Funeral cost sharpens death's sting: Burial and cremation charges are soaring, writes Ian Hunter. One solution is to pay first and die later

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JUNE POTTS was reported recently to have received an unusual retirement present from her employer.

The East Sussex firm of undertakers offered a free burial worth about pounds 1,000 in recognition of her 30 years' service.

The cost of a basic funeral varies, depending on the region. In Manchester a body can be cremated for pounds 708, whereas the same service would cost pounds 913 in Sevenoaks, Kent.

The prices include removing the body to a chapel of rest, a simple coffin, a headstone, doctors' and ministers' fees, obituaries and funeral cars.

According to a 1992 survey of funeral costs carried out by Mason Shakspeare on behalf of the Independent Order Of Oddfellows in Manchester, the cost of the average British funeral, including disbursements, has risen by 14 per cent for burials and by 19 per cent for cremations in the past year.

The survey points out: 'Research showed a striking discrepancy in costs - often hundreds of pounds - quoted for a similiar funeral by different funeral directors in the same town. This shows that it is well worth getting more than one detailed quote.'

The cost of extras can vary widely. Quotations for a headstone can range from pounds 250 to pounds 1,500. A coffin, depending on quality, may cost between pounds 200 and pounds 1,000.

In general, cremations are slightly cheaper than burials. Burial plots also fluctuate widely in price. Some can be bought for as little as pounds 75; others for as much as pounds 650.

For those prepared to pay an extra pounds 520, the London undertaker T Cribb & Sons offers a nineteenth-century hearse drawn by black Friesian horses, driven by a coachman.

If the funeral is more than 300 miles outside London it is likely to cost more, as the horses will need an overnight stay.

John Harris of Cribb, a family firm, said too much emphasis had been put on itemised bills. 'You cannot give people a shopping list. It can be misleading.'

In any case, consumers normally have to accept a package deal from one funeral director and cannot buy the separate elements and put them together.

He recommends that people from the bereaved family should visit the funeral director personally and talk face to face.

'That way you get a better idea of who you are dealing with. Price isn't everything.'.

A number of organisations now offer pre-arranged funeral plans.

The Sussex-based company Chosen Heritage gives the opportunity to choose and pay for funerals now.

The standard of funeral selected is guaranteed, regardless of any price increases in the interim period.

Chosen Heritage quotes from a 1989 Office of Fair Trading report to support the marketing of its inflation-hedged funerals.

The report says: 'The cost of funerals rose faster than the cost of living in the 12 years to March 1987 . . . Concern at the cost of funerals is exacerbated by the public's relative ignorance of what that cost is likely to be.'

Payment to the company can be made all at once or in 24 or 60 monthly instalments.

Chosen Heritage offers three funeral plans at varying prices. The Heritage plan costs pounds 1,365, the Traditional plan pounds 975 and the Simplicity plan pounds 750. Prices increase if payment is by instalments.

Another group, Golden Charter, also offers pre-paid funerals. There are four different plans, and the funeral director chosen by the client will advise on price.

Clients can pay for the selected funeral either in a single payment or by instalments.

The Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors, in association with Hambros Legal Protection, offers members' clients a 24-hour telephone Family Careline, giving advice on legal, medical and social matters following a death. It provides guidance on what to do if there is no will, for example, and advises on payment of inheritance tax.

Those receiving income support, family credit, housing benefit or community charge benefit are eligible for a funeral payment from the Government's Social Fund.

The payment includes the cost of bringing the body home from anywhere in the United Kingdom, undertaker's fees, the coffin, flowers, a hearse, and cemetery or crematorium fees.

Funeral payments are usually made by a girocheque in the funeral director's name, but they must be repaid from the deceased's estate.

Personal possessions and the home occupied by the widow or widower are disregarded when valuing the estate.

Applications for a funeral payment must be made within three months of the date of the funeral.

One consolation about dying is that despite the rising costs of funerals, according to the Society of Oddfellows' study, average British funeral prices are still more competitive than those in the other European countries surveyed.

(Photograph omitted)