The cost of Funerals

Martin Down

  • Article

Do funerals have to cost so much?

To add to all the other worries that a death and bereavement can bring, many people may also have very practical worries about the cost of a funeral. Like the cost of weddings the cost of funerals seems to have been inflating in recent years.

The best place to start is with a common sense appraisal of what you want and what you can afford, and a frank conversation with the funeral director of your choice. You will probably find more flexibility and understanding if you are dealing with an independent or family firm; local undertakers who are part of a larger business or conglomerate are more likely to have their hands tied by fixed prices and packages over which they have no discretion.

One family with very limited resources came to their funeral director and started to demand the best and most expensive funeral he could provide: a solid oak coffin, several limousines, and an elaborate reception and memorial to follow. “He didn’t have much in life, so we want to give him a good send-off,” they said. All of which made no sense to the undertaker, except that he would make a lot more money out of them.

Perhaps this shows the importance of discussing these things with our family or friends before we die, and letting them know our own wishes. If that has not happened then the next of kin should first consider what they are trying to do or to say at the funeral.
These days, the most overlooked function of a funeral is the opportunity it gives to relatives and friends formally and publicly to say goodbye, and let the person go. It is an opportunity to express mourning and grief. For Christians it is also an opportunity to give thanks to God for someone’s life, and to commend their soul to God’s merciful keeping. A funeral is not a celebration. The more the deceased person was loved, the more their loss is to be grieved. To make a show or a carnival out of the funeral is to miss the point. The occasion is not one for conspicuous display and expenditure, but for sobriety, and care for one another amongst those who are left.

So, having decided what you want, and having considered what you can afford, you are in a position to discuss the options with your funeral director. It is impossible here to give any more than the most general figures for the various costs involved. Partly, this is because such figures will quickly go out of date, but also because costs vary enormously in different parts of the country.
When a person dies, whether in hospital or at home, the body has to be laid out and washed, and later, suitably dressed. In days gone by this might have been done by a local woman in the community, but today it is invariably done as part of the service provided by the undertaker. The body is than kept in a mortuary or chapel of rest until the funeral, and these costs are generally included in the undertaker’s overall charges.

The main decision next is whether the body should be buried or cremated. Generally burial is more expensive than cremation. This is because in most places burial requires the purchase of the burial plot. In a municipal or woodland cemetery a plot may cast anything from £500 in a rural area to £1500 in a city, and even £5000 in London. In addition to buying the plot there will be a charge for the interment, that is the digging of the grave. This will add anything from £250 to £500 to the cost of burial. Cremation on the other hand will probably cost either side of £1000, depending on the crematorium, but with much less variation from one part of the country to another. A formal interment of ashes in a graveyard after cremation will also incur some smaller charges.

In a country parish there may still be the option of burial in the churchyard. The Parochial Church Council will probably be quite strict about the qualification for this privilege, but if the deceased has a genuine connection with the parish this may be possible. In a churchyard there is no fee for the burial plot as such, but there will still be a fee for the interment, and a fee payable to the PCC for the general maintenance of the churchyard. The last of these is currently around £350.

Coffins can cost anything from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds, but since, like the body itself, it will soon be dust and ashes either way, this is probably not the place to spend vast sums of money. Flowers on the coffin can of course be anything from a bunch from the garden to expensive wreathes from the local florist.

Transport of the coffin from the chapel of rest, and of the mourners from their home, to the funeral can either cost a good deal of money or nothing. An undertaker will probably transport a body directly to a crematorium chapel for a very small fee or as part of the service. But if a hearse and bearers are required, to take the body to a church or cemetery for burial, or to be carried into a crematorium, this can cost around £500. Likewise the mourners can travel to the funeral at their own expense or in hired limousines.
If a service of some sort is to be held in church, or in a cemetery or crematorium chapel, there will be additional fees. In an Anglican church the fee for a funeral service is currently around £200, which includes the fee for the vicar but not for an organist or musicians. There may also be other additional fees for other requirements. At a cemetery or crematorium chapel, there will a time limit to the service, which may be a Christian service for which a minister’s fee will be required, or a Humanist service for which likewise an officiant’s fee may be required, or the mourners can devise a ceremony of remembrance or appreciation for themselves, for which presumably no fees will be involved.

As a general guide, the average cost of a funeral in Britain today is in the region of £3500, but, as mentioned above, this can vary considerably from one part of the country to another. But it is worth emphasizing that this figure does not include the cost of any reception or wake for which the mourners may gather after the funeral, nor does it include the cost of any sort of memorial. Both of these are best organised separately from the funeral itself. A wake can be simply a cup of tea and piece of cake at home, or it can be a full meal at a restaurant. A headstone in a graveyard or cemetery will cost at least £1500: a simple wooden cross or a small plaque, less.

There is no government grant for funerals, but most of the costs of a funeral are VAT free. However, if someone responsible for the arrangement of a funeral is in receipt of certain State benefits or tax credits they may qualify for a Funeral Expenses Payment.