Arranging a funeral

What to do after someone dies

There are a number of steps that need to be taken when someone dies.

  1. Register the death
  2. Arrange the funeral
  3. Tell the government about the death (this informs all government departments at once)
  4. Deal with the estate

By law, a death must be registered with the local registrar, a service run by councils to register all births, marriages and deaths.

Register the death

In England this must be done within five days of a death or eight days in Scotland.

If the death occurs at home, the family doctor is the first port of call in the event that the death is expected.

He or she will record the time of death and issue a medical certificate and the death can then be registered.

If the death is unexpected, call 999 and the relevant authority will be dispatched. If police are requested, nothing should be moved in the property before they arrive.

It may be decided there are no suspicious circumstances and a doctor can be called, or the death may be referred to the local coroner or procurator fiscal in Scotland for investigation.

A post mortem will be carried out and this will determine whether or not there will be an inquest (an investigation into the death).

If the death occurs in hospital, the nurse in charge will arrange for the medical certificate to be issued providing there are no suspicious circumstances.

It is okay to begin making funeral arrangements before a death has been registered.

Indeed, very soon after or perhaps even before, many people will have decided which funeral director they are going to use and the person who has died will have been taken into their care.

However, the funeral cannot go ahead until registration has taken place. Once this has happened, the authorities will issue the necessary documentation permitting a burial or an application for a cremation to be made.

If the coroner is involved, the funeral may go ahead before the death is registered, with an interim certificate issued.

In the event of a cremation funeral, further certification by doctors is required in order to provide safeguards, although a new system is being introduced with the aim of speeding up the process. This is called the Medical Examiner system and is similar to Scotland’s Death Certification Review Service.

Further information about the steps to take when someone has died can be found here:

England and Wales https://www.gov.uk/after-a-death

Scotland https://www.mygov.scot/when-someone-dies/

Northern Ireland https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/what-do-when-someone-dies-checklist

Funeral choices

There’s no doubt that British society is changing the way it does funerals. For many years, the majority of funerals have followed a similar ritual – or what is commonly known as the ‘traditional funeral’.

In a nutshell, this normally involves the deceased being taken into the care of a funeral director, the funeral director making necessary arrangements with relevant authorities, providing a hearse and limousine on the day of the funeral and transporting the deceased and their family, in black, to the place of the funeral, where a religious minister would oversee proceedings.

An increasing number of people are taking a slightly different, perhaps secular, approach and are personalising funerals. Decorating coffins, wearing bright colours, alternative transport and readings by friends and family members rather than church representatives are becoming the norm.

It’s also perfectly fine to separate the disposal of the body from the funeral service itself. A thanksgiving service following or before a burial or cremation is fine.

The truth is, there is no “correct” way to conduct a funeral, so long as the deceased’s wishes are honoured and the family and friends affected by the death are satisified that the process has met their needs.

Whilst most funeral directors will offer simple and traditional funerals, they will also tailor their services accordingly.

Tip: The best way to know what kind of funeral a loved one wants is to talk about it. People who feel uncomfortable talking about this should write down their wishes and put them somewhere safe, with documents such as house deeds, insurance policies or with their copy of their will (if they have one).

Burial

Burial in a traditional cemetery, owned and maintained by a church or local authority, accounts for around 25% of funerals on average. In some areas of the UK, this is much higher.

Some cemeteries are privately owned by some of the large funeral groups and specialist businesses. There are also natural burial grounds which are often in private hands or run by social enterprises.

Burial is more often than not the most expensive form of funeral, largely due to limited space and associated maintenance costs. However, in cases where a family already has a grave it is often only the cost of opening to pay rather than the cost of an earthen grave.

Essentially, the body is buried in the ground in the coffin. Families are able to buy single, double or family plots. Some local authorities are now reusing plots (these must be at least 75 years old) due to space pressures.

Burial at a natural burial ground or woodland is increasing in popularity and is less expensive than a municipal burial, by a considerable margin.

However, it is important to understand that natural burial grounds often have restrictions on coffin materials and memorials generally have to be biodegradable. The idea is that the body is returned to nature over time.

In Scotland, recent regulation in the form of the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, graves can be reused after 100 years, whilst empty graves can be reused after 50 years, with conditions.

Tip: Buying a family grave could work out cheaper in the long run, as subsequent funerals will only have to pay the cost of reopening a grave, which is significantly less than the cost of buying a plot.

Cremation

Accounting for around 70% of funerals, cremation is by far the most popular choice of disposal of a body. It is also perhaps the least expensive option for families.

Costs can vary and local authority crematoria tend to be cheaper than privately owned sites.

Cremation involves placing the body into a furnace, generally for around 90 minutes, until all that remains are ashes.

These are then removed, ground down and then placed in a storage urn ahead of return to the family.

Ashes can be interred (buried) with a relative or loved one, or scattered at sites such as a village green or at sea. Some sites like football grounds or golf courses will require special permission, which is rarely granted.

Tip: Have a plan for the ashes. Many people fail to think about this and the ashes subsequently end up on a shelf in a funeral home. Planning ahead may also reduce family disagreements on what happens to the ashes.

Coffins and vehicles

Coffins

There is a wide range of coffins available, from solid wood to veneer and wicker to cardboard, not to mention wool and seagrass.

There are also picture coffins. Suppliers will adorn the coffin in imagery that reflects the life and interests of the deceased. Alternatively, opting for a plain cardboard coffin provides a blank canvas on which mourners can write messages or draw pictures in honour of the deceased.

Coffin prices can vary significantly but a standard coffin should cost in the region of £300-£400 and are predominantly supplied by the funeral director.

For families minded to take a more hands-on approach, there are coffin suppliers who deal directly with the public. However, it is important be aware of quality and that many crematoria expect coffins to be accredited by the Funeral Furnishing Manufacturers’ Association or other authority. Crematoria also require coffins to be compliant with Government regulations on emissions. Check with suppliers and the crematorium in question before making payment.

Families sourcing their own coffin should check that their funeral director will accept it.

Additionally, for families opting for natural burial, some burial sites will not accept MDF or particleboard coffins, so this needs to be considered when it comes to choosing a coffin.

Tip: Buy a coffin for the purpose it is going to be used. Biodegradable ones are best for burial whereas coffins which produce the least amount of emissions are better for cremation.

Vehicles

The black or silver hearse is the iconic funeral vehicle. Hearses are designed to project dignity on to the deceased for their final journey. In most cases this is from the funeral home or the home of the deceased’s family.

There is no law requiring a hearse for the transportation of a deceased person. But whichever vehicle is used, the body must be “decently covered”.

As with coffins, there is a growing range of choices when it comes to funeral vehicles.

There is a range of specialist suppliers, offering everything from Land Rovers and campervans to motorcyles and electric vehicles. Bear in mind, a more specialist vehicle may result in additional costs for the funeral.

The funeral director will liaise with the cemetery or church if not using a standard vehicle to ensure that the venue has sufficient space. (For example, if a family wanted to use lorries to transport the body).

Tip: There is no law saying a black hearse should be used to transport people from funeral homes to the place of funeral service. Think about the person-who-has-died’s interests – a camper van, sidecar hearse or even horse-drawn carriages are often good alternatives.

Third party costs (disbursements)

A funeral invoice is generally divided into two sections. The funeral director’s fees and third party fees. In recent years third party fees have increased significantly and in many cases are a greater portion of the invoice than the funeral director’s fees.

This is driven mostly by rises in burial and cremation charges applied by local authorities. Cremation remains a much cheaper option than burial. This is due to space pressures and maintenance costs at cemeteries.

A cremation may cost in the region of £700-£1,000. With regards to burial, there are two charges. Firstly, there is the purchase of the grave itself and secondly, the opening of the grave. The purchase of the grave is a one-off payment and can run into thousands of pounds, whilst the opening fee will be for a number of burials and the cost is likely to be hundreds of pounds.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are also medical referees’ fees, at £164, and the cost of a celebrant or church minister, which is likely to be in the region of £150-£300.

Other funeral costs include flowers, venue hire and catering for the wake.

Tip: Ask the funeral director to advise on different local price options for burial and cremation costs as there are often variances.

Inviting mourners, orders of service

Inviting mourners

Knowing whom to invite to the funeral is a serious consideration. Will the funeral be open to anyone or will it be a private affair?

A family dispute may result in a desire to exclude an individual or group from a funeral but in reality it is legally very difficult to prevent someone attending a funeral, unless there is likely to be a breach of the peace.

If there is a rift then a separate thanksgiving service on another date could be a way around this issue.

Traditionally people are invited to funerals via a public notice placed in a local newspaper by the funeral director.

With the decline in print media, many funeral directors also offer an online notice service, which can be shared via social media.

Tip: Asking friends and family to assist with invitations can ease pressure at a difficult time. People not on social media should consider asking those who are to share details of the funeral.

Orders of service

Orders of service perform a useful function at a funeral in that they provide mourners with a running order, detailing a schedule of readings and songs or hymns to be sung or listened to.

The order of service is also an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased with the inclusion of a photograph and some accompanying words.

Most funeral directors will design and print the order of service.

Tip: An order of service can act as a lasting memento of the person who has died. Make it a collection of music, thoughts and poetry and leave a space for mourners to include their own words upon which they can reflect after the funeral.

DIY funerals

The term DIY funeral has become more common in recent years and there is no law requiring the services of a funeral director.

To organise a funeral, the bereaved will need to perform a series of tasks during the time period between the death of a loved one and the disposal of the body.

These include processing the necessary paperwork, including registration of the death, acquiring the doctor’s and medical referee’s certificates and completing the cremation application paperwork (in the event that cremation is the preferred method of disposal).

In addition to this, there is the practical matter of the storage of the body. If this is to be in the home, there will need to be a degree of daily care, particularly if the time between death and the funeral is likely to be more than a couple of days. Typically, there is a two-week wait for a cremation slot at a local crematorium.

Next there is the matter of choosing the location, content of the funeral and invitations to mourners.

For families thinking of arranging a DIY funeral, it is worth talking to a local funeral director, as they may be able to assist and advise on practical matters like storage and care of the deceased and transport.

Tip: For DIY funerals opting for cremation, talk to the chosen crematoria to check that the coffin used will comply with their regulations.

Direct Cremations

A direct cremation is a cremation at which no mourners are present and there is no service or ceremony.

Funeral directors who offer direct cremation may not permit viewing of the deceased at their funeral home.

A direct cremation can significantly reduce the cost of a funeral, however, people affected by the death will most likely expect to be able to attend a service or ceremony to pay their respects to the deceased.

A funeral director or celebrant will be able to offer advice on how to organise such a ceremomy.

Tip: Most funeral directors will be able to arrange a direct cremation. If using an online direct cremation provider, ask where the person who has died will be kept between death and cremation.

Funeral expenses payment

The Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment is a state benefit designed to cover the costs of a funeral for families on limited means.

Currently this is set at £700 for funeral directors’ fees and is uncapped for third party fees such as cremation.

There are some specialist funeral directors who offer Funeral Expenses Payment funerals but they are not widespread.

With the cost of an average funeral around £3,700-£4,000 the current Funeral Expenses Payment in most cases falls significantly short of the cost of most funerals.

In Scotland, this support has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and is known as the Funeral Expense Assistance.

Families who are concerned about their ability to meet the cost of a funeral should speak to their funeral director about available support and should not feel in any way embarrassed or stigmatised.

Further information about Government support is available here:

England and Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Tip: At £700, the funeral expenses payment is unable to cover the average cost of a funeral. There are alternatives that may reduce the financial burden, such as a public health funeral or direct cremation. Separating the service from the disposal of the body can be helpful too in allowing people to think creatively about meaningful but inexpensive ways in which a person’s memory can be honoured.

Public Health Funerals

Also known as the Pauper’s Funeral, the Public Health Funeral has become more commonplace, possibly as a result of the inadequacy of the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment.

Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, councils have a legal duty to make funeral arrangements where there is no alternative option, such as family funds.

Families who feel this might be an option for them should talk to their local authority to check eligibility.

In most cases, Public Health Funerals are delivered by a local funeral director under contract from the council.

Tip: People opting for a public health funeral should bear in mind that they may not receive any ashes and these could be scattered within a crematorium grounds by its staff.

Repatriation / Where death occurs abroad

Most local funeral directors will be able to help you if death of a loved one has happened abroad or you need to repatriate a deceased person to another country for the funeral. The funeral director will work with specialist repatriation companies and funeral directors based in the intended location of the funeral on your behalf.

For information on specific laws and regulations in the country involved, check the Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates website – https://www.embassypages.com/uk 

Paying for the funeral

Funerals, when purchased at the time of need rather than via a funeral plan, typically comprise of two payments.

The first is for the third party costs, or disbursements. These are fees the funeral director has to pay on a family’s behalf, such as cremation or burial charges, doctors’ fees and celebrants’ or ministers’ costs. Many funeral directors require clients to pay a deposit, or even the full amount, in advance in order to cover these costs.

After the funeral, families will receive a final invoice, comprising the funeral director’s professional fees, coffin, vehicles and sundry costs.

The professional fees cover the cost of taking the deceased into the funeral director’s care, preparation for viewing in the chapel of rest and processing the necessary paperwork required for a funeral to take place, amongst other tasks.

All funeral directors will provide an estimate of their costs following an arrangement meeting in which they will ask questions to understand what is required of the funeral.

A family should not feel pressured by anybody into buying elements or adding extras to a funeral. It is important to remember that no one will judge a family for opting for a simple funeral.

Often, it’s not the trappings that make a funeral memorable or meaningful. It is what is said during the service and perhaps what songs are sung, or music played.

Other rituals, such as washing the deceased, choosing clothes for the funeral, decorating a coffin, writing a poem, or creating a storyboard with pictures to be displayed at the wake cost very little but offer great comfort at a difficult time.

Ultimately, the message is, a limited budget doesn’t necessarily mean an inferior funeral. A creative funeral director will assist families in a dignified and respectful way, no matter what the means.

Tip: Families should talk to their funeral director about any concerns they have about ability to pay the final invoice. Funeral directors are reasonable people and will try to help.