Funeral costs rise despite 'pauper' ceremonies

By Emily Unia & Paul Lynch
BBC News

image source, Getty Images
image captionMany councils have defended the rising cost of cremations

The cost of cremations in the UK has continued to rise despite reduced services on offer during the pandemic.

Two thirds of councils have continued with price increases of up to 16% from last year, while limited numbers of mourners can attend shorter ceremonies to maintain social distancing.

A quarter of authorities have frozen prices, while seven have cut costs on the grounds of compassion.

One widower said a lockdown service for his wife was like a "pauper's funeral".

Councils have defended the price rises, saying those decisions were taken before the government's social distancing measures were introduced and that it currently costs more to run ceremonies.

One authority said the pandemic had also placed increased stress on its crematoria staff, who have had to receive extra training.

'It felt like a pauper's funeral'

image source, Neville Wilson
image captionThe funeral service time for Doreen Wilson was reduced to 20 minutes

Neville Wilson's wife Doreen died of lung cancer in March and her funeral took place during lockdown.

Only five mourners could attend under the government guidelines on social distancing.

The funeral procession was a hearse only, without floral tributes and the family had to go in their own cars.

While the service time was reduced from 45 minutes to 20 minutes, the fee charged by Coventry City Council was not.

"It felt unbelievably bad," said machine engineer Mr Wilson, aged 66.

media captionNeville Wilson said he would not wish his wife's funeral "on his worst enemy"

"It felt like a pauper's funeral. It couldn't get any worse if we'd tried.

"I then started some investigation myself as to which councils were and which councils weren't [freezing costs] and I thought if some councils are doing it, why aren't Coventry council doing it?"

Andrew Walster, from Coventry City Council, said service times had to be cut to introduce deep cleaning in the chapels between services and to increase the number of service slots in a day to account for the rise in deaths.

"Unfortunately, that didn't reduce our costs of providing that service to the public, in fact it increased it, by providing those additional facilities for bereaved families," he said.

"We haven't passed on those additional costs."

Prices 'beyond means'

Government guidelines issued under lockdown restricted ceremonies to close family and household members only.

Yet, as of June, the average cost of a local authority cremation in the UK was £775, up from £752 last financial year, according to BBC analysis.

Ten years ago, the average funeral cost £470.

The rising cost of cremations in the UK. Median price for an off-peak ceremony over the decade. The chart shows how the average cost of a cremation in the UK has risen from £470 to £752 over the past decade. NB: No figures for 2016-17.

Prices for 2020-21 range from £392 in Belfast to £995 in Worthing, West Sussex.

The past 10 years have seen costs at council facilities rise by an average of £200 above the rate of inflation.

This year, Cornwall Council increased the price of an off-peak cremation by £147.

Campaigners say the rises cannot be justified while the restrictions are in place.

Among them is Down to Earth, a project by charity Quaker Social Action aimed at tackling "funeral poverty".

Largest rise in cremation costs this year. Councils with the highest price increases compared to 2019-20 (£). Chart shows the ten highest price rises at councils across the UK. At the top of the Chart is Cornwall, which raised costs by £147 in the space of a year. Figure obtained from  a survey of 167 UK councils.

Acting manager Lindesay Mace said: "What we're seeing here are increases in cremation fees in the last year of as much as six, seven and even 10% in some places.

"Those kind of price rises are clearly beyond the means of the average person, especially when you bear in mind that incomes haven't risen by nearly as much."

Cornwall Council said it has offered "a reduced fee for cremations which take place at certain times of day for several years."

'Easing the burden'

Some authorities have meanwhile decided to cut costs as an immediate measure.

"We know funerals can be expensive and people are suffering financially so we looked at how we could help out and ease the burden," Oldham Council said.

The authority has cut its fees by £144, a measure which will stay in place until September.

Cheltenham Council cannot offer a video streaming service outside and only five mourners are permitted to attend a reduced "graveside-only" ceremony.

As a result, it dropped its prices by £490.

image captionCouncil bosses in Coventry said the price rises at Canley Crematorium reflected the increased cost to run a ceremony

Chief executive officer of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, Julie Dunk, said councils have had to invest in environmentally friendly equipment in recent years, which has left them needing to recover costs.

Two out of the three biggest private crematoria operators, Memoria and Westerleigh, have also increased prices in 2020.

Private firms make up around a quarter of the market share in the UK.

Westerleigh said its annual price review took place in January 2020 and it has not increased any prices "since then, or during the Covid-19 crisis.".

People claiming certain benefits can receive help with funeral costs from the government's Funeral Expenses Payment, although the scheme does not always cover the entire cost.

The Competition and Markets Authority is investigating the funeral industry and could recommend tighter regulation or price capping to stop above-inflation increases.

It is set to report back on its findings in 2021, having called for an extension to the review that will take into account the effect of the pandemic.

Widower Mr Wilson said current costs were heaping extra grief on families during a difficult time.

"My two sons are still extremely angry. And also so are my wife's family, they're very upset that they couldn't attend. I really wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," he said.

"Horrendous is the word."

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