Soaring cost of cremation means that families cannot afford services for final farewell to their loved ones
Special report and pictures by Bill Heaney
Horse-drawn hearses and huge floral wreaths are familiar at many funerals today but some families are so poor they cannot afford a proper service to say farewell to their deceased relatives and friends.
The soaring cost of cremations and other funeral services has over the past year led to “a notable increase” in the number of direct (no service) cremations.
And to requests for funerals without flowers, the services of a funeral director, music, a minister, priest or humanist celebrant, proper coffins or even a hearse to take them to the cemetery or crematorium.
The reasons for this are many and varied, with greatly increased costs being the main one.
This has led to a number of crematoriums declining to accept applications where the services of a funeral director are not being used.
Daytime television is over supplied with adverts for life insurance and funeral cover and people who cannot afford to feed themselves properly or to keep warm are saving up to pay for their funeral.
In a report just published, Robert Swanson, HM Inspector of Crematoria, explained: “The greatest concern relates to an assurance that the coffin is of an acceptable standard and that nothing is present which would have an adverse effect on emissions – or cause damage to the cremator.
“Further concern relates to the means of transport used to convey the coffin to the crematorium.”
He added: “The two main issues which are current relate to shared pregnancy loss and the lack of provision for dedicated grounds for the scattering or internment of ashes for those of non-Christian faiths and beliefs, or of no religion.
“It is anticipated that these matters will generate much debate, with both private and local authority owned crematoriums.”
The Inspector reported that despite an increase in deaths and cremations over the winter period, followed by a period of heavy snow causing temporary closures of a number of crematoriums, all operated below capacity, and in conjunction with funeral directors and applicants, they were able to re-schedule those cremations which had to be postponed within an acceptable timescale.
“There were no complaints reported to the Inspector in respect of these arrangements. A hidden benefit of dealing with these extra demands has been the successful implementation and review of local contingency plans.”
However, the wide and varied complaints and enquiries are considered to be due to greater public awareness of the funeral industry and restored confidence in the regulatory authorities, he added.
Meanwhile, as earlier reported in The Democrat, the cost of dying in West Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh and Lomond has increased exponentially over the past eight years.
In Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Clydebank, opening a lair in the cemetery now costs £616, which is an increase of 30 per cent on the £475 it cost in 2010.
In Argyll and Bute, that charge has more than doubled, with an increase of 52 per cent from £430 to £653 for cemeteries such Cardross and Helensburgh.
Funeral directors said grieving families were being subjected to a “postcode lottery” because of the variety of fees being levied by councils.
The total cost of a funeral averages out at £3,600 and has plunged thousands of low income families into serious debts they cannot afford to pay off.
The former Communities Secretary Angela Constance said she was taking “decisive action” over what was a “growing issue”.
And that the government have plans to create a new benefit to help people struggling to pay for funeral costs – but not yet.
They hope to launch the new Funeral Expense Assistance benefit by the summer of 2019.
The cost of burials and cremations has been on the rise for some time.
In 2016, a basic burial, on average, cost more than £1,300, excluding undertakers’ fees, while the average local authority cremation costs £670.
The new benefit strategy is part of a 10-point plan which commits the government to a range of actions over funeral costs.
A range of advice services, including guidance on funeral costs, consumer protection in relation to funeral plans, a Social Innovation Fund to tackle funeral poverty and the pilot of a “funeral bond” to help people save up for their own burial are part of that.
Ms Constance said the government was committed to “supporting those who need it most following a bereavement”.
She said: “The death of a loved one is an incredibly difficult time for anyone. It can be even harder when money is tight.
“We know funeral costs can push people into poverty – and often it is those already in financial hardship who face increased difficulties.
“That is why we are taking decisive action to tackle this growing issue and have engaged with local authorities, the funeral sector and other support services.
“I am pleased by the willingness to work together to find solutions that support more affordable funerals.”
An investigation by BBC Scotland reporters Lucy Adams and Marc Ellison revealed that the basic cost of a burial in Scotland has risen on average by 77% since 2010.
A Citizens Advice Scotland review said of the 55,000 funerals taking place in Scotland each year 10% of families struggle to pay the bill.
Jim Brodie, of the Scottish Association of Independent Funeral Directors, believed council charges for interment and cremations were “immoral”.
Local government body COSLA said fees were based on “need and circumstance”.
The average debt being taken on by next of kin to bury relatives is an estimated £1,680.
What are some of the terms associated with funerals? The excavation of a grave is known as the “interment” or “opening” fee, and the reservation of a plot is typically called the “lair purchase fee”.
New data, wrung out of the authorities through freedom of information legislation, showed the basic cost for an interment varied between £310 in the Western Isles to £1095 in Edinburgh, with the Scottish average being £705 – a rise of 77% in eight years.
As well as the cost of the interment, there are fees for the lair, the service, flowers, music, or higher charges for a weekend burial.
By comparison, the average fee for a cremation across 14 local authorities also increased by 46% to £685 over the same period.
Mr Brodie told BBC Scotland: “Many councils will tell us that they lose money on these fees – however we find it difficult to understand why that is so.
“But when you’re talking how a burial can cost nearly as much as an entire funeral – it seems a little bit strange.
“In my mind, [they charge] as much as they think their community can afford.”
Mr Brodie, who claims his funeral company has not raised service costs since 2015, added: “There are many pressures on the councils, I have no doubts about that, but you have an essential service that is being used to make money, to offset other parts of the council.
“I can’t say it’s wrong – I just think it’s immoral.”
Greater Glasgow, which includes West Dunbartonshire and South Argyll, has the bodies of six women and 19 men – eight have been identified but have not been buried due to either “family disputes or cost”.
Three of these bodies have been in the mortuary for more than a year – one of them having lain for more than 700 days.
Health boards say that bodies are generally considered unclaimed if no funeral director or next of kin has been in touch after three weeks.
Mr Brodie said: “The hospital has a duty to try and find that person – it can take weeks; it can take months. However, because of affordability problems, even after this person has been found, they don’t have to take responsibility.”
There was also an outcry from families of deceased relatives in West Dunbartonshire last month when cutting back on maintenance of the local cemeteries to save money was implemented.
One of the complaints received by the Inspector of Crematoria was about the availability of a place where people of religions other than Christianity could have their ashes scattered, and this is being addressed.
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “Everyone must agree that crematoria should be welcoming to people of all faiths and none. Families should be encouraged to express their wishes and their preferences should be accommodated whenever possible.
“At the same time, during times of grief and loss many people want and need the comforting presence of symbols of their faith and words that express their beliefs and the importance of these should not be underestimated.”
Meanwhile, two years ago, the Vatican announced in new guidelines that the ashes of cremated Catholics cannot be kept at home, scattered or divided among family members.
The two-page instruction by the Vatican’s department on doctrine said ashes of the dead must be kept in “sacred places” such as cemeteries.
It also stressed that the Roman Catholic Church still preferred burials over cremations. The Vatican allowed cremation in 1963 but has always frowned on the practice. It also stressed at the time that cremation must not suggest a denial of faith about resurrection.
“It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects,” said the instruction by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“These courses of action cannot be legitimised by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.”
The Vatican said it was issuing the new guidelines to counter “new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith” that had become widespread since 1963.
It said the Church could not “condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body”.
The guidelines reiterated that Catholics who chose to be cremated “for reasons contrary to the Christian faith” must be denied a Christian funeral. The Vatican also stressed that “the Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased”.
Pope Francis has approved the guidelines, the Vatican said.