The last purchase made in our name can be fraught with ethical dilemmas. Simon Robinson explores the UK’s changing funeral market and introduces Ethical Consumer’s own legacy scheme.
First Published in Ethical Consumer - Sep/Oct 2015
The funeral market in the UK is dominated by three major players: The Co-operative, Dignity, and Funeral Service Partners. The remainder of the market is made up of many hundreds of independent, often familyrun, funeral directors. The industry is worth an estimated £2 billion, with each funeral costing an average of £3,500, up 80% on the price a decade ago.
This cost excludes any burial plot, gravestone or memorial. Although a major life event, funerals suffer from lack of planning and forethought. This is perhaps understandable as few of us want to contemplate our own demise, inevitable as it is. Unlike weddings, for example, funerals are typically organised for us by next of kin, over only a few days, at a time when they are going through an intense grieving process.
The importance of choice
George Ball and Son is an independent family-run funeral directors established in 1870. Director Daniel Ball gives an example of the immense sense of relief felt by members of a family when told that their mother had planned and paid for all aspects of her funeral, well in advance of her death. Yet many of us fail in this regard, putting considerably more time and effort into choosing the right television or washing machine to buy.
Daniel wants to increase awareness and promote the choices available to individuals and families who come to him. Such choices can include the type of coffin, whether to be buried or cremated, whether to have a religious or non-religious service and the style and colour of the hearse.
The Somerset Willow Company has seen a rise of 80% in sales of its locally grown and crafted wicker coffins in the last year, with families seeing them as less sombre than the traditional styles.
Rosie Inman-Cook of the Natural Death Centre echoes the importance of choice in how people want to go. “I receive many calls from families who feel they have been drawn into a certain type of funeral which goes against either their own wishes, or those of the deceased,” says Rosie. “This can be immensely distressing.” Rosie also stresses the importance of minimising the cost for families,
particularly those on low incomes. More and more families are being left in ‘funeral poverty’, going into debt to cover the costs. What used to be known as ‘pauper’s funerals’ are also on the rise.
Independent funeral directors are often better positioned to assist families, as they can use their discretion regarding payment terms. Many of the larger companies require credit checks to be undertaken, which typically excludes the less affluent. George Ball and Son are one of many signatories to the Fair Funerals pledge, whereby funeral directors commit to providing clear, comparable prices so people know what they’re buying. They also make their most affordable funeral visible to the public.
The pledge is run by Quaker Social Action and actively promoted by the trade association the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF). Rosie Inman-Cook sees increased awareness of the services available playing a major role in reducing the cost of funerals. For example, “if people are open to the idea of separating ‘disposal of the body’, from a ‘memorial service’, then costs can be dramatically reduced”, she explains. She also cites an emergence of alternative approaches to funerals, with many new, independent, ‘artisan’ providers offering a type of send-off that many of us may not have considered.
The greening of funerals
For over 15 years George Ball and Son have run the Friends of Nature Burial Ground in Mobberley, Cheshire, offering a natural alternative to traditional burial or cremation. Whilst they encourage families opting for the natural burial ground to go for the greenest options, they take a pragmatic approach. “We never point blank refuse families’ wishes”, says Daniel. Instead they steer families towards sourcing coffins made from 100% natural materials, and discourage embalming before burial, where practical. Families are able to purchase memorial trees from a selection of native species, which are planted to a site management plan that was drawn up with the assistance of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust.
The independent Heart of England (HoE) Co-operative Society sources its main coffin range from a local cooperative supplier, using wood from sustainably managed forests. Other local companies supply specialist picture coffins, and coffin interiors. They have also recently changed their hearse and limousine fleet over to more fuel-efficient vehicles. Darryl Smith, General Manager of Funerals at HoE Co-op, sees their business as trading ethically. However, he recognises that there is room for improvement: “More can be done,” he says, “including the setting of targets”.
The Natural Death Centre overseas the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, a subscription-based organisation which promotes environmental best practice and has a code of conduct to which members must comply. Rosie Inman-Cook is aware of varying levels of greenwash when it comes to green burial grounds, and has seen examples with tarmac driveways and poor habitat management, or municipal sites occupying a neglected corner of a traditional cemetery. To showcase best practice and support the work of the charity, the Natural Death Centre has just opened Eden Valley Woodland Burial Ground on the Kent/ Surrey border, offering plots from £600, which compare to around £4,000 for a plot in a cemetery in the Croydon urban area.
Think outside the box
As with many purchases, the advice is do your research and plan well in advance. “It’s important to shop around,” says Daniel Ball. “Most directors are happy to discuss options without any obligation.” Rosie Inman-Cook sees the emergence of internet-savvy families driving greater consumer choice and in turn, forcing the market to adapt. We all need to put aside fears of our own mortality, and as the Natural Death Centre strapline suggests, “lift the lid on dying and funerals”.
Sources of support and advice
The Natural Death Centre and Association of Natural Burial Grounds: www.naturaldeath.org.uk tel: 01962 712 690
The Natural Death Centre publish the The Natural Death Handbook. It can be bought for £20 (inc p&p) direct from their website where it is described as ''the essential and influential guide covering the practical, emotional and spiritual aspects of death and dying'.
Down to Earth is a programme run by Quaker Social Action which offers practical support for those struggling to afford a funeral: www.quakersocialaction.org.uk tel: 020 8983 5055
Citizen's Advice Website has funeral advice: www.citizensadvice.org.uk
The Money Advice Service: Free support service from the UK government money: www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk, Tel: 0300 500 5000
The Money Saving Expert website has advice and tips on all aspects of will making and funerals: www.moneysavingexpert.com
Also see Ethical Consumer's feature on Ethical Funerals from Nov/Dec 2008.
Find out about Ethical Consumer's own Legacy Giving scheme
A Postcard from West Africa
Simon Fenton gives a snapshot of inheritance law and family burial in his adopted home of Senegal
In Senegal, inheritance regulations officially follow either the modern system, derived from French civil law, or Islamic law. However, in rural areas where I live, local Diola tribal people rarely make a will or follow legal processes. Instead, they are more likely to follow animistic family traditions. The main possession of a family is land, particularly paddy fields for rice production. Land is not only a resource for farming, but also a “source of souls.” So a plot of land belongs both to the family and the souls of the ancestor and it is important to keep the land within the family.
During his life time, a father will pass out plots of land to his sons. Upon his death they will keep their plot as well as splitting any land still held by him. Additionally, animals and money will be split between sons who will generally remain in the family house, whereas daughters will marry and move to their husband's land.
In 2012 my father in law passed away. It had been expected. We transported his body in the communal village coffin (which is reused for all local burials), to the forested cemetery. As with Islamic tradition, this was on the same day as his death. After an entire day of quiet reflection, he was removed from the coffin and buried wrapped in a cloth. Forty days later, the family gathered to celebrate his life and divide his possessions. He had two wives, and their respective sons inherited each’s house, although the mothers continue to reside in them.
There was one final bizarre ritual where the children were whipped with branches to atone for issues the father was unhappy with. I thought this was a ceremony and for show, but my wife Khady later revealed deep red welts across her back. It was a jarring reminder of just how different our two cultures can be.
Simon Fenton and his wife Khady run an eco-lodge in Abene in the Casamance region of Senegal. www.thelittlebaobab.com
He is the author of ‘Squirting Milk at Chameleons’, published by Eye-Books.