Make it personal
It can even help to make the funeral more personal. For example, Ms Grant arranged a funeral for a young woman who had run a cleaning business, with the coffin transported in her pink work van, and has also seen an old ambulance used and a flat-bed truck carry the coffin at a roadie’s funeral.
As well as the service itself, you may also want to consider some of the associated charges, in particular those for looking after the deceased before the funeral.
“You can keep the body at home if you like, but you do need to be realistic about this,” says Ms Inman-Cook. “You’ll need ice packs, and I wouldn’t recommend doing this for anything longer than six days.”
If you do want to do this, it is worth having support from a funeral director.
Ms Grant explains: “I kept my mum at home when she died for the three days before the burial and my funeral director came in each day to help. Now that I’m a funeral director it’s something I will do for families too.”
Although very few people might consider looking after the deceased at home, many will find themselves being asked whether they would like to have them embalmed. With overtones of the Egyptian pharaohs and often referred to as a hygienic treatment, this is an invasive chemical procedure that stops the body’s natural processes.
“It isn’t something I’d want for myself or my family and it’s not really necessary now we have refrigeration,” says Ms Grant. “However, it can be useful if someone has died suddenly and the family can’t get there for a while.”
Another low-cost option is a direct disposal. With these, the body is cremated or, less commonly, buried without a funeral ceremony. “It puts the farewell back into the hands of the family,” says Mr Cowling. “They can then arrange their own memorial service or party as they wish.”
Around 5% of people, including celebrities such as David Bowie and John Lennon, have a direct burial or cremation and, because it doesn’t have all the trappings of a funeral service, it can be much cheaper.
As an example, Town and Country Funeral Directors charges £1,550 for a direct, or no-fuss, cremation. Some providers quote fees of less than £1,000, but, check the details as these can be headline rates without disbursements such as the crematorium and doctor’s fee, which add a further £600 or more to the cost.
Many elements are exactly the same as a more traditional funeral. “We’d collect and look after the person, sort all the necessary paperwork and visit the family to discuss arrangements,” explains Mr Pink. “On the day, we’d take the person, in a simple wooden coffin, to the crematorium where they would be cremated. The ashes can be returned to the family the following day.”
He adds that, although no one attends the funeral, he always notifies the family when it’s taking place. “Some people like to mark the occasion,” he adds. “The family might have a gathering, and one lady told me she was going for a ride on her horse to remember them.”
It’s not for everyone, though. Ms Grant says that seeing the coffin in a funeral service can be very beneficial to the grieving process. There is also no provision for viewing the body with direct disposal services. “Some people do change their mind about whether or not to see the deceased,” she adds. “This can be difficult if you’ve opted for a direct cremation.”
Donate your body
For an even cheaper farewell, it’s also possible to donate your body to science, where it could be used for research purposes or to help train healthcare professionals. If you choose this, you’ll need to complete the necessary paperwork with a licensed medical school, tell your family and GP, and keep a copy of the consent form with your will.
Eighty-year-old Garry Crowley from Somerset plans to do just this. “I’d like to be part of some research if it helps others in some way, but I also hate the way some funeral directors play on people’s emotions to up the costs,” he explains.
Donating your body can potentially sidestep all funeral expenses, although depending on when and where you die, your family may have to pay for a funeral director to take your body initially.
There is also the chance that the body won’t be accepted.
Ms Inman-Cook explains: “Have a plan B as there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to take the donation. If you die during a holiday period or you have certain medical conditions, including transmissible disease, pressure sores and cancer, it won’t always be possible.”
But whether you want to have a traditional service, three days of partying or you would prefer to donate your body to a medical school, there are plenty of ways to have a respectful and dignified funeral that won’t break the bank.
“It was a very personal and special day”
When Jonnie Crouch died in 2015 at the age of 57, his friends wanted to give him the send-off he deserved.
“He’d struggled with cancer for seven years, so it was really important for me and Jonnie’s best friend, Dominic, to remember what he was like,” says his friend Gaynor Edwards.
“We wanted to celebrate his life and have the good memories.”
Although he’d known it was coming, he’d not really talked about his funeral. “We had a conversation not long before he died where he said he’d like everyone to be given wild flower seeds but other than that it was up to me,” says Gaynor.
So, with some help from his friends, she put together a day of celebrations of Jonnie’s life. “We invited everyone to send in photos and memories and used this in the service and to create a slide show,” says Gaynor. “Some of his oldest friends from school carried the coffin and the crematorium staff even bent the rules to let me bring our dog. It was a very personal and special day.”
Transport for guests was also arranged, with Gaynor hiring a Routemaster bus, signed ‘Crouch End’ to take people from Tunbridge Wells station to the crematorium and on to the wake. “It was brilliant as it gave everyone a chance to chat about Jonnie. There wasn’t a dry eye in the service but we all came off the bus laughing,” says Gaynor. “We wanted to give him a good send-off and he got it.
“Don’t feel you have to stick with tradition”
Neil McCain, a funeral celebrant in Dorset, says: “Funerals are changing. Although it can still be appropriate to have a very traditional, religious ceremony, more and more people are seeing a funeral as a way to celebrate someone’s life. This change is reflected in the funeral services I take, which range from those with hymns and prayers in a crematorium through to celebrations in village halls and on boats.
“One lady even took her husband’s order of service on a road trip, visiting friends and family around the world so they could remember and celebrate his life. Whatever they did, each has been personal and an opportunity to share memories of the deceased, with everything from opera singers, naughty poems and even some dad dancing and swearing.
Don’t feel you have to stick with tradition or be led by the funeral director: what is important is that the day is what you want. A good funeral director and celebrant will support you and help you make the funeral a special way to remember your loved one.”
Funeral plans ensure that, whatever happens, there is money available to meet at least some of the costs. Many funeral directors offer a suite of pre-paid plans, allowing you to select the type of funeral and coffin you want. These are available at today’s prices, either paid for in instalments or a one-off payment and, no matter when you die, your chosen funeral will be covered.
Some insurers also offer pre-paid plans. For example, SunLife works with funeral provider Golden Charter to offer three plans – standard, at £3,625, select, at £3,995 and premier, at £4,540. “Once you’ve paid this, your family will just need to contact your allocated funeral director and they will do the rest,” says Graham Jones, commercial director at SunLife.
But before taking out a plan, Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, has the following advice. “The trouble with many plans is you’re tied to a particular funeral director or chain. This is fi ne if everyone is happy with the arrangements,” he says. “If there is any doubt, it might be better to leave a pot of money so family and friends can give you the send-off they want.
Funeral Choice, Yourfuneral choice.com, tel: 01983 754387
The Natural Death Centre, Naturaldeath. org.uk, tel: 01962 712690
The Good Funeral Guide, Goodfuneralguide. co.uk
Human Tissue Authority, Hta.gov.uk, tel: 020 7269 1900
My perfect send-off, Sunlife.co.uk/life-cover/over-50-lifeinsurance/perfectsend-off/