Let's bust some myths about death and funerals

father and daughter viewing a graveRosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre, outlines some of the options available for planning a loved one’s funeral.

It never ceases to amaze me how many professionals will perpetuate utter tosh regarding death and funerals. Presuming and upholding laws that don't exist and saying “you can't do that” – potentially causing people to incur unnecessary costs and not get the funeral that they, or the deceased, wished for. 

It has been explained to me that with the constant fear of litigation, it is often deemed safer for the gatekeepers to stick to what they know works, which tends to be easy and safe advice. My aim has always been to ensure that professionals are giving their customers accurate advice, and to increase the public's awareness of choice.

People are too reluctant to talk about the inevitable, which leads them to be ill-informed and unprepared, making them vulnerable consumers at what is a real low point in their lives.

Some common myths and nonsense:

  • bodies have to be transported in hearses
  • bodies have to be embalmed if viewing is requested
  • you have to employ a funeral director
  • the crematoria reuse the coffins
  • it is not the person's individual ashes that you get back
  • you can't keep a body at home
  • you have to notify the Land Registry and local authority if burying a body on private land
  • bodies must be buried at six foot

The cost of a basic cremation with a funeral director will set most families or estates back about £3,500. Burials are usually more expensive, and can be even more costly if at an urban cemetery.

There are several alternative choices that can help either a financially challenged situation, or where the deceased's wish was for no fuss, or for something as cheap as possible.

Direct funerals

A new trend, revealed to many by David Bowie and Prince's departures, is for a direct funeral. These are funerals with no funeral. They involve the essential and usually swift disposal of the body, with no ceremony at that time; families can organise a memorial service or a party at a later date. 

Separating the disposal from the ceremony in this way will save at least £2,000 if a specialist firm is contacted. One company I have seen offers direct burial anywhere in the UK for around £1,600, all inclusive. They simply collect the deceased, place them in a burial shroud and take them to one of the affordable, private, natural burial grounds. Again, this would be a minimum saving of £2,000. 

Many callers to our helpline are not sure what they can do when faced with the unexpected expense of a conventional funeral. When I tell them about direct funerals and direct cremations, they are often relieved and wonder why no one else told them about this option.

DIY funerals

Obviously, for the mentally and physically robust family who are well-informed and prepared, there is the option of a ‘direct-it-yourself’ funeral. Furthermore, for those who have nursed the deceased at home, there is the possibility of keeping the body at home, depending on a few common sense factors. 

These families will know exactly what they want, and can source a coffin online, book the crematorium or cemetery themselves, and arrange for a suitable vehicle and a handful of people to pall bear, so the only costs are the disbursement fees to the crematorium or cemetery and the coffin. This option will again save at least £2,000. The advantage over a direct funeral is that it is possible to have the body present at the ceremony, which for many is essential.

In all my time talking families through this option I have never had any regret it. They have all said how straightforward it was, and what a lovely unhurried day they had. They feel that they carried out the last and most personal thing they possibly could for the individual they have lost. Any family thinking about this can get honest advice from us at the charity.

Private land burial

Burial on private land is restricted only by the necessity to create a register and map, which get attached to the property deeds. You do not need anyone's permission, as long as there is no outstanding mortgage on the property. Also, the landowner must return the tear-off slip on the registrar's 'green form', letting the registrar know that the body has been laid to rest. Our charity can provide sample paperwork and links to map creation websites and grave-digging PDFs for free. 

With all these alternative options, the only rules are that:

  • the death is registered at the register office or released by the coroner
  • the body is disposed of in a recognised manner and is not exposed on the public highway

If none of these options are suitable, and a more conventional funeral is required, then the most important advice is to shop around. Not an easy thing to do when bereaved, but when you appreciate, like I do, how variable funeral directors are in their mission, standards and price, it is very worthwhile. There are recommended lists on our website, and you can also find reviews on Funeral Advisor.

About the author

Rose Inman-Cook is manager of the Natural Death Centre charity and the Association of Natural Burial Grounds. She is also editor of More to Death e-zine. Helpline 01962 712690, www.naturaldeath.org.uk