good life, good death, good grief

The Reluctant Planner's Guide to Death and Dying

Financing a funeral

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

OK, I’ve decided on all the legal stuff – my will, my power of attorney, my advance directive. I’ve booked an appointment with the solicitor to get it all drawn up. Now onto the next thing on my planning ahead to-do list - finances.

There’s two aspects to consider.

Firstly, there’s the immediate impact of a death. Funerals can be expensive. There’s upfront costs you can’t avoid. The last thing you want is for loved ones to fall into financial hardship alongside their grief.

Secondly, for some people, there’s the ongoing impact of loss of an income. It is traumatic enough adjusting to life after the death of a loved one, but when that loved one is also a breadwinner on whom people rely, there is an extra unwelcome dimension.

The latter is something that affects me. My partner’s a self-employed painter and decorator, so would always have an income, but with a baby daughter as well, I don’t want to be leave either of them in financial dire straits if I suddenly died. It would definitely be helpful if I could fix up some life insurance. (There are other insurances to consider for the event I become too ill to work, but since this blog is about death, we will stick to that.)

As for the former, planning my funeral (the fun bit!) is coming later in this blog series, but I want to give some thought to the cash side of things now. Funeral poverty - the difficulties experienced by people with insufficient funds faced with paying the cost of a funeral - is a growing problem. Every week there seem to be more news articles about the rising costs of funerals.

So, I wanted to speak to a man who knows about these things - bereavement care specialist, John Birrell, until recently Chair of the Scottish Working Group on Funeral Poverty. In particular I wanted to know - what are we looking at in terms of funeral costs?

“According to the Royal London Building Society the average cost of a funeral in the UK last year was £3,784, with, on average, people taking debt of £1,680 to meet the costs. The average cost in Scotland was £3,535.”

That’s £3,500 I certainly don’t have sitting around, and I don't fancy saddling someone with £1,680 debt just to see me off this mortal coil. John continued with a breakdown of the figures:

“There are three main parts to the cost of a funeral.

The cost of burial or cremation. Most cemeteries, and around half the crematoria in Scotland are owned by local authorities. The costs are reviewed each year, and should be published on the Authority’s web site, or you can phone up and ask what the cost is. These prices vary depending on where you stay. Other crematoria are privately run but should give prices if you ask.

Second is the Funeral Director’s fees. These include their services - collecting the person’s body, preparing the body, supplying a coffin, arranging the burial or cremation, and the cost of a hearse and cars to the funeral.

Third, there are the ‘extras’ like flowers, printed hymn sheets, catering and venue hire, press notices etc. Your funeral director will arrange these for you if you wish - and add them to your bill.”

For other major life events like weddings, you might have been planning and saving for years. Deaths can be sudden, leaving the bereaved left to find large sums at short notice. A large chunk of that might need paying upfront, as John further explained:

“Many funeral directors will ask for a deposit before they will make the arrangements. This is normally equivalent to what they have to pay the local council for the burial or cremation, so it can be in the region of £1000. Finding that money at short notice is often difficult. Family and friends may be able to help. Credit Unions sometimes have schemes that can help with this also, or sometimes people borrow from the bank, or on a credit card. High street lenders will help, but often charge extremely high interest rates, so should be approached with care.”

So what can I do to save my loved ones this bother? Is it a matter of squirrelling money away somewhere and forgetting about it? Are there other things I can do?

“There are many products on the market like ‘funeral plans’, ‘over 60s insurance’ etc, but these need to be studied carefully. Some will not give you what you want; some may not be accepted by your chosen funeral director; some may have a list of items not covered. The best way is to discuss your funeral with a funeral director, and not be talked into buying a 'standard' plan unless it really covers what you want. Other saving schemes can be used to put money aside for a funeral such as a savings account or using a Credit Union - but you need to avoid withdrawing the money for something else!”

Increasingly, there are low cost providers coming in to the market offering a very stripped back service – a direct cremation with no ceremony for a low price – which then allows friends and family to memorialise that person at a time and place and in a manner of their choosing. There’s also a fallback if you’re in straitened circumstances:

“For those on certain benefits, The Department of Work and Pensions have a benefit, known as Funeral Payment. The application process is fairly complicated, but Citizens Advice Scotland or funeral directors will normally help. For those who qualify, the Funeral Payment will meet the cost of burial or cremation, and make a contribution of up to £700 towards the other costs.”

Citizens Advice Bureaux are a big help to people facing difficult times. As well as helping with applying for the funeral expenses assistance benefit, they can also help clients check if they are entitled to other benefits and help them with the application. They offer a range of guidance leaflets and advice pages too, some of which are listed below.

Armed with this info, I am now off to visit a popular insurance comparison site to sort out life cover. (There are also some comparison sites for funeral plans, but they’re not as established yet.) I am also finally going to reinstate that rainy day standing order to my savings account that I stopped many years ago and use that as my funeral fund. I think I can swap a couple of pints in the pub for a little piece of mind.

Further Info

Planning Your Own Funeral - Scottish Government advice booklet

Money Advice Service - Do you need life insurance?

Fair Funerals Campaign - What is funeral poverty?

Citizens Advice Scotland - public advice page on death and wills

Taking Control: Illness and Dying - checklists prepared by Nairn Citizens Advice Bureaux

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