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Are the bereaved being exploited?

18 October 2019

The funeral industry is growing, but the Government is concerned about its ethics. Huw Spanner investigates

 Arka Original Funerals

Funerals services are a chance to celebrate a life, and can be highly personalised, even in church settings

Funerals services are a chance to celebrate a life, and can be highly personalised, even in church settings

ORGANISING a funeral — whether death has come suddenly or with plenty of notice — is, for most people, an unfamiliar task, and it can be challenging in many ways.

One of the challenges is the cost. The average cost of just the essentials, excluding flowers and catering, was estimated last year to be almost £4300, and costs have risen by six per cent every year for the past 14 years. The Competition and Markets Authority is investigating, and will report next year.

Does the funeral industry take advantage of the bereaved? Tony Walter, Emeritus Professor of Death Studies at Bath University, believes that it is “both caring and exploitative, and can be both at the same time. A company will have targets for the coffins and other paraphernalia it wants to sell you, and yet the actual funeral arranger who you see — a rather low-paid member of the firm, almost always a middle-aged woman — may be full of compassion.”

Quaker Social Action paints “a pretty dark picture” of poor practice in its submission to the investigation. But Claire Brandon, who manages its initiative Down to Earth, says that there is another side to it: “There are certainly a lot of good funeral directors out there, who are really kind to people.”

The problem for the recently bereaved is that, like good plumbers and garages, they can be hard to find. “It’s difficult to tell just by looking at Checkatrade.com,” she says, and an appealing website or a high ranking on Google proves nothing.

Many funeral directors are rather like high-street solicitors, Professor Walter says: they trade on a local perception that they are good and trustworthy and have been so for generations — and yet they may not be. “Certainly, they may not be the best value for money.”

Cara Mair, who founded ARKA Original Funerals in 2003, warns: “It’s very difficult to get a precise quote for something you don’t buy very often, and funeral directors may give you prices without being transparent about what they include.”

Recent changes in regulations mean that more firms are now putting their prices on their websites, but “you still have to decipher what they actually cover.”

“Bear in mind that a funeral director is a business,” Ms Brandon says. “They are not there to be your best friend, or a counsellor, but to make a profit from services rendered. Some will ask a fair price, and others will overcharge. You don’t always get what you pay for.”

Her advice is: plan ahead if circumstances allow, get at least two quotes if possible, be clear what you want, and don’t be embarrassed to talk about costs. “When you’re grieving, you’re not always in that kind of head space; so, if you have a friend or relative who is supportive but more detached, you could ask them to see the funeral director with you.”

It is worth asking around for a recommendation, Professor Walter says, but even that can be misleading. “For a vicar or a crematorium manager, a good funeral director is simply one who makes everything run smoothly.”


ONE invaluable source of sound and detailed advice is the Good Funeral Guide, an independent not-for-profit body whose directors have visited in person every one of the firms that it recommends.

Its website provides a checklist of all that needs to be done when someone dies, from registering the death to disposing of the remains. It also advises on how to do what it calls “a home funeral”, which dispenses with the services of a funeral director entirely.

The Natural Death Centre and the National Bereavement Service also have websites full of information and advice. Down to Earth, in particular, offers advice to people who are anxious about cost because they are on a low income or on benefits.

“We look at ways to plan a funeral that is both affordable and meaningful,” Ms Brandon explains. “That might involve raising money from government sources or charitable funds, or the deceased’s estate if there is one. We work with each individual to see what their options are; so it’s quite tailored to them. Anyone anywhere can ring our national helpline.”

There is a strong trend now towards “direct disposal”, where a body is taken to a crematorium, usually early in the day and in an unmarked van, to be cremated without any ceremony.

This can be both more economical — with no hearse or bearers involved, it can cost as little as £1000 — and more convenient. Friends and relatives may choose to “say goodbye” to the deceased in the days leading up to the disposal, or there may be a separate service or celebration of their life at some other location, maybe weeks later, to mark their passing.

Annie Willmot, a lay Christian “funeral pastor” (www.funeralpastors.org), says that she can understand this development. “A lot of people are just so anxious about funeral arrangements, or family dynamics, or the idea that other people are watching them grieve. I can see why you might choose not to have a service at the crematorium and do something different.”

“I think there’s a lot to be said for it,” Professor Walter says. “It gives people more time to think about what they want in a memorial service.”

Ms Mair sounds a more cautious note. “This is a cheap way to do what the law requires; but there’s always a reason why costs are lower. There are companies setting up that are specialising in direct disposal, and I wonder what happens to the body after they collect it, and where it is kept, and how respectful it all is.”


RESPECT is a recurring theme when talking about funerals. Whether they are dealing with the body of a loved one, or of a relative whom they hardly knew, everyone wishes to do the right thing. But what does “the right thing” consist of in these post-Christian times? What exactly is the purpose of a funeral now?

What used to be important, Professor Walter says, was a parade through the streets and a good display. “That is still important for many people, especially from traditional working-class communities; but, increasingly, a funeral has become a celebration of the life of the deceased as a unique individual.

“Ultimately, funerals are about paying respect to somebody who was one of us — of our family, our community, or even our nation — and bidding them farewell.”

A funeral is “a process rather than just an event at a church or a crematorium”, Ms Mair says. “It begins [as soon as] the death has happened. I think it is important to have some kind of gathering, some kind of recognition of the transition from life to death. Perhaps the family opt for direct disposal, but they gather at the house beforehand to wash and dress the body, or to decorate the coffin.

“The ceremony needs to reflect the situation and the people who are gathered. It’s not always a ‘celebration’, but it’s marking the occasion. Sometimes the most simple, quiet times are the most poignant.”

 Arka Original FuneralsA funeral procession to a woodland burial, complete with cardboard coffin

One thing that is certainly not obligatory, she says, is a hearse. “Families can use their own cars; they can hire a van; they can borrow a friend’s estate car. Once people realise that a black hearse doesn’t indicate respect, they say, ‘Thank goodness we don’t need to use one of those.’”

Some people know exactly what they want in a funeral, Ms Brandon remarks, but others are not sure. “Some people want something very grand and traditional, and some want something much more contemporary. Some find comfort in tradition, and others find it in the fact that you don’t have to follow a tradition. It’s good that there are so many choices now, but I think it can be a bit overwhelming.”

In the face of a changing scene, the Head of Life Events for the Church of England, Canon Sandra Millar, acknowledges that even Church of England funerals “provide a structure that can be made personal to reflect a unique life”.

The value of a church funeral is that it offers “hope that death is not the end, and hope for the journey through bereavement,” she says. “The local church community is there for people whenever and wherever they need support, whether that’s sitting in the quiet of a country church, or lighting a candle in a big cathedral. Bereavement affects mental health and well-being; good ritual helps, and good support helps, too.“

Mrs Willmot has found that people “want to know what normally happens, and what people normally do. They want this set structure that they can then play with. Sometimes, they will have an order of service from a previous family funeral, and they’ll say: ‘Can we have something similar?’

“If they want an overtly Christian service, they will go to a church, but often people will say: ‘We want a service but we don’t want it to be religious — oh, but we do want a hymn, and we’d like the Lord’s Prayer.’

“You just try to figure out what they feel would be the right thing, and what would help them to say goodbye well.”


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Tessa lost her husband, Paul, to cancer six years ago. He planned his funeral with her before he died, and chose a church service, followed by a woodland burial

Huw SpannerTessa and Paul

“PAUL was very relaxed about discussing his funeral, and went into quite a lot of detail. Our children found it a bit strange when I told them, but I appreciated it. It kind of lightens things a bit to be able to talk about death beforehand, rather than pretending. I remember when I went to see my uncle when he was dying, and my mother told me: ‘Don’t you dare say anything about dying. Just be cheerful and make him happy.’

“I had read something about ‘green burials’, and Paul said, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’ We chose a site in some beautiful woodland, quite a way outside the city, where there are already quite a lot of people buried. People walk their dogs there — you can’t see anything but trees. They set a plaque into the ground, and give you the GPS co-ordinates.

“Paul was very happy about that, though he never got to see the place himself. At first, I wasn’t sure, but now I like the idea; I can find normal cemeteries a bit oppressive. In fact, I’ve bought a place for myself in the same spot. We thought it would be much cheaper to put two people there.”

They chose a biodegradable coffin, which she and her three adult children decorated when the time came. They were not involved in laying out the body or dressing it. A hearse took the coffin to the burial site, but it was her two sons, with two of Paul’s friends, who lowered it into the earth. “I think that was very difficult for the boys, but they said they wanted to do it. It was all quite unconventional, but then Paul was like that.”

After that, there was a service at their church. “Paul had chosen the hymns we were going to sing, and maybe a reading, too. Various people spoke. I didn’t give anyone any guidance at all: I didn’t really feel up to making any choices myself. We had the burial first, so that everyone could stay around for tea and sandwiches and cakes, and we could sort of rejoice afterwards.”

She would be very cautious, she says, about giving anyone advice about a funeral.

“It’s such a personal thing. All I would say is: Don’t let anyone take over. Definitely say what you want.”


Liz Miles-Coppard lost her 53-year-old brother, Ian, to cancer in February. It was the first funeral that she had had to plan, and she did it with her youngest sister

Liz Miles-Coppard

“MY brother was in a hospice, St Wilfrid’s, when he died. They gave us some information about what we needed to do — like registering the death and about organising a funeral — and provided a list of local funeral directors.

“We were told about direct disposal — either by the hospice or the registrar, I can’t remember. But that way there’s no service: it's literally incineration with nobody there. Then again, if you have no money, I can understand.

“Because Ian was in a hospice, they like to get the body moved fairly quickly; they haven’t got a morgue. That means you have to make decisions fast. We contacted a funeral director, and they picked up his body.

“They were so compassionate — both the funeral director, and the registrar at the town hall when we registered the death. They made it as easy as possible.

“At the funeral director’s, we were told about the options and given the price list, and then we were left on our own to talk things through. There was no pushing. They said that, to keep costs down, there was absolutely no need to have cars, for instance.

“The funeral director sorted out the order of service for us. They phoned several times to check that things were OK: for instance, which version of “Stairway to heaven” we wanted. Nothing was too much trouble.

“We knew we weren’t going to have a burial. Perhaps it was partly the cost, but I think he’d have wanted to be cremated: I don’t think he’d have wanted to disintegrate in the ground.

“He did speak about death at first, but the more ill he got, the less he wanted to admit it. It would have been easier if he had, because you spend time thinking: ‘Is this right, or wrong?’

“The only thing we weren’t very happy about was that when we went to see him he wasn’t clean shaven, which we had asked for. But they had dressed him beautifully in a gown. He had a teddy bear with him that had been given by his daughter and ex-partner, and he had a photo of him at his birthday with all the family. He looked peaceful.”

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