They say that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life. But there seems to be a third, linked to death and as painful as taxes. It’s the astronomical cost of organising a funeral.
My partner’s father died recently, and for the honour of a bog-standard cremation in a far from fashionable part of East Anglia she was charged just over £4,000. Jo felt no shame in asking for the cheapest option (it’s what her father would have wanted — he was never a man to waste money), and so the answer came as something of a shock. When a figure has you imagining the cheeky little jaunt to the Caribbean it could fund instead, you know things have turned serious.
‘How the hell do they justify four grand?’ I asked.
Jo went through the itemised list. Flowers: £150. She examined the picture of the lilies that would adorn the coffin. ‘A florist would charge you 40 quid for those,’ came her verdict. Aluminium urn for the ashes: £66. Not being so au fait with the urn market (who would be?) she couldn’t pronounce with any confidence — but we both knew that £66 was over the odds. The crematorium’s costs weighed in at £852. Another £76 went on the ‘service stationery’, essentially 20 copies of the words to the hymn we’d be singing. Though in fairness to the funeral directors, they did, after the funeral, send us one of the copies in a ring-binder, together with some photos of the flowers and a covering sheet saying that David had died ‘aged 82 ears’.
There was also a payment for £160, listed as ‘doctor’. Eh? A death certificate had already been issued by the hospital, and unless the undertakers were straying well beyond their remit and attempting a last-minute resuscitation, it was hard to see why a doctor would be needed. But it turns out that with cremations (as opposed to burials), a second doctor has to examine the body to check there’s nothing untoward: the ‘evidence’, as it were, is about to be destroyed. These payments, known in the medical profession as ‘ash cash’, are regarded as a perk of the job.
But even those expenses left the thick end of the headline figure unaccounted for. It transpired that the rest of the funeral firm’s services — storing the body for a couple of weeks, putting it in their cheapest coffin, driving it to the crematorium and paying four men in black suits to carry it inside — were costing us £2,865. This would have been even higher if we’d gone for any of the ‘extras’, such as a limousine to drive us behind the hearse, or a more ornate coffin (the white one imprinted with a sepia picture of the Manhattan skyline, perhaps), or the release at the service of several white doves.
In the end Jo couldn’t be bothered to argue the toss. You don’t, do you? Not when you’re concentrating on grieving, and know the costs represent a pretty thin slice off the inheritance that’s coming your way. Clearly undertakers are aware that Britain’s ridiculous property prices have put most people in this position, and ramp up their charges accordingly.
But what about the people who aren’t so comfortably off? A study for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Scotland last year found that more and more people were getting into debt over funeral expenses. A government fund exists to help in such cases, but it hasn’t kept pace with the increase in costs — an average of 7 per cent every year since 2004. Then there are the immigrant workers landed with huge bills when (as has happened) one of their team drops dead in the cabbage field next to them.
The Natural Death Centre (‘lifting the lid on dying and funerals’) campaigns on the issue of charges. Its manager, Rosie Inman-Cook, regularly takes calls from people in trouble. ‘Last week there was a Romanian woman whose partner had died suddenly. They’d been given permission to work here, and had just scraped together their last few pennies to pay the deposit on a flat. Where was she going to find the money for his funeral? No one back in Romania could afford to help out.’
How can you make a funeral cheaper? By recognising that there is no legal obligation to use a funeral director. The law requires only that you dispose of the body in a fitting manner. You can build a coffin yourself, or use one made by the deceased when they were alive. (Nelson’s coffin was made for him by one of his sailors, several years before his death.) In fact you don’t have to use a coffin at all — a shroud is fine. The body doesn’t have to be embalmed, and actually unless people are going to view it there’s little point. It can remain at your house between death and the funeral: nothing unpleasant will start happening in those few days. You can bury a body on your own land (subject to guidelines about proximity to water sources and the like). If you’re using a crematorium or graveyard, you can transport the body there yourself, getting friends and family to act as pallbearers. Wouldn’t that be nicer than four men you’ve never met before and will never meet again?
In fact, that’s the issue at the heart of all this: taking ownership of the farewell you are saying to your loved one. So much of the way we do it now is based on embarrassment. Very awkward, that silence when the undertaker asks if you’d like brass handles or just the plain steel ones. I’d even argue that sometimes our attitudes to funerals are rooted in denial, a subconscious refusal to accept that the person we knew is now just a body, which is either going to burn or rot. Somehow, goes the thinking, if we pay for those doves to be released, our relative will escape the laws of nature. People spend fortunes on burial plots in ‘prestigious’ cemeteries. Why? The worms don’t discriminate.
Fredric Baur, the man who invented the Pringles tube, had his ashes buried in a Pringles tube. The poet Ben Jonson was buried standing up so that his plot in Westminster Abbey would be cheaper (‘two feet by two is all I want’). Alistair Cooke asked for his ashes to be scattered in his beloved Central Park. But the New York authorities don’t allow this. So ten of Cooke’s relatives and friends each took an empty cup from a nearby branch of Starbucks, split the broadcaster up between them, and gathered in the park. After the 23rd Psalm and a ballad from Cooke’s son, everyone did the necessary.