Why do kids go free?

Charles 30 Comments

“We lost our son at 22 weeks … My husband and I were not religious so we had a small cremation. The funeral company did not charge us for the service. A humanist also held a short service for us and yet again there was no charge. I know money isn’t everything but it was so lovely to know this wasn’t an additional thing to have to worry about.” A mum on Mumsnet.

Commodification is when something done for nothing becomes something sold for money. The dead used to be cared for, free, by members of the community, whose work had no market value. It does now, though. It’s been commodified.

Bereaved people often find it hard to get their heads around this business of making money out of misery. Many undertakers aren’t entirely comfortable with their commercial function, either, which is why the word ‘service’ is so prominent in their vocabulary.

Presumably it’s also why hardly any of them charge for the funerals of children.

What does that say? It’s not as if the workload is any less. On the contrary, it’s likely to be far greater, both physically and emotionally. Sure, many parents are unprepared for the expense of arranging a funeral, but they’re not the only ones. Is it because the death of a child is particularly, poignantly tragic? Okay then, what about the death of a young bride on her honeymoon? What about suicides? Hit-and-run victims?

Is it that charging for adults is bad enough, but that charging for children would just be going too far? If that really is the message, it shows some undertakers to be very unconvinced commodifiers – as, indeed, some are. It’s why a few of them hardly charge enough to put food on their tables. They’d love to be able to wind the clock back and do it for nothing.

Some undertakers may feel like this, but not all. Offering free funerals for children is cynically reckoned by some to be an eyecatching loss-leader. It lends an aura of compassion to what is actually an act of ingratiation, because one child’s funeral earns you, what, three adult funerals? Someone in marketing, we may be sure, will have done the maths.

So: who pays? There’s no such thing as a free funeral, obviously. No, the funerals of babies and children are subsidised by either by the profits of the funerals of adults, or the marketing budget, or the undertaker. If the undertaker is taking a personal hit every time, I don’t know that I can think of a single good reason for that. Can you?

Celebrancy, too, is commodified. Some celebrants lead babies’ and children’s funerals for nothing, others don’t. Some don’t get to decide either way. A celebrant told me:

“I’ve come across a funeral directors’ manager saying she would never employ a celebrant again who charged money for a child’s ceremony. She still uses Interflora and all the rest who charge, doesn’t expect the local petrol station to fill the hearse for nothing and, as far as I know, she still keeps that part of her salary relevant to organizing the funeral. Are there double standards at work here?  It may be admirable if you want to decline payment, for anything at all and for whatever reason, but why would it be an expectation?”

Why indeed? Do doctors and nurses who treat children decline pay? Do the grief counsellors of bereaved parents waive their fee?

An undertaker told me:

“It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? Some parents appreciate the gesture, but I think that some parents don’t want ‘pity’, ‘charity’. They actually want their child to be ‘worth’ something like a ‘real person’ would be – they somehow feel the life is validated by paying for the funeral. One father said, ‘I’ll never walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, but I can give her the best funeral.’

“But then we run the danger of getting into the conspicuous spending loop, don’t we? If we do one for ‘free’ and they spend thousands on flowers… what do they think of us charging nothing? What are we saying by charging nothing – that we don’t want to be sullied by taking money associated with their child’s death? That there’s not so much work involved? That we feel that not charging somehow could help mitigate their loss?”


  1. Charles

    Jeez, this is a difficult subject, and an excellent post, for which, thanks. I think we each have to feel our way through this one, and your calm open-eyed look at it will help us do so.

    Comparisons are odious, as the point about a child’s funeral compared to that of a young bride, or a young suicide, makes clear. We can’t charge according to some personal tragedy-meter.

    Rationally, I can see no reason for not charging, but “the heart also has its reasons.” They may not help.

    When (if only) funerals were de-commodified, as in your community co-operative model, so that we don’t need paid celebrants and undertakers, or at least not people trying to make a living in those roles, all such difficulties will simply evaporate, so we can concentrate on the really important thing: a grieving family.

  2. Charles

    Perhaps I am unusual. I charge cost for children unless money is a genuine issue. I’m not doing it for free or at a loss. Nor am I making anything in the circumstances. Even at cost most parents remark at such a low charge. It does however risk putting me at a possible long term disadvantage over competitors.

  3. Charles

    This is a really thought provoking post and it is a subject I have always struggled to find a solution to.
    Having worked for large companies who undertake anyone who is under 18 years old for no fee, I too wondered if it was the right thing to do.
    I asked my Mother, sister and friends who all have children what their thoughts were. They unanimously came back and said they would all want to pay for their child’s funeral. Not to do so would make them feel like they hadn’t ‘done their best for them and that their child wasn’t ‘worth’ anything.’ But how can you profit from a child’s death? I couldn’t and don’t.

    Instead, for anyone under the age of 18, all I ask is that the family cover any costs that I incur. I am happy to provide them with any invoices my suppliers send to me to show I don’t add anything.

    If a family isn’t able to meet the costs, the new CFC charity is there to help.

    It is a very fine line but I have had families specifically come to me because they wanted to pay something…anything.

    1. Charles

      Such a great conversation over a heart breaking topic. One thing I think is that framing it as ‘profiting from the death of a child’ is putting too fine a point on it. No one, ever, I cannot imagine, is setting out to profit from a child’s death. We are setting out to pour our best work, our heart and soul and hours and minutes, our sleepless nights, our pulling the car over and sobbing on the side of the road into every tending to a death, and more so at that of a child. I believe an argument could be made that children cost more (and I am not making that argument) because it feels to me that each time, I lose months from the end of my own life. Oh the hours and hours I have put into these situations, at far below cost. It is not sustainable. And so – if my good work cannot be sustained, and it is lost to the next family who needs me, what good then? We need to rethink our value. I think the family’s know how great it is.

  4. Charles

    I have such a dilemma with all of the above that I feel I have done death to death and I need to get out. I will always grieve a family, but not at their expense.

  5. Charles

    Ah a dilemma indeed. As a celebrant I used to be caught up in the no fee sentiment. Then I heard other voices who reminded me that the florists, the printers, etc would all be charging. So what does one do?

    Like Mark and Lucy, I have come to the conclusion that I need my costs covered. I have no wish to profit from the death of a child, whether I am in business or not, but I think this middle ground sits well with most people, offends no-one and helps me to sleep and night – and cover my overheads.

    I would have to rethink however, if I became the ‘go to’ person for child bereavement ceremonies.

    Paula, are you saying that this subject has driven you from the miserable trade or is it death in general?

  6. Charles

    It’s not only some funeral directors who expect celebrants to provide their services free of charge for babies and children. A few years ago I was discussing this with some fellow celebrants. They all expressed their disapproval that I was even considering asking for a small amount to cover my expenses.

  7. Charles

    Interesting blog – This has been a topic of much debate at NFFD house – I see merrits in both arguments but remain confident that, wherever possible, our time should be given up for free to help those in need. Here at NFFD, we support the new charity CFC (Child Funeral Charity) who have set up to help fund childrens funerals. It is our intention to donate all future fundraising efforts to this charity who are doing a sterling job. See http://www.childfuneralcharity.org.uk to see what they are up to. To achieve their targets, CFC require £20,000 per year and all support would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Charles

    I have been a nurse for 30 years and have recently been researching the funeral business. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that Funeral Celebrants and Funeral Directors should not feel guilty about charging for a childs funeral. As Charles rightly points out Dr’s, Nurses, grief counsellors, Florists and many other people involved with the child will be paid. The main consideration is that they are offered choice, support and guidance for the funeral that they want for their child. The costs need to be transparent during this process as they should be with all funerals.I believe many nurses like good FD’s and celebrants would always go that extra mile when caring for these families, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get paid for a job well done.

    1. Charles

      I tend to agree with your stance Frances. Although an honourable intention of professionals not to charge the family whose child has died there is a risk that this implies the loss of a child is greater than any other circumstance. I have conducted funerals of adults without a charge in a couple of instances of extreme financial hardship. It is understandable that parents of babies or young children would feel that no funeral costs was one less aspect to worry about but that can be said of any bereavement, particularly if no financial provision was made in advance. An emerging picture I am seeing more of are adults who have become full time devoted carers of a relative who has been in their life for over 50 years. They are often living on the breadline because they gave up work to look after their loved one. Their loss is profound, not only for the person who has died but their own identity and sense of purpose. They have no concessions on funeral costs. Thank you GFG for airing this issue.

  9. Charles

    While something inclines me, too, to offer a free service for the death of a child, I detect, even in myself, a whiff of sentimentality about refusing payment because it’s a kiddy.

    Certainly, I can see no practical or moral reasons for bereaved parents to be given a free service, any more than for parents in general to be given free nappies, food, clothes, bedrooms, privileged education or the deposits for their children’s first house, which of course over the years will dwarf the cost of a funeral for a baby who turned out not to need any of these things from them. So I’m not convinced it’s about morality or practicality.

    One in five households would be grateful for a free funeral thank you, for anyone of any age (see Sun Life’s reports on funeral poverty), and I certainly couldn’t afford to pay for someone like me, not on what I earn by doing the job. But if I could afford me, I wonder whether I wouldn’t feel humiliated by being let off the fee for my baby’s funeral to balm the professional’s apparent confused feelings, of guilt perhaps or embarrassment, masquerading as compassion.

    I’m including myself among these confused professionals, as I say. But if I’m to withhold my bill in future, after this encouragingly frank discussion, I’m going to want a better reason to give myself than that it’s simply the done thing, or that others will frown on me if I don’t, or that I’m showing the compassion and support that I’m assuming (does anyone ask these parents?) that they require at their child’s graveside.

  10. Charles

    We charge the same for everybody. Recently the time for various reasons between the death and funeral of one of our clients was five weeks. The husband visited his wife’s body seven times, each visit was a minimum of an hour and a half. This excluded other arrangements. Same charge as everyone else.

  11. Charles

    Thanks for this post, Charles. It’s a thought provoking subject.

    On a logical level, I know that charging is the right thing to do, but it just doesn’t sit right with me.

    When I have trained funeral celebrants in the past, I have warned them that the hardest ceremonies to do are often the ones that we make the least money on; the babies and the ceremonies for friends and family. To me, these fall into a similar category; some things I will happily “make money” from but not these.

    If someone really wants to give me a fee, I ask them to put it into their charity collection pot instead; often this is the hospital or organisation that has helped them, so it seems a happy balance.

    In the past, where there has been a lot of travelling, I have asked for fuel costs and I only waive the fee if the FD doesn’t charge either (when they ask me my costs, I ask them theirs)

    There is no logic in this, it’s about gut feel. I’ve been to families who could comfortably meet my fee and probably buy me a new kitchen without it hurting them, but it’s not about their level of income.

    Ultimately, I think I waive my fee because it makes me feel better. There’s nothing altruistic in that, but that’s just how it is.

    Love and peace to all

  12. Charles

    The number of responses to this issue indicates to me that it is important to consider. I am very unclear concerning my own position and content with that for now. I remember at theological college being convinced at each eschatology (study of the “last days”) lecture that the view being presented was the “correct” one. This resulted in jibes from other students who were firmly entrenched that the view they agreed with was the right one. Blinkered. I responded robustly to this but must admit that both my mind and emotions were in a discombobulated (I just love that word) state. I have since welcomed these “restless seas” knowing that at some point calm and clarity would dawn. Whether this will apply here remains to be seen. Until then I will carry on thinking and talking about it.

  13. Charles

    Perhaps part of this debate is similar to the issues arising over cremated remains for children. What used to “just happen” is possibly no longer acceptable. Parents want their much loved children of whatever age treated like all other humans whether or not the lived after the time of birth. This includes the “right” to pay for the to be looked after as such.

    Puts a very interesting twist on any debate over abortion.

  14. Charles

    Well, I definitely fall in to the no charge camp. I am not really sure why, perhaps because every child death is somehow different, they always touch me in a very personal way and yes, I know suicides and other before time deaths often do too. What can I say? My car is older than most, my mortgage is larger than I would like..

    Cynically, I do think ‘free children’s funerals’ are probably good for marketing our business – but have no idea if this is actually true and works for us as a business. In my experience, no-one has ever insisted on payment, every single family has really appreciated our help at an incredibly difficult time. Selfishly, not charging makes me feel better!

    We do pass on any disbursements charged, and these days that often includes the celebrants charge. In my experience, the Churches NEVER charge. Somehow it seems different to me that florists, printers, coffin makers etc charge. I don’t think they get quite as involved as we do.

    1. Charles

      Well, I think the difference you point out is that church ministers are usually getting paid for the time they’re spending on the funeral anyway, whereas florists, celebrants, printers et al don’t have an overarching organization to give them a stipend or to dictate their policy for them.

  15. Charles

    Touching and pulling the heart strings here Charles, a post that was sure to gain a number of comments……
    David Holmes has said it like it should be said, and I agree with every word.

    I don’t charge for a child’s funeral and hope I never feel the urge to do so, a death at any age is traumatic, even if its expected it is a loss of life and life is precious.
    Disbursements must be covered at the end of the day as we are in business and I’m sure a family would expect to have a invoice for services rendered,

    Coffin makers, florists & printers all have a living to make and David is spot on here, they are detached from the family and see the order as a order.

    Funeral Directors and Celebrants are different, we are involved both emotionally and physically, if the family are using a Independent FD, there is a good chance they will be seen by the same person from the very first call to the day of the funeral, this person may be the business owner who only hires in staff as and when needed, this person will probably collect the child from the place of passing, wash and dress the child ready for family to spend time with them, be available to answer calls at what ever time of day or night, lets be honest with each other here, Family’s will not think twice on what day or time to call you to see the Child they have lost, I have responded to a call at midnight from a Mother the evening before the Funeral asking not only to see her Son but to put a coat on him as the thought of him being cold was unbearable.

    I couldn’t charge for that………

    1. Charles

      The funeral world is one where our humanity is often at odds with our business heads. I perhaps naively imagine that its not, like many professions, one that we become involved in merely for the money (just as well being a celebrant!).

      But I also think that it is a confused and dangerous road to be on where we differentiate between which situation is more deserving of our voluntary contrition than another. Kindnesses can be and are given in all sorts of different ways, and I don’t think any of us struggle with being kind and compassionate in such a scenario, or indeed any situation that is considered a tragedy.

      That’s not to say that I have come to any conclusion about whether it’s right to ‘charge’ for a child’s funeral or not. But I don’t imagine families expect to be given a service voluntarily; it’s the way they are treated and supported that conveys kindness and compassion.

      Much more challenging to me are the funerals where one can perhaps struggle to find our humanity (different can of worms, subject of another post Charles?).

    2. Charles

      GMT, I really don’t understand your logic. We are a small company, my wife and I are it. We deal with the family, the body, all the arrangements right through to co creating and taking the ceremony, which, incidentally, is even more tricky than normal when you’re dealing with a life that hasn’t actually been. We work weekends and evenings, my phone is never off and never away from my side, we are called at all times by our families, we become emotionally entwined with them, we support them before, during and after the funeral, why on earth should we not be paid for this priceless assistance? Do you not charge for the funerals of teenage suicides? Someone who dies on their seventeenth birthday in a car accident? This work is incredibly draining, and if done properly runs the risk of permanent emotional burn out. It is a vocation and part of our duty as humans, but I am not doing it for free.

  16. Charles

    Across all eight of our burial grounds, we charge nothing for children’s graves but we do charge our normal burial registration fee and a gravedigging charge. This policy came about following the pressure we felt from funeral directors that it was practically immoral to charge anything at all. So we now charge the minimum to cover our costs.

    Within the last few weeks, a funeral director was horrified that we charge anything at all and told me ‘There is no compassion left in the world’ because they were giving their services entirely for free. I think that had he been more honest he would have admitted that securing future business comes into it.

    Not very long ago, a different funeral director trying to help James and I understand his own reason for doing children’s funerals for free used the phrase “Well they’ve all got grandparents haven’t they”.

  17. Charles

    Some really interesting points have been made about reasons for not charging, but the main one being “future business.”
    Maybe I am extremely naïve, but while arranging and conducting a funeral, I have never thought about who else in that family I may get to arrange funerals for in the future because I am solely focused on the person I am currently looking after.

    I understand completely why other funeral directors on here wouldn’t charge, but if we applied the same emotional response to every family who walked through the door, we wouldn’t be in business for very long.
    I only charge the family what ever I get charged for the things they have asked for. I wouldn’t dream of profiting off a child’s death…that will never sit right and be an acceptable thing to do, but I can’t afford to give them everything for nothing. Moreover, as in my earlier post, the majority of families I have encountered actually want to pay something. They feel like it is the last thing they could do for their child and it gives them value in a way.

    While I can’t imagine how it must feel to be a parent and loose a child, people die in exceptionally tragic circumstances every day….why don’t they get a free funeral?

    It is a very difficult call to make and every funeral director is going to have this dilemma and will have their own reasons for charging or not charging.

    The CFC are a brilliant charity and resource for funeral directors and families though. For those funeral directors who charge disbursements, if you have a family that genuinely can’t afford to meet the cost, get in touch with them and they will try and meet the cost.

  18. Charles

    Thank you GMT. I think people often forget we are humans first, funeral directors second. I have six children of my own and frankly, every time I have to deal with the death of a baby or child, I can easily imagine what it might feel like. I realise that isn’t very PC – as professionals we are supposed to know that we couldn’t possibly imagine what it feels like – but I have a very vivid imagination!

    Tragedy has affected my family, as I suspect it does all families. I know how we felt. We were devastated – shocked beyond words. We could easily afford a funeral, but if someone had shown us the kindness I believe we show to bereaved parents, then I know I would have appreciated it (them) forever. I could tell you dozens of stories about individual people who have trusted me with funeral arrangements for their precious child – but I wont because I shouldn’t. Suffice to say I really do remember every one, and mostly the detailed circumstances. I know how these cases made me feel.

    All of us should feel privileged to be in a position to do what we do and what we can. I believe the question of payment is personal, and personally I don’t need it and I don’t want it.

  19. Charles

    I thought it might be interesting to give you one set of thoughts from the family’s side of this interesting debate. Our five-month old baby died suddenly and traumatically in the early hours six weeks ago. The maelstrom this creates is easily the most disorienting and emotionally destructive experience I’ve yet had.

    We were already on very tight finances and the sudden interruption to work and life in general, we’re both self-employed freelancers, had added financial hurt and stress to the deep emotional torment.

    When it became clear that our funeral director did not intend to charge us for anything other than the casket, it did help reduce the stress quite considerably but more than that: it said something to us about the way the wider community, including somebody who quite reasonably should have expected to charge us in full, felt about the death of our baby.

    Paying for the costs of death would have hurt us considerably, but we would have found a way and we wouldn’t have begrudged a penny of those fees and costs. But not having to pay for the FD, the celebrant, our son’s plot in a natural burial ground or even the grave-digger did remove a layer of stress from an already shockingly stressful situation.

    However, of course all of those people have bills, tax to pay, a living to earn and so we do feel a debt to them. I reiterate that we would have found the money from somewhere and would not have felt anything other than okay paying it.

    Is there a marketing benefit? Though if sounds odd to express it in those terms, and though I desperately don’t want to think of another funeral just a week after having gone through our son’s; I know that all other of our family funerals will be trusted to the special firm who looked after our baby with such compassion, gentle humanity and care.

    1. Charles

      Condolences, Richard at such a sad time.

      I have a baby funeral tomorrow and ‘my’ kids all go free. A little snippet of an e mail from the family, which I shared with the FD, also charging £0

      ‘We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your generosity in performing the service and understanding how important saying goodbye to ***** is to us, it really does mean the world for so many people to give us such support at times like this. It restores my faith in humanity to be honest! From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!’

      Restoring faith in each other, at a time when parents are in such a dark place we others couldn’t begin to contemplate is no bad thing and my privilege.

  20. Charles

    I losted my baby at 15 weeks I’m only 22 I didn’t have to pay for my little funeral but now I’m struggling to get a little headstone I really don’t know if there is any help you can get

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