The Good Funeral Guide Blog

How different from US

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The effects of the crash have yet fully to register. Brits have always had a puritanical, penitential streak, a disposition to pare cheese, save string, make do and mend. Those who will be wiped out are to be pitied. The rest of us, I think, are strangely relieved that it’s all over, happy to get back to self-reliance and common sense. We remind ourselves that the best things in life are recession-proof. The beauties of nature outshine the thrill of the mall.

 

Bad news is good news for the press; our papers are making merry feeding our schadenfreude and our fear. They’ve picked up on it in the US and it’s generated this headline in Time: Corpses Pile Up Amid Britain’s Financial Crisis.

 

You hadn’t noticed? It goes like this. Families on benefits are encountering delays in getting Social Fund payments for their funerals. Some funeral directors, unwilling to carry debt, are refusing to go ahead with funeral arrangements until they have been paid. It has taken nine weeks to hold a funeral for a Shrewsbury man. Questions have been asked in the House. The spectre of the Winter of Discontent stalks our streets.

 

In point of boring fact, this situation predates the crash. It affects only 27,000 funerals a year. So the chances of a corpse pile-up in your neighbourhood are bathetically less than nil.

 

The hullabaloo raises interesting questions about funeral costs, though, at a time when everyone will be interested in cheaper funerals. The Social Fund will cough up around £700 towards the funeral director’s bill and around £1,000 for disbursements. In all, that’s a few hundred pounds short of the cost of a typical funeral. Need a funeral cost this much? Two factors, in particular, make funerals arguably more expensive then they ought to be.

 

The first is the d-word, that peculiar word we apply only to the very old and the dead: dignity. If a funeral does not feature a hearse, bearers, shop flowers atop the coffin and a be-toppered undertaker walking in front of the cortege, most people would reckon that to be shabby rather than simple. Funeral directors could offer a service that costs less than £700, but there’d be little uptake. What’s more, their pricing structures are such that they’d struggle to make a decent profit if they did.

 

It is interesting to see how, in the US, the huge cost of a ‘traditional’ funeral — cosmetised, casketed body, visitation, service, whole body burial in a vault — has spawned its polar opposite, direct cremation, whereby the body is cremated as soon after death as statutorily possible (usually 24 hours) and the ashes returned to the family. Thus Florida Direct Cremation can offer to transport the body, coffin it, do all the paperwork and cremate it for an all-in price of $395. In sinking, shrinking British pounds that works out at just £225.76. Most charge around $900 — £500.

 

Direct cremation does not preclude a funeral, but it is likely to be a funeral not for a body but for its ashes. The family chooses its venue. In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change?

 

How much does cremating a body actually cost in terms of fuel and capital costs?  I ought to find out; perhaps a helpful person will tell me. It’s bound to be more in the UK than it is in the US because we cremate so inefficiently. And this brings me to my second factor: because a UK crematorium is both a ceremonial space in which to hold funerary rites and also a place where the dead are burned, it gets all that heat up to burn far fewer bodies than it could — a very un-green way of doing things. A US crematory will burn bodies round the clock if necessary.

 

The UK model doesn’t work. More time is given to dead bodies than they need, too little to mourners. The outcome looks and feels like a production line. Not for the business of cremation it isn’t.  

 

It would make more sense for bodies to be burned in a dedicated plant serving several ceremonial spaces. Given the lack of interest most people show in what happens after the curtains close, it would seem to be immaterial if a body is burned a few feet away from the ceremonial space or a few miles. Those few who do wish to see everything through and done properly could still go and do so — as they do in the US. Sure, they would find themselves in an industrial environment, but scarcely more so than behind the scenes at a crem.

 

Should local authorities feel obliged to provide a ceremonial spaces? Or crematories? I can’t see why. But they’d hate to give up their crematoria because they yield good profits, which subsidise the costs of cemetery maintenance — and, therefore, of burial. In this way, local authorities are able to compete unfairly with natural burial grounds run by the private sector. They further penalise cremation clients in order to fund unrelated projects. It’s a pity many of them don’t spend a little of that money on refurbishing their crem toilets.

 

Vested interests oppose change. Funerals cost more than they ought.

 

And the funeral directors? Are they making more than they ought? No. They must comply, both, with things as they are and with the wishes of their clients. If funerals cost more than they need, that’s not their fault. Having in mind what they do, they are entitled to a decent living.

 

As I go to press I can’t help thinking my argument is flawed. It is reassuring to know that my loyal readers will not hesitate to pounce. 

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