I bet you’ve never seen a banner outside your local registrar’s office with those words on it.

Because the free (aka public health) funeral is, if not a well-kept secret, not something councils bang on about. Its minimalist aesthetic might make it irresistibly attractive to the middle classes.

Seriously, the public health funeral enables us to absolve ourselves of the task of disposing of the body of kinsperson for whom, for whatever reason, we feel no responsibility, whether or not they did or didn’t, could or couldn’t, put aside enough money to pay for their funeral.

The public health funeral also enables those of us of limited means to say: I haven’t got the dough and I don’t want to get into debt over this; you do it. In these days of ‘funeral poverty’ the public health funeral offers a lifeline for an increasing number of people. Here at the GFG we always invite people of limited means to consider it — so much better than falling prey to a loan shark. The overall number of people who opt for it remains strikingly low, however. It doesn’t yet present a fiscal threat to austerity-stricken councils… but it could if more people knew about it. So it has to be in the interest of a local authority to dissuade people from availing themselves of a public health funeral. More anon. Stick with it.

The legal responsibility on a local authority to dispose of its dead is contained in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 PIII S21. It states:

It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.

You notice that the Act only uses the word ‘duty’ in respect of the local authority. What about the duty incumbent on the next-of-kin? Is there such a thing?

Well, yes and no.

There is a common law ‘duty to bury’. Because it’s common law it’s not written down and its origins lie somewhere in the mists of time. In 1840 Chief Justice Denman passed this this judgement:

“We have no doubt … that the common law casts on someone the duty of carrying to the grave, decently covered, the dead body of any person dying in such a state of indigence as to leave no funds for that purpose.”

Oh right, m’lud, and who might that someone be?

“It would seem that the individual under whose roof a poor person dies is bound to carry the body decently covered to the place of burial.” 

It’s the householder’s responsibility, that’s whose. And it is as a householder within the meaning of the law, believe it or not, that a hospital accepts responsibility for disposing of paupers who expire on its premises. Does this mean that if you invite a broken-down gentleman of the road into your house and he expires in your kitchen as the kettle boils, you will be expected to fund his funeral? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

Not if you’re Brent council, it doesn’t. Brent council (Labour) has no wish to fund more public health funerals than it has to.  In its Framework in respect of the responsibility owed by the local authority to provide financial assistance and / or arrangement of Funerals (2013) it points to “the duty at common law to arrange for a proper disposal of a dead body.” This duty, it says, “falls primarily upon the executors of the deceased.”

Interesting idea. We’ll come back to that.

There’s no doubting the right of a council to reclaim funeral expenses from the estate of the deceased, if there’s anything in it. But from a living person?

Brent thinks so. It thinks it can go after people other than the executor, too. In the event of its having to arrange a public health funeral:

“the Council should notify the next of kin or anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) of the debt and refer this immediately to legal services so that consideration can be given to initiating civil debt recovery proceedings either against the estate or an executor personally if appropriate.”

The council does not intend to pursue householders, you notice, though it correctly assigns responsibility to a hospital to arrange disposal: “where the death occurs in a hospital, the hospital authority is liable, as the person on whose premises the body is situated, to arrange for the burial or cremation of the deceased patient.”

So what about those acting with Power of Attorney or as deputies? Memo to Brent: they are absolved of all responsibility as soon as the person they represent dies (doh). Makes sense, doesn’t it? No, Brent, there’s no coming after them. Nor the financial representative because that is not a meaningful term.

What about executors? Bit of a moving target, I fear. Nominated executors, sadly, cannot be held to their duty and forced to assume the legal status of executor. On the contrary, executors may resign at any time — eg, when the letter from Brent council flops through the letterbox.

Next-of-kin? I have searched high and low for any instance where any nok was ever brought to trial for refusing to accept their ‘duty to bury’. I have searched in vain. I think we can accept that as duties go it is redundant. After all, it’s not so long ago that the estate of Robert Lenkiewecz was allowed by a court of law to retain ownership of the unburied corpse of Diogenes.

Nope, the ‘duty to bury’ is obsolete and has no teeth. Prove me wrong, Brent.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems to me that the Brent has no right to pursue a claim against an executor personally, nor next of kin, nor anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) nor any other living, breathing person, not even you.

I put this to Brent council. I wrote: “An interpretation of the Framework is that it could intimidate anyone who, for whatever reason, declines to undertake the disposal of a dead person.” That was on 9 Oct. I got an automated reply: “Your request has been received and a  member of our team will respond to you within 5 working days.” On 14 Oct I was flattered by a human response: “Your enquiry has been forwarded to the Registration and Nationality Service. They will aim to respond to you directly within 10 working days.”

On 25 Nov I wrote to remind them. They replied: “We confirm that your message has reached our service today and you should receive a response within five working days.”

Did I heck as like. I’ll keep trying, though.

Revealed: the one and only fix for funeral poverty

The problem: 

The circumstances of the death do not admit of any effective competition or precedent examination of the charges of different undertakers, or any comparison and consideration of their supplies. There is not time to change them for others that are less expensive, and more in conformity to the taste and circumstances of the parties … The survivors are … seldom in a state to perform any office of everyday life; and they are at the mercy of the first comer.

Might not the funerals of the labouring classes be greatly reduced without any reduction of the solemnity, or display of proper and satisfactory respect?

The above was written by Edwin Chadwick in 1843. As you can see, people have been banging on about the price of funerals year in year out since long before our grandparents were born, rehearsing the same old same old arguments and getting nowhere. 

Now it’s the turn of Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields. She is going to present a Bill to tackle funeral poverty on 9 December. There’s quite a lot of excitement about it. You may have had a round robin from Church Action on Poverty, a member of the Funeral Poverty Alliance got together by Quaker Social Action, urging you to support the Bill by writing to your MP.

Edwin Chadwick was a very thorough Victorian and he drilled down into things rather more than Ms Lewell-Buck seems to have done. Chadwick calculated that funeral expenses for the poorer sort could be halved:

“It appears from the detailed enquiries, made of tradesmen of experience and respectability … that the expense of materials at present supplied to funerals admit of a reduction under normal arrangements of, at the least, 50 per cent.”

No such target for Ms L-B. She calls instead for a committee or somesuch to review “funeral affordability”, and report in Sept 2015. Yawn. She calls upon the DWP to generally get its arse in gear. 

And… (this may induce an attack of deja vu) she proposes a, ta-da, simple funeral.

“But there already is one!” you cry.

Not so fast. Was. Have you had a look at the new NAFD Code of Practice yet? Well, have a gander. It’s gone.

Whaaat? I vaulted into my car and rocketed up to NAFD HQ to find out why from ceo Alan Slater himself, no less. He told me that the simple funeral had become meaningless. There was no uniformity – every undertaker’s simple funeral was different — eg, do you allow viewing or don’t you allow viewing? It bred anomalies. It wasn’t policeable. It stigmatised poor people. Like a lot of simple fixes, it simply didn’t work. I think he may be right. 

And come to think of it, do we expect The Ivy to include in its menu a Simple Meal of egg (58p) and chips (65p), total £1.23? 

Lewell-Buck also proposes:

1)  A funeral director must provide to a customer an itemised price list for a Simple Funeral Service before selling that customer any funeral service.

2)  The individual components of the Simple Funeral Service must be provided to the customer at the listed price if the customer requests them.

3)  The components of a Simple Funeral Service may be established by the Secretary of State through regulations.

You can spot the snags. Please let off steam below. Is this Simple Funeral a package? I don’t know. I mean, bereaved people can already choose from itemised lists from a great many good undertakers, whether or not those undertakers are members of one or both of the two trade associations, which already require lists. And that’s exactly what growing numbers of bereaved people are doing. They are choosing what they want from an undertaker’s menu and sourcing other stuff — coffin, flowers, service sheets — from elsewhere. It’s been described as a cafeteria approach. 

As for 2) what on earth does that mean? Do undertakers customarily hand their clients a menu with prices and then charge them more? I’m sure I’m missing something here. 

As for 3), well…

Given the great and increasing number of ‘Aldi’ undertakers these days, you’d expect to see Ms Lewell-Buck calling for price lists on websites. But no. Opportunity lost.

There’s a principle here. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics? No? Then why expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service? It is for the market to decide whether or not they are any good and whether or not they offer value for money. 

There are already hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.

It is folly and distraction to require undertakers to take one for the poor. Folly and distraction because the problem is not of their making. This is a political problem caused, not by undertakerly greed, but by the refusal of government to increase the Funeral Payment. The solution therefore has to be political.

It’s cheap and lazy to go after the undertakers. Ask anyone at the Dog and Duck and they’ll tell you that they’re predators who feed off grief, exploiters of the vulnerable; they’re jackals, they’re hyenas, they’re vultures. Scavengers. Rip-off merchants. All of them… except for those lovely people who took care of our Nan’s funeral. 

Sure, there are some bastards out there. But for all their reputation for rapacity, even Chadwick conceded (in 1843) that:

“Notwithstanding the immensely disproportionate profits of these persons in some cases,  and the immense aggregate expenditure to the public, there appear to be very few wealthy undertakers. They are described by one of them, “as being some few of them very respectable, but the great majority as men mostly in a small, grubbing way of business.”

Plus ça change. 

We are uncomfortable with a commercial model, it seems. As we were back in 1843. As one of Chadwick’s consultees expressed it:

“One may be excused for thinking and speaking strongly in reprobation of a system which degrades the burial of the dead into a trade. Throughout the whole scheme and working of this system, there is an exclusive spirit of money-getting, which is revoltingly heartless.”

But Chadwick had more imaginative solution to this than Ms Lewell-Buck’s waffle-shop-cum-undertaker-tax gesture politics. As a member of the Labour Party, Ms Lewell-Buck ought to approve of it. Chadwick proposed that:

If there be any sort of service, which principles of civic polity, and motives of ordinary benevolence and charity, require to be placed under public regulation, for the protection of the private individual who is helpless, it is this.

For the abatement of oppressive charges for funeral materials, decorations and services, provision should be made … by the officers having charge of national cemeteries, for the supply of the requisite materials and services, securing to all classes, but especially to the poor, the means of respectable interment, at reduced and moderate prices.

Yup, nationalise them. Nationalise the cemeteries. Get cemeteries to look after the dead.  Get rid of the undertakers. All of them. Bring the whole shooting match in-house. Pay for it with a public insurance scheme. 

It didn’t happen.  And yet, 171 years on, Chadwick is bang on the money. If you want to solve funeral poverty, whether or not you leave undertaking to the private sector, you do it with two letters. The first of these is N and the second is I. End of. 

Saif’s code of practice still has a simple funeral.

Read Ms Lewell-Buck’s Bill here: Funeral Poverty Bill


The man from the Pru

Guest post by Quokkagirl

When I was no’but a girl, I used to like Friday evenings…..because the man from the Pru used to call. I say the Pru but it could have been any insurance company. I don’t recall the specifics, but it was an insurance man. This was an exciting event because in his previous life he had been a member of a briefly famous Solihull band called the Honeycombs. That was about as exciting as life got…..that and knowing that my cousin’s friend once went out with Helen Shapiro.

This was an entirely normal weekly happening in the 1960s (and earlier) for almost every working class family up and down the country. The man from the Pru would call, mum or dad would give him a shilling or whatever a small sum was in those days (I don’t go back as far as the penny policies). This was a basic life insurance policy in the days when it was important to poorer families to know that they had at least provided enough money for their funeral. It wasn’t yet a working class aspiration to leave property and capital to their children.

Somewhere in the ‘you can have it all’ 70’s, 80’s and 90’s things changed. Insurance policies became more complex, working classes got mortgages with endowment policies attached which would not only pay off the mortgage if you popped your clogs but also leave a bit left over for your funeral expenses with luck.

Then in the noughties it all changed again – endowment policies failed to make their predicted growth and properties began to fail in their growth value. But somewhere along the line, my generation seems to have missed out on the thought processes that our parents had about who is going to pay for the funeral when you peg it. I include myself in this. When I was a young adult I had a small life policy but when mortgages and endowment policies became de rigeur, I found myself swallowed up in the hype and cancelled the old fashioned life policy.

Now we have people all over the country being plunged into funeral debt and many calls on the state to provide funding for funerals, the grants being totally inadequate for the average needs.

Now, clearly I have left it too late to start an old fashioned life policy for myself. I am staring at a life policy plan for the over 50s……or a funeral plan policy – both of which seem to have been designed by, and are the workings of, the anti-Christ. Yes, I have a smidgeon of property value and yes, I have a couple of reasonable pensions all of which will surely cover those expenses in death benefits but finding £3,500 (or even a half deposit as required by many funeral directors) overnight should I or one of mine suddenly peg it, would currently be a lump sum too far.

The alternative is to save of course. Did I hear someone say saving? And snorting with derision? Oh, that must be me then.

It’s almost too late for me. Luckily I wouldn’t want the whole £3500 shebang — a simpler and cheaper affair would suit me and my personality far better — but those of you who are younger should take note of this life-weathered old woman. The truth is, despite corporate hype or whatever the adverts tell you, nothing changes really. The basic rules of life still apply and will never change. You will die one day and someone will have to pay for it….even the basics. So get yourself the simplest and most reasonable little life insurance policy – just to pay for your send off. If anyone can recommend a simple, SIMPLE, honourable and doeswhat-it-says-on-the-tin-policy, I would be interested to hear about it. As I’m sure would the rest of you.

Find the SunLife Cost of Dying report 2014 here

How old school got to be old hat

I don’t know what undertakers think about while they’re queueing for the supermarket checkout, but if they have anything in common with 84% of the rest of the population they may be reflecting on how their shopping habits have changed since the recession.

Just how many of them go on to make a connection with the changing habits of funeral shoppers is unclear.

The big four supermarkets are getting on with the job of remodelling themselves in order to adapt to altered trading conditions. We’ve heard them yelp, we’ve watched their share price tumble, but they’ve not cried Unfair! They’re buckling down to hard task of winning back custom.

The budget stores Aldi and Lidl have done well out of the downturn. Today’s grocery shoppers are avid deal-seekers.

People now buy from an average of 4 different supermarkets a week. They want value. Brand loyalty has gone out of the window.

They’re using the internet a lot more, too.

They like to top up with artisan products from small suppliers at farmers’ markets. There’s closer identification with the little guy and a rejection of Big Corp. Tesco is shunned not just because it’s too expensive but also because it’s perceived to be antisocial. Today’s shoppers want values, as well as value.

For the very poor, there are food banks to tide them over.

Trading conditions in Funeralworld are far, far worse. The cost of funerals has risen faster than that of groceries. For the very poor, the Funeral Payment is a dwindling and inadequate contribution to the price of a funeral. There is presently no volunteer-led community initiative on a par with food banks to help them.

A nation of born-again deal-seekers has stimulated the rapid growth of new startups offering budget funerals. These Aldi undertakers have been able to build volume to compensate for smaller margins by undercutting the old-school undertakers by some distance. Their competitiveness has been enhanced by the strong vocational values of many of them, some of whom work for next to nothing.

On top of that there’s been the inexorable rise of direct cremation, the grocery equivalent of the food pill. A great many of those who opt for this cheapest-of-them-all alternative are those who could easily afford a high-end funeral. Whoops, there goes a tranche of big payers.

Funeral shoppers no longer want to buy a whole funeral in one shop. They want to assemble it from several suppliers and they use the internet to find them. If they can afford a coffin from an artisan maker, that’s the one they’ll buy.

There’s been no rejection of Big Corp yet because consumer awareness has not identified Dignity, Funeral Partners and Laurel Funerals for what they are, nor have they sussed Co-operative Funeralcare for what it manifestly isn’t. Such is the growth rate of consumer vigilance, it won’t be long.

It’s not all about price. It’s also about service culture — too big a topic to be more than alluded to here, but an important factor.

Above all, though, there’s a widespread and growing rejection of the ceremonial, processional funeral in favour of simpler and therefore cheaper funerals. Bereaved people increasingly want to create ‘meaningful experiences’ rather than put on a good show.

That a nation famed for the quality of its ceremonial events should be falling out of love with ceremonial funerals is curious, something we talk about here from time to time. Whether this is an evolutionary phenomenon or down to a failure to adapt to modern needs is open to debate. The upshot is that there are lots of ‘traditional’ undertakers out there with high overheads and a dwindling customer base.

The pressure on traditional funeral homes is very great just now, varying in intensity from area to area. The best are buckling down to adapting to altered trading conditions. Some now offer a budget range, just like Waitrose. Others are lashing out with impotent fury at the unfairness of it all. The GFG has been a target of some of these recently. It won’t do. The GFG doesn’t have the clout to start trends. All it can do is hold up a pitiless mirror to what’s going on.

The undertakers  who survive will be the ones with the intelligence and humanity to meet the needs, values and budgets of their clients. The rest will go to the wall, and, sorry, you’ll only have yourselves to blame. Even in the good times we had hundreds more funeral directors than we needed.

Going out in credit

It is a long established principle of English law that there is no property in a corpse. As church lawyers in the middle ages used to say in that scholarly way of theirs (with a solemn nudge and a wink), a dead person – a cadaver – is cara data vermibus: flesh given to worms.

It wasn’t until 1804, though, that the practice of arresting a corpse against a debt was made illegal.

Read More

Why do kids go free?

“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?”

Imagine this: when someone dies we don’t hand them over to strangers

When the GFG, in conjunction with the Plunkett Foundation, announced a community funerals initiative back in 2012, we supposed that someone might pick it up and run with it. The Plunkett Foundation, far cleverer than us, was pretty confident they would.  They contacted all their community shops and community pubs and we waited with bated breath to see what happened next.

Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Squat.

So we are really pleased to learn of the emergence of a community funerals initiative on the other side of the world – in SE Australia in the steel town of Port Kembla, a place where, according to its community enterprise website, “no one wanted to live” until recently, but “now there is a change in the atmosphere”. It does look a bit like one of those unprepossessing places that brings out the best in people.

The purpose of the Port Kembla community funerals enterprise is to “empower people around death and dying, and offer a not for profit funeral service that is affordable and highly personalised to support healthy bereavement.” It is called Tender Funerals.

Tender Funerals will “offer affordable and flexible services and a transparent fee structure, to minimise the financial impact of funeral care. It will counter the idea that the amount of money spent on a funeral is a reflection of the amount a person was loved.”

“Tender Funerals will offer personalised services that demystify death and dying, and involve a model of community support, to assist healthy bereavement. This will include unique offerings of information and support, funeral services that celebrate and acknowledge both a person’s death and their life, and support and facilitation of active participation and community support in funeral care.”

They will also create an education programme to teach people about issues around death and dying: “We will develop and implement a community development model to provide ongoing support and community awareness … By providing a more open approach to death and the process around caring for the dead it is envisaged that people will become for familiar with death as an inevitable part of life.”

“Tender Funerals is re–imagining the way in which we as a community deal with death and provide a context within which the community is informed and empowered to ensure that the end of life process is one which is meaningful, authentic and good value.

“It will be a community resource and a funeral care provider that responds to shifts in community needs, attitudes, ideas and experiences in relation to death and dying.

“It will also develop a model for not-for profit funeral care that supports healthy bereavement, and empowered decision making at end of life, which can be replicated in other communities.”

The Port Kembla Community Project already has a scheme which offers no-interest loans up to $1,000.

Tender Funerals is presently crowdfunding to raise the money it needs to get off the ground. Check out the vision statement.

Its originators have had a film made about them – you can see the trailer at the top of the page.

Here at the GFG we’ve sent them a few bob to help them on their way. And we wish them every possible success.

A promise made is a debt unpaid

The devaluation of the Social Fund Funeral Payment is the main cause of funeral poverty, but there are others. Some families sign up to more than they can afford – and funeral directors let them. The impact on both parties can be devastating. While the great and the good convene conferences to debate solutions, a practical lesson may come from, of all unlikely sources, the debt collection sector.

Templegate Recoveries is a debt collection agency that has been recommended to us by a funeral director whom we know and admire and like. So we asked Joanna Rogers, who founded the business with her sister Alex, to write about what they do to help funeral directors and families to avoid the misery of unpaid bills. Jo is on standby to respond to your comments. 

After 25 years in the Debt Recovery business my sister and I decided to start Templegate Recoveries Ltd. We wanted to service the small to medium size businesses in a more personal and ethical way than what was on offer from the large debt collection agencies. Our main priorities are ensuring that the good name of our clients is protected and the feelings of their customers are treated with respect and consideration at all times.

Because this ethos has attracted many funeral directors who want a more personal and sympathetic service we have, over the years, become experts in the collection of funeral debt

We have made it our business to keep up to date with all relevant legislation within the industry and now find ourselves not only recovering our client’s debt, but also assisting the debtors themselves. We make sure they know all the payment options open to them, where any assistance is available and provide forms where necessary, so our clients receive their money back at the earliest opportunity and the families who have lost their loved ones have peace of mind.

We regularly encounter genuinely cash-strapped individuals trying to bury their loved ones alongside the frivolous money’s-no-object (until the bill comes in) family member who believes the bigger the funeral the more loved the deceased. Unfortunately there’s a real lack of knowledge when it comes to funerals and many people still believe the government will provide financial assistance – that is, until they find themselves responsible for a large bill after the funeral.

We have come across many situations where a family have got the unemployed, benefit-claiming sibling to sign for the funeral in the hope the DWP will pay. However, if there are working family members the DWP won’t pay, leaving a big bill with someone unable to pay it and more often than not the funeral director considerably out of pocket.

In this situation honesty is always the best way forward, both on the part of the funeral director and the family arranging the funeral. Funeral directors have historically found it difficult to discuss cost with a distressed family that have just lost their loved one, and families find it difficult in such an upsetting time to be realistic about what they can actually afford. However there is help on both sides.

Here at Templegate we have spent considerable time with our Funeral Directors  tightening up their in-house procedures, helping them spot families that are likely to have problems paying, providing extra information forms for them to use and modernising their terms & conditions to include a debt recovery clause. This offers protection for both parties. It is the responsibility of the Funeral Director to help steer the family towards a funeral that will be financially viable for them, and for the family to recognise that at the end of the day the Funeral Director is a business that needs paying for their services.

There clearly needs to be more transparency about the help available for individuals on benefits who have no ability to pay for a funeral at all. For example there is the SF500 form which is a crisis loan from the government  that historically helps with housing repairs, clothing allowances etc but will now help considerably with funeral costs. Further, if there are no other family members in employment the DWP will also pay up to around £1,400 towards the funeral.  If you are a family, however, which does not qualify for any of the above there is absolutely no shame in having a public health funeral that is far more manageable financially.

Funeral  Directors suffer hugely due to the fact that they are the only industry that offers the amount of credit that they do with very few questions asked. Quite often they are family run businesses that arrange all their funerals on blind trust that at the end of the day they will be paid, but sadly this is often not the case. Businesses that have been in families for many years are getting into a considerable amount of financial difficulty due to unpaid funeral bills and disbursements that have to be paid up front. We believe this needs to change to reflect the tougher times we now find ourselves in.

If you are reading this article and you have sadly lost a loved one and are looking to arrange a funeral, remember the following. The person signing the arrangement form is the person legally responsible for paying the account, therefore if you are paying as a family then all family members should sign. Secondly, Funeral Directors do not hold a credit licence, therefore you will need to pay the account in its entirety after the funeral has taken place. Try to remember the type of funeral you can afford is not a measure of how much you love the deceased and if you are honest with the funeral director they will provide you with a very dignified service that is still within your budget. There is nothing worse than grieving for a loved one and worrying about how you are going to pay their funeral bill on top.

Further, if you are a Funeral Director reading this article please be mindful of the fact that times are changing and that you are in fact a business. It is just as important to offer a family a suitable service within their budget as it is to get all the details right on the day. There is not a company anywhere that would offer you a considerable amount of credit with no questions asked and the same applies to Funerals. If you feel you need any further assistance with either outstanding accounts or wish to make use of our consultancy service please go to for more information or alternatively call us on 01932 269412.

Finally, If you are an individual worried about how you are going to pay for the funeral of your loved one, please do not hesitate to call and ask for Jo, Alex or Irene and we will be happy to help.


Why undertakers don’t post their prices

The following is by Charles Manby Smith writing in London Life magazine in 1853.

Messrs. Moan and Groan know well enough, that when the heart is burdened with sorrow, considerations of economy are likely to be banished from the mind as out of place, and disrespectful to the memory of the departed; and, therefore, they do not affront their sorrowing patrons with the sublunary details of pounds, shillings, and pence. … For such benefactors to womankind – the dears – of course no reward can be too great; and, therefore, Messrs. Moan and Groan, strong in their modest sense of merit, make no parade of prices. They offer you all that in circumstances of mourning you can possibly want; they scorn to do you the disgrace of imagining that you would drive a bargain on the very brink of the grave; and you are of course obliged to them for the delicacy of their reserve on so commonplace a subject, and you pay their bill in decorous disregard of the amount. It is true, that certain envious rivals have compared them to birds of prey, scenting mortality from afar, and hovering like vultures on the trail of death, in order to profit by his dart; but such “caparisons,” as Mrs. Malaprop says, “are odorous,” and we will have nothing to do with them.


What’s for love and what’s for money?

If there’s one thing that really vexes people in the funerals business it’s the question of who gets paid for what – and how much.

Take the business of conducting a funeral. In England, when C of E clergy moved their fee up to £160 + travel, lots of people howled. Everyone in England is entitled to a C of E funeral whether they attend church or not. The C of E is the state church. Vicars are paid wages to lead parish worship and attend to pastoral duties. How therefore can they define a funeral as an extra? Well, up in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland is the national church, not the state church, ministers make no charge for conducting a funeral. But the C of S is running out of money and looks like not being able to afford to do this for much longer. Conducting funerals for nothing is a luxury it cannot afford. Every altruistic enterprise needs revenue streams.

In the case of secular celebrants, the contract with clients is apparently clearer cut. They sell their skills for a price the market will stand. Theirs is unmistakably a commercial service. A good many celebrants are thereby able to generate a reasonable income by knocking out up to 10 or so funerals a week, working from a template with slot-in readings, etc  — a liturgy by any other name, nothing wrong with that — comprising also a treatment of the life of the person who’s died which probably goes little deeper than rapidly gathered facts + dates + a few notable attributes.

Alongside these fast-food merchants are the altruistic adherents of the Slow Funerals movement for whom the creation of a funeral is an evolving process requiring much talk, much listening, much thought and, as a consequence, a treatment of the life lived which calls for a great deal of ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’. The result is a funeral which goes deeper and is more personal. A better funeral, in other words. But to work in this way, and conduct a very few funerals a week, requires either acceptance of poverty or the existence of another form of income, whether in the shape of a pension, an inherited fortune or a supportive partner. In commercial terms, it is an uneconomic way of working.

So: how much of the time put in by these Slow Funerals people do we count as being given for nothing? What part of their work, in other words, counts as voluntary work?

This question doesn’t apply only to celebrants. There are undertakers, too, who believe in Slow Funerals, and who may also believe in doing their best for those who struggle to find the funds for a funeral. They generate a great deal of social capital but many of them don’t bank a lot of cash. It’s the same with every vocational occupation, of course, the difference being that most vocations we can think of pay at a level that makes going the extra mile an affordable luxury. Many of our most caring undertakers, by contrast, live close to the breadline. Many, but by no means all.

Funeral shoppers have always had a difficulty with acknowledging and accepting that a funeral is a consumer product just the same as any other. That’s changing. Two factors above all are responsible. First, it’s a product which 1 in 5 people struggle to afford. Second, it’s a product whose experiential value is being increasingly questioned.

Did I say two? Add a third. Until recent years, the state enabled everyone to buy a decent one-of-those, what-everyone-has, funeral. Any notion that the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment will be restored in this, the era of the benefits cap, looks delusional. So something’s got to give, and that something’s almost certainly the way we do it now.

The time-consuming part of an undertaker’s and a celebrant’s work, which calls for high expertise and wisdom, is the emotional support of the bereaved, helping them come to terms with, and make some sense of, what has happened. The easy bit for an undertaker is the care of the person who’s died. Any good celebrant will tell you that only a small proportion of the value of their work can be judged by the script they read at the funeral.

You’ll not find the pastoral element of the work itemised and charged for at an hourly rate on any bill submitted by an undertaker or any celebrant. You can’t place a commercial value on that, you can’t charge people for kindness. If you’re an undertaker, it’s the care of the body that has to cover it. If you’re a celebrant, the rate for a template funeral. Reputation will help, too, of course. You can put your prices up a notch if everyone agrees you’re worth it — but you might not want to do that if it means making you unaffordable to people of slender means.

Whatever you think of all that, the fact remains that the what-everyone-has funeral, reckoned expensive by those who can afford one, is now out of reach to an increasingly large segment of the population. We need something more affordable.

conference held at the International Longevity Centre in February this year proposed a cheaper way forward that we’ve discussed on this blog: There is considerable potential to review the funeral service itself, separating the ritual from the committal. This could enable people to have more time to consider the ritual aspects and costs of the service, separate from the more functional aspect of managing the remains. When they say committal, they mean disposal, of course. Do read the report, it’s good.

Separate the disposal from the ritual. Take the corpse out of the funeral. Bring in cheaper cremation and the re-use of graves, and the costs begin to tumble. If, that is, the resulting ritual is reckoned timely and satisfying. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course. 

Kate Woodthorpe at the University of Bath takes it a step further and proposes that there may be roles for “public, private and third sectors in both preparing individuals and their families pre-death, and when bereaved.

That’s interesting. Third sector. Volunteers to share the work of listening and supporting bereaved people. That would redefine the roles of undertakers and ritualists. But is it really a viable alternative to the way we do things now?