MPs demand answers on funeral poverty as the cost of saying goodbye soars

Research shows the costs of interment and cremation have risen by 30 per cent in the past two years. So how can you save money on funerals?

Kate Hughes
Money Editor
Thursday 13 September 2018 12:19 BST
Public health funerals have increased by 70 per cent in the past three years
Public health funerals have increased by 70 per cent in the past three years (Alamy)

It’s inescapable. Not death itself – although that’s fairly conclusive – but the brutal cost of saying goodbye.

According to the latest data, funeral costs have risen to more than £4,000 nationwide this year. Some studies suggest the bill has soared by a third since 2016.

In London you’ll pay roughly £6,000 for a typical send-off. That’s twice the cost of a funeral in Northern Ireland, says SunLife’s Cost of Dying report.

In fact, most mourners find the final bill – even for the most straightforward of events – typically comes in at approximately £9,000 when taking into account things such paying for refreshments after the service.

Why does it cost so much? Cynics would suggest it’s because we’re a captive market. Brits don’t want to talk about death at all, let alone the cost of it.

So, an attempt to reduce the cost of the final send-off for a loved one is akin to penny-pinching at best, and shockingly disrespectful at worst.

However, when it emerged mourners were being turned away from attending the funeral of their loved ones by at least one local council because they could not pay for it, the issue became so stark that this week questions were being asked about funeral poverty in The House of Commons.

The eye-watering prices, and the speed at which they are rising, have already drawn the attention of the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), the body that scrutinises how fairly businesses deal with their customers.

This summer the CMA launched a review of the funeral market designed to investigate the factors affecting cost and whether consumers are getting a good deal.

Fond farewell

Like everything in life it seems a big brand name comes with a price hike. At least according to funeral comparison site, Beyond.

It claims the chains that dominate the UK funeral market are charging 65 per cent more than independent providers, on average.

The leading chains, which make up a third of the market, now charge on average £3,771 for their funeral director services. The same services from an independent funeral director cost an average of £2,287.

The research found that independent funeral directors have actually dropped their fees by 1 per cent since 2016.

“The most disappointing thing about the ‘chain premium’ is how unsurprising it is. Chains have a stranglehold in many areas across the country and it is not always apparent which funeral directors are independents,” says James Dunn, co-founder of Beyond.

“This reduces transparency and makes it even harder for consumers to compare costs.

“Most people would like to know if they are using an independent, local firm and, at around £1,500 cheaper on average, could also save a lot of money. It’s well worth asking funeral directors if they are part of a large chain and it’s crucial consumers shop around.”

Pay less to say goodbye

“Many people worry that having a cheaper funeral is disrespectful,” says Dean Lamble, CEO at SunLife, “but our research shows that the vast majority of us do not want money wasted on a fancy funeral.

“In fact more than one in three people who have recently organised a funeral said they would want their own to be ‘as cheap as possible.’ One in six said they would like a direct cremation and one in 12 said they would prefer a woodland burial.

Beverley Goulbourn, 71, paid around £3,800 for her husband’s funeral, but says she does not want friends and family wasting money on hers.

“I have organised a very basic funeral for myself and paid for it. It has cost me around £1,500. I am not religious and I don’t want all that money wasted on a funeral – I’d rather my family had a good old knees up.”

Safety nets

But what if £1,500 is still, understandably, unaffordable?

The welfare state is supposed to be the safety net between us and destitution, including when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

In the worst-case scenario, if no-one comes forward to claim a body, the NHS may cover the costs if the person died in its care. But the Public Health Act ultimately places the responsibility for burying or cremating on the local authority.

Akin to Victorian ‘paupers funerals’, such public health funerals have increased by 70 per cent in the past three years according to one recent investigation.

If there is next of kin, those on certain benefits can request financial support from the government to pay for the funeral of a loved one through the Social Fund Funeral Payment scheme.

Eligible claimants who can prove their close relationship with the deceased, and the responsibility for covering the funeral costs, should be able to get help paying for bills including burial plots, cremation costs, paperwork and certificates of death, moving the body and up to £700 for coffins, flowers and funeral directors’ fees.

It’s complex to claim though, and is means-tested so if, for example, the deceased had money in a bank account, even if those assets haven’t yet been released by the bank, they will be taken into account.

The government describes the fund as helping to pay for a simple, lost cost affair. However, in the year to May 2018 almost 26,000 funeral payments were made in the UK with an average payment of only £1,460 – several thousand pounds short of the average cost.

7 ways to reduce funeral costs

1. Have a direct cremation

This is where the body is cremated immediately after death, without a funeral service. The average direct cremation costs £1,835, half the cost of a standard cremation (£3,596) but can cost as little as £1,454 in the North West.

2. Hold a wake at home

Rather than having the expense of hiring a venue (average cost £214), you can save money by holding the wake at home instead. If it’s a nice sunny or dry day, you can also use your garden.

3. Make your own food

If you do hold a wake, you can save money by not hiring a caterer to make the food for you (average cost £348). Get family or friends together and make sandwiches and nibbles to serve instead.

4. Choose a cheaper coffin

Coffins can be an expensive part of the funeral, but there are cheaper options away from the traditional casket. Cardboard coffins start from as little as £100.

5. Don’t embalm the body

Embalming the body is a traditional practice but not essential. You could save around £100 by choosing not to have the body embalmed.

6. Cut back on flowers

Flowers may look nice, but for many they can be seen as an unnecessary expense (average spent is £150) with many now requesting donations be made to a cause or charity close to their heart rather than flowers being bought in their memory.

7. Have fewer pallbearers

To cut back on costs, ask for fewer pallbearers, or even do it yourself by asking friends or relatives to carry the coffin instead. Not only does this save money but it can also add a more personal touch.

Source: Sunlife

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in