Further considerations of the rising costs of funerals
Earlier this year, we considered aspects of public health funerals and direct cremation following publication of the government response to the Work and Pensions Committee Report Support for the bereaved. This month, SunLife has released new information on funeral costs in the UK, and this post looks at the reactions to this report in the secular and religious media.
In September, the SunLife insurance company issued its 10th Annual Report, Cost of Dying 2016: A complete view of funeral costs over time, 10th Edition (“the Report”):
“[t]he 2016 Cost of Dying research was conducted by Critical Research, an independent market research company, specialising in financial research. The quantitative side of the project consisted of an online survey carried out between April 2016 and May 2016 which was asked to 1,509 consumers. This was supported by 100 telephone interviews of Funeral Directors from across the sector. The questions asked were the same set of questions used in previous years of this project”.
The headline issues are summarized in the Press Release, How much does a funeral cost in the UK today?, viz.
“According to our latest research the average cost of dying is now £8,802 – a rise of more than 16 times the rate of inflation. The average cost of a funeral now stands at £3,897, up over 5% since the 2015 Cost of Dying survey”.
Its calculation of the total cost of dying includes: the cost of a basic funeral (44%); the send-off (flowers, venue hire, catering, limos, memorial &c) (22%); and the professional administration of the estate (33%). However, within these average figures, there are appreciable variations, both regional and within a given region, unsurprisingly London has the most expensive average cost (£5,529) followed by the South East and East of England (£4.090), with Northern Ireland the lowest (£3,277) at 16% below the national average.
Regional differences are heavily influenced by the average cost of a burial, which is almost £3,500 at its most extreme; however, the variation in cremation costs in much less, £1,347. Significantly, since the first report in 2004, funeral costs in the UK have risen by 103%.
The response of the media to the new figures followed a standard pattern: a summary of the information; reasons for the increase; and advice on how these costs might be reduced. The Daily Telegraph highlighted the hiring a funeral director as the most costly element of a basic funeral, whereas the Daily Mail suggested that “[a] dwindling number of burial plots and high council fees are mainly to blame”. The former is supported by the Report, which states: “funeral director’s fees, which usually cover the cost of the coffin, hearse, collection and care of the deceased plus the funeral director’s professional guidance, make up the majority of the cost of a basic funeral”. However, it is less specific in relation to latter assertion: “[f]uneral directors say there is no one reason for the rise in cremation and burial fees, but suggest it is a combination of Government cut backs, inflation, and the cost of making improvements and modifications”.
Three methods of reducing costs suggested in the Telegraph by the Natural Death Centre [“Independent Funeral Advice: Lifting the lid on dying and funerals”] were: direct burial or cremation, (a “funeral without the funeral” as Ms Inman-Cook described it); directing the funeral arrangements oneself, (liaising with the hospital, crematorium and arranging transport and storage); and using a simple coffin purchased on-line; and seeking an out-of-town burial plot, although “most councils will try and deter out-of-towners from laying their dead in their area by charging [treble] the fees”.
In a piece in The Tablet How to restore the meaning of funeral Masses – and save some money, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith expands on Ms Inman-Cook’s option of “funeral without the funeral” and suggests that the direct burial or cremation should be followed by a Requiem Mass which is not coram cadavere, i.e. with the body or created remains present. He indicates that since such a Requiem would not involve a coffin: it would not need undertakers; and could be held at any time of day, including evenings or Saturdays, which would enable people to come without having to take time off work.
Fr Lucie-Smith argues that in addition to the cost saving, this would shift the focus of the funeral away from the coffin and its proper disposal, and onto the Mass and the act of worship and prayer for the dead; the church would also benefit from being brought back “in the loop” of funeral events if there was a departure from the practise of “direct to crem” [i.e. undertakers’ parlance for where no church service is involved].
“[‘direct to crem’] is not desirable, as it is far more fitting the deceased is remembered in his or her own parish Church, which, as a building, is more suitable for Christian worship than a crematorium chapel. The direct cremation [followed by a Requiem Mass] would get over the idea of using the crematorium as a substitute for the parish church.”
Westminster Hall debate
On 14 September, Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP) moved “That this House has considered Social Fund funeral payments”, HC Hansard, 14 September 2016 Vol 614 col 354WH. The debate considered the adequacy of these payment and items that Members believed should be non-discretionary and therefore not subject to these limits. He believed that:
“that spend—whether it is a faith-based clergyman or someone who will simply officiate at an ordinary funeral—should be discretionary, nor do I believe that the hiring of a place of worship should be. We cannot expect it to be a discretionary cost for people at a time of grief and sorrow to sort out a place aside from their home to welcome family and friends who want to pay their respects to their loved one” [Col 55WH]
“All this—the question of discretionary or non-discretionary and the cap in 2003—has led to a crisis of funeral poverty in this country. The Local Government Association has highlighted its concern. In 2009-10, there were 2,200 public health funerals, at a cost of £1.5 million to local authorities. In 2010-11, there were 2,900, at a cost of £2.1 million. The BBC survey of all local authorities in this country had a response rate of three quarters. It is estimated that there will be 3,500 public health funerals this year” [Col 356WH].
The need for claimants to know in advance of their eligibility for benefits was also raised, and Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab) criticized the Government’s “poor response and incompetence on this issue”, and the approach of the Minister and her predecessors to herself and other organizations on this issue [Col 365WH].
Few will have been reassured by the response to the debate of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery (Caroline Nokes):
“…Perhaps this is an annual occasion in Westminster Hall, where we have the opportunity to raise these serious issues and to discuss—for me, from a very different position—the challenges that remain within bereavement services and how the Government and the funeral industry can help…” [Col 374WH],
nor to the implicit “success” in her statement:
“Despite the current economic uncertainty and pressures for savings, we have protected the £700 limit [set in 2003 and now worth £495.68] for other costs people face”, [Col 374WH]
Whilst she indicated:
“We are having ongoing discussions with the funeral industry, academics and bereavement services to ensure that we continue to look at this important issue. We believe that the best approach is to work with the industry, rather than dictating a cap on costs, but we want to see absolute transparency on costs and the provision of price lists that people can take away from funeral directors”, [Col 376 WH],
her subsequent comment suggested an element of mistrust in the industry:
“We do not want to see the funeral expenses scheme influence or inflate the prices charged by the industry for a simple funeral”, [Col 376WH].
Unsurprisingly, the Government’s position has not changed from that stated in its June response to Support for the bereaved, viz.
“1. … the cost of funerals is not just an issue for Government and those providers of funeral services including the church, funeral directors, local authorities and owners of crematoria all have a role to play.
2. The Government believes, and the Select Committee acknowledges, it should not take responsibility for meeting the full cost of funeral arrangements when there is a family that can take part of that responsibility. Additionally, as the Select Committee agrees, it is important that, where possible, individuals take responsibility for their end of life planning and do not leave their family or taxpayers with the financial burden of meeting their funeral costs.
5. The Government is committed to providing the most effective support possible by taking a holistic approach to addressing the issues, particularly around communication and guidance, faced by the bereaved.
Likewise, the promised guidance on funeral costs under the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 has not yet been published by Scottish Ministers, although UK Government is said to be “watching closely”.
The suggestions of Fr Lucie-Smith are not restricted to the Roman Catholic Church; in terms of cost, the structure of the CofE’s Parochial Fees provides a range of charges which separate those applicable to funeral service in church, whether taking place before or after burial or cremation, from the burial of the body, or burial or other lawful disposal of cremated remains. Whilst “direct to crem” is clearly contrary to Roman Catholic canon law, it is uncertain as to whether the addition of a subsequent Requiem would satisfy the requirements for an “ecclesiastical funeral” of Canon 1176 CIC.