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The untimely death of the funeral

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Should we mourn the slow death of the traditional funeral?

The soaring cost of ceremonies and an increasingly secular society mean that fewer than half of Britons now want a funeral, according to a study this week. This raises the question, what do they want instead? The answer — which anyone who watches daytime television will surely know — is a direct cremation.

Also known as a “takeaway funeral”, the rise of a cheap, no-frills cremation with no relatives in attendance started under lockdown, but has remained enduringly popular, now accounting for nearly one in five UK deaths. Costs are kept low by using out-of-the-way crematoria, often very early in the morning before traditional ceremonies with mourners and wreaths begin.

The cheapest direct service I could find online was £895, plus £91 for the ashes to be returned in an oak-veneered box, and an extra £250 if the deceased weighed more than 14 stone. By contrast, a burial will set you back nearly £4,800 on average and a traditional cremation just under £3,700.

Funeral poverty was cited by one in 10 respondents who said they didn’t want a traditional service. However, the vast majority of funeral refusers (67 per cent) said they felt the money could be spent better another way, according to think-tank Theos, which carried out the research.

This reminded me of my trip to a Death Cafe in 2015 where I met a sprightly 70-something who proclaimed funerals were a rip-off. She wanted a direct cremation so her grandchildren could spend the money saved on a special holiday that they’d never otherwise have. The ubiquitous TV ads for direct cremation lean into this sentiment. Lines such as “The money saved is my gift to my family” and “I just don’t want you to have all that fuss and stress when I go” clearly strike a chord with many people.

But while mourners might save money by not having a funeral, what are they losing? Commenting on the report’s findings in its foreword, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, said it was “shocking to discover that death may be seen as expensive, time-consuming and irrelevant”.

“It’s almost a consumer response, rather than a grieving response,” says Madeleine Pennington, the Theos report’s co-author. Even if you don’t have religious faith, a funeral ceremony is a rite of farewell, and an important part of the grieving process. Speaking of the “pastoral care gap” and the role funerals play in supporting the bereaved, she adds that when pandemic deaths and funerals took place in isolation “we recognised as a society how inhumane that was”.

The rise of direct cremation does not signify the death of the funeral, according to Pure Cremations, a leading UK provider, whose website advocates the funeral’s “rebirth” into a ceremony that celebrates a person’s life rather than mourning their death.

A poll of 17,000 customers who have pre-bought plans attests that “a good send-off” still matters, but they want to decouple the cremation itself from the memorial event, and intend to hold this in a place that matters to them (beaches, beauty spots or pubs are popular), conducted by friends and family not “professional strangers”.

These people are very much in the minority for having planned their day of reckoning in advance. Theos found fewer than half of the general population felt prepared for death on a practical, financial or spiritual level. A grim reminder of our own mortality, Covid-19 prompted a spike in will-writing and registering a power of attorney, but it’s harder to say whether families have communicated funeral wishes to their nearest and dearest.

My own parents have organised enough funerals to know the heartache of trying to second-guess what someone would have wanted. So they have organised theirs in advance (including hymns and friends to contact). You might think this is weird, but they see it as an act of love. When the sad day comes, our grief will not be punctuated by decisions about coffins, cremations or where to scatter their ashes (importantly, we now know they want to be buried).

If my parents were not religious and told me they wanted a direct cremation, I don’t know how I’d react. The same goes for eco-friendly burials in woodlands, electric crematoriums instead of gas and even disposal by alkaline hydrolysis. But that’s all the more reason to talk about death while we are still alive. There is even a workbook called I’m Dead, Now What? in which people set out their wishes to help relatives, friends and executors navigate funerals and finances after they’ve gone.

No one ever plans on dying. Still, thinking about what you want in advance can ease the burden on people you love, whether you want the full ritual or simply a final toast in the pub.

Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor and the author of ‘What They Don’t Teach You About Money’. claer.barrett@ft.com Instagram @Claerb

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