Funeral fees put families in debt

The average cost of a funeral in Scotland is now around �3,500, but this customised 'skip' coffin would put the price up even more. Picture: Getty Images
The average cost of a funeral in Scotland is now around �3,500, but this customised 'skip' coffin would put the price up even more. Picture: Getty Images
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THE rising cost of funerals in Scotland is forcing families into debt and into the arms of payday lenders, charities and experts in the sector have warned.

The number of people seeking help organising and paying for funerals has leapt in recent years on the back of sharp increases in the cost of burials, cremations and funeral director services.

The average cost of a funeral in Scotland is now around £3,500, according to the Scottish Grief and Bereavement Hub – up 80 per cent over the past ten years. Up to half of that is accounted for by burial or cremation costs, which are set by local authorities.

The financial difficulties for families dealing with bereavement are exacerbated by a lack of transparency among funeral directors, said John Birrell, convenor of the Scottish Grief and Bereavement Hub.

His claim came weeks after Sun Life Direct’s annual survey into the cost of dying warned that “funeral poverty” is at record levels after a 50 per cent rise in just three years. One in five families has experienced difficulties in funding funerals, according to the study, which predicted that by 2018 the average funeral will cost more than £4,300.

“We are getting reports from hospitals and hospices around Scotland that more people are looking for advice and help in paying for funerals,” said Birrell. “Anecdotally there is evidence of funeral directors refusing to take them on because the family can’t afford to pay.

“It’s distressing for families, and even if they can pay for it they are still spending time worrying about that as well as everything else they are going through.”

People often don’t realise how expensive funerals are until they have to arrange one, said Margaret Lynch, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland.

“In many cases this happens suddenly, and people then have to deal with the huge financial burden while they are grieving. It’s a very sad situation,” she said.

“And it has been made worse in recent years with changes to the welfare system which have made it more difficult in some areas to get financial help with funeral payments.”

Cremation costs in Scotland vary widely, from £1,770 at the top end in Dundee to just £450 in Greenock. Burial costs are higher, at almost £2,000 in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“The cost of burials and cremations has gone up rapidly and there’s a feeling that cash-strapped local authorities see burial grounds as a way of making money,” said Birrell. “Then there’s the cost of the funeral director services, hearse hire and the coffin, among others outlays.”

Working out exactly how those charges add up can be difficult, he added, expressing concern over the level of transparency on the part of funeral directors (which are not regulated).

There are alternatives to the traditional funeral, with more basic ceremonies becoming increasingly commonplace in the United States especially. Disposals without funerals now account for almost half of funerals in Canada, though in Scotland only a few funeral directors currently offer this.

However, the desire of families to give relatives the best farewell possible is becoming a significant factor contributing to poverty, according to Birrell.

“People need to think about this in two ways: they have to make provisions so they have funding to fall back on when they have to pay for funerals, and they need to make it clearer what their wishes are when they die.

“Families feel they owe it to relatives to have a big funeral, but often it’s not what the person wanted.”

Among the funding options are pre-paid funeral plans, into which individuals can pay regular instalments that will one day cover the cost of their funeral.

Logan Steele, general manager of Age Scotland Enterprises, said: “The rise in living costs and low interest on savings make planning ahead more important now than ever before.

“Taking out a funeral plan makes financial sense, as you’re effectively paying for your funeral at today’s prices.”