The rise of no-frills, low-cost burials

The rise of no-frills, low-cost burials

For some, a funeral is a grand affair with horse-drawn carriages and huge flower arrangements. But an increasing number of mourners are turning to the most basic cremation – one without a ceremony – in order to cut down on costs.

A “direct cremation” – which does not allow any loved ones to attend and returns the ashes of the deceased to be scattered or interred at a later time – costs an average of £1,511, compared to £3,953 for a “basic funeral” or £9,200 for the average service, according to financial services group Sunlife.

The overall cost of dying, which includes the send-off and professional fees, has risen 3.8 per cent in the past year.

Part of the rise in popularity of direct cremations is a hangover from Covid-19 restrictions, where only basic services were allowed. From accounting for 2 per cent of all funerals in 2018, they now make up 18 per cent of all services and a quarter of all cremations.

Funeral directors must also now display a breakdown of their prices online and in their premises, according to a 2021 Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) ruling.

Some directors have reported that people are prepared to spend less as a result, leading them to reduce their prices in demand.

John Ware, managing director of Walter C Parson funeral directors in Plymouth, tells i that he has seen a similar increase in demand for direct cremations, although it has plateaued this year.

“It’s not just seen as a cheaper alternative to a funeral, because it’s not a funeral effectively,” he says of them. “There is still a lot to be said for the emotional side of getting together with family and friends and saying goodbye to that person.”

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People who choose a direct cremation, he says, are concentrating more on organising a special get-together afterwards, or celebrating the life that has been lost in an interesting way. That can range from drinks at their favourite spot, to a walk with family members to scatter their ashes, or something a bit more personal.

“There was a gentleman who owned a plant hire business and we took his coffin to his funeral in one of his own forklift trucks,” John reveals. Other requests have included a floristry display that recreated the deceased’s beloved Mark One Land Rover, and a local journalist who had a funeral at Plymouth Argyle Football Club.

“It’s becoming more like event planning”, John adds. “We’ve seen people organising their own sort of celebrations, and there are a lot of people who want us to take the stress of organising things away from them to give them time to grieve. I suppose that direct cremation is a ‘click and collect funeral’ if you like, because all we do is organise the cremation and give the ashes back to the family.”

‘It was apparent a direct cremation was right for my friend’

When Lorraine Crowe, 49, from East Anglia, lost a close friend in 2019, she offered to help organise the funeral. Her friend’s family had already had a few traditional funerals earlier that year, she says, and they “really didn’t want to see another hearse or coffin” when it came to commemorating him.

“As we got talking, it was apparent that a direct cremation was right for them,” she explains. Costs wasn’t an issue at all, but it was what was right for the family at the time. So we looked at other ways of celebrating our friend’s life.”

With the cremation costing £1,000, it left some £4,000 to organise something special. For this friend, this meant something “very special and not traditional”, Lorraine explains. After the cremation, she organised for her friend’s ashes to be mounted in special fireworks which were set off over a lake he loved, with the explosions synchronised to his favourite music from his time as a DJ.

“It was absolutely spectacular and spine-tingling,” she adds. “It was a celebration of his life and what he achieved and the people he’d touched. The emotional part of a funeral is the most important.”

Lorraine adds that she thinks some might prefer for their money to be passed on to their children rather than spent on a funeral.

Lorraine helped organise a direct cremation for a friend and used the rest of the money to organise something special (Photo: Lorraine Crowe)

Other people included in SunLife’s “Cost of Dying” report cite similar reasons for choosing them. “I don’t actually find funeral services that helpful, so decided to choose a direct cremation and remember Mum in my own way,” wrote one. “Because it was a little cheaper than a regular funeral service, I thought it was more appropriate to donate that extra money to the hospital where she had been treated.”

Even famous people are no stranger to them – David Bowie famously opted for a direct cremation because he wanted to “go without any fuss”, before his ashes were scattered in Bali, Indonesia.

The service is increasingly offered by the country’s largest funeral providers, with some firms – such as Pure Cremation – exclusively offering the service.

Co-Op Funeralcare also offers direct cremation, with services started at £995 plus £82 for a doctor to complete the necessary paperwork. Since it started offering them five years ago, demand has risen 350 per cent.

There are some concerns that people may feel like they have to choose a direct cremation in order to spare family members the “cost or distress” of a traditional family service, says Deborah Smith of the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Terry Tennens, chief executive of the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors said that his members believed “everyone should be able hold at least a basic, dignified funeral”, and that it was possible to keep costs down by using a local funeral director.

“People should take care to compare costs of a direct cremation, as when various items have been added it’s often possible to arrange a simple funeral with a service for not much more,” he added.

But for those like Lorraine, a direct cremation was a good way to make sure that she remembered her friend in a fitting way.

“I think people are re-evaluating what it means to pay tribute to people that they’ve lost,” she added. “It’s about coming together and paying respects, rather than feeling like you have to confirm to a particular ideal.”

What is a direct cremation?

  • A direct cremation is where a body is collected, cremated and – if requested – the ashes are returned to the family.
  • There is no funeral service and no one is able witness the cremation.
  • You can arrange a direct cremation with any high street funeral home, or from a direct-cremation only firm via a call centre or website.
  • Bodies can be transported some distance away in order to be cremated, and may be moved alongside other people.
  • Costs are low, starting at around £1,000 plus any doctor’s fees.

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