Too expensive to die?

Too expensive to die?
Colm Fitzpatrick explores the price of Irish funerals and how to curb the costs

 

Everyone has heard the expression that “nothing in life is free”, but as it turns out, even death can be a pricey affair. With the costs of some funerals toppling into the tens of thousands, it’s no wonder that life expectancy is increasing, in an avid but ultimately futile bid to avoid the expense of dying.

Death is a reality that everyone faces, but while we all die, it’s rare to be in a situation where we are arranging a funeral – this prospect only comes around following the death of a closed loved one like a family member, or perhaps, a friend. Given the infrequent nature of owning responsibility for organising a burial, learning about the costs of funerals can be a gut-wrenching experience.

Basic
 cost

A basic Irish funeral can range from anywhere between €2,950 to €7,500, excluding burial plot, and according to insurance group Royal London, the average funeral in Belfast costs approximately £3,000. It can be an overwhelming time trying to juggle the cost of a funeral while also grieving the loss of a loved one, so it’s helpful to become aware of the price of funerals now rather than learning about it during the unstable mourning period.

For former Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell, the most cost-efficient way of planning a funeral is to explore multiple arrangement options before honing in on a final decision. Over the past few decades, he has been highlighting the significant costs of funerals in Ireland in an attempt to make them more affordable.

“The thing has changed quite a bit. But, when I was campaigning about it, there were very few new entrants to the market – now this goes way back; I was canvassing about this in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The problem was that there was very little competition at the time, it’s a bit improved now,” Mr Mitchell told The Irish Catholic, adding that it was often the case that apparently independent funeral directories were in common ownership, leading to a false sense of competition.

This lack of rivalry between businesses, he says, meant some undertakers would sign people into funeral deals which they would have serious difficulty in paying off.

While this may have been one possible reason for the expense of funerals in the past, Mr Mitchell says that nowadays there are plenty of directors, leading to better, more competitive rates. Indeed, a quick glance of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors webpage shows countless independent funeral businesses operating throughout Ireland.

“There is plenty of competition and people tend to use that now and they’ll ring around looking for the best price they can get for the funeral arrangements they’re looking for,” says Jonathan Stafford, of the well-known firm Staffords, which has been serving the Dublin community for the last four generations. This is especially the case, he points out, for prospective customers who have no loyalty to a particular director and are trying to vie for the best price.

While the accusation is made that some funeral directors may charge customers more than they can afford, Mr Stafford says that it’s not in the interest of an undertaker to have clients overspend, because they simply won’t be able to pay it back.

“To be honest, that’s a scenario we would like to hear more of, not that they don’t have any money, but the fact that they’re very up front with us. And the reason for that is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a very dignified and high-quality funeral.

“Some people have the opposite approach, where they will come in, and in their mind, they want to give their mother, father, loved one, whatever, the funeral they think they deserve and, in their mind, that’s spending the most amount of money, but they don’t always necessarily have that to spend,” Mr Stafford explains.

One reason, then, why prices now vary in extremity is because of the additions that customers might ask for or be persuaded into purchasing. Individual funeral arrangements vary widely and depend on factors like where the funeral is taking place, the type of coffin you choose, and whether or not you intend to hire funeral cars. Combined with other provisions like church offerings, music at the ceremony, and catering, the costs soon add up.

Needs

Most customers are able to find a suitable funeral director to accommodate their needs. Firms usually offer a low-cost dignified funeral, with problems only beginning to arise when clients want more than they can afford. For Mr Stafford, there is no such thing as a “normal funeral”, as the service depends entirely on the desires of the clientele.

“People sometimes have the idea of a normal funeral, there is no such thing because every funeral is different because it would depend on whether the person is going directly to the crematorium without a church service and if there are limousines or not…,” he says.

The role of the funeral director is not to exploit customers, but to advise them accordingly about what best suits, and try to keep the costs down if that’s a sentiment they’ve expressed.

“We will work with a family, in that we are not looking for payment at any particular time,” Mr Stafford explains, pointing out that some families choose to use a direct debit system where payments are made every month.

“We don’t say to the family ‘we have to be paid in 30 days’. We talk to the family and see what works for them, how can we best serve them, and then how can we support them after the funeral has taken place.”

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However, to say that everyone can afford to pay for a funeral with ease would grossly caricature the reality of the situation. In fact, thousands of people rely on Government aid to help curb the cost of funeral expenses yearly.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection told this newspaper that it provided some 2,900 exceptional needs payment (ENP) in assistance with funerals and burials, at a cost of €5.46 million in 2018, an increase from 2017 where there were some 2,000 of these ENPs at a cost of €5.07 million.

This one-off payment can help with funeral costs if you are on a low income. Each case is decided on its merits and the Community Welfare Service prefers if you apply before the funeral takes place, but in practice, most people apply afterwards.

While bursaries like these go a long way in helping alleviate some of the financial pressures of funeral arrangements, there might still be a hefty bill at the end after the funeral is done and dusted. This is usually a result of, not funeral directors quoting too high a price for their service, but the inordinate expense of burial plots.

The cost of plots varies depending on location and availability, with the burial ground becoming much more accessible and affordable in rural areas rather than in the city. For example, a plot in Glasnevin cemetery can reach heights of €16,000 whereas in Clare or Wexford, plots average out at around €600.

“If you look at the costs of funerals in adjacent counties, they are just so much cheaper than in Dublin, but some of that is to do with the fact that opening up a grave is so expensive and there aren’t many graveyards available in Dublin. That’s one of the difficulties,” said Mr Mitchell, adding that he even tried to persuade the archdiocese of Dublin to open a diocesan graveyard for people who were involved in their parish.

Purchasing a burial plot is where most people run into problems, and oftentimes the price of this forces clients to take another option. Rather than be buried bodily, some opt for cremation which radically cuts the price of a funeral, whereas others choose to be buried in a ‘gone over’ grave, which has the remains of someone else.

With plenty of options and different services available, Mr Mitchell says that during this time, it’s vital not to be taken advantage of, and carefully plan your moves.

“My view of it is this – if you want to spend €20,000 or €25,000 or whatever, on your funeral and somebody’s funeral that’s your business and you’re quite entitled to do it. But I don’t think you should be led to the most expensive funeral; options should be explained to you, the implications of what your signing up to should be explained to you because the guy who sits down beside you might have a very nice bedside manner, and would be very sympathetic and very empathetic but the bill will come in,” Mr Mitchell explains, adding that in fairness, many funeral directors tailor their costs to a modest price.

On top of this advice, he recommends that a third-party deal with funeral arrangements as they are much more detached from the bereavement process and so more likely to make lucid decisions.

“The most important thing about a funeral is to get somebody else to arrange it. If you have somebody near to you who dies, always get someone you trust but who is a little bit detached, a family friend, maybe a brother in law, or something like that, because what happens with people is that they want to give ‘the best’ to their loved one, and they don’t realise that you can give them the best without having to go for five star costs,” he says.

“So, I would say to people that if you have a funeral to arrange, get somebody who is detached and who is not as emotionally involved who will talk to the family about what they need and suggest to them how to do that and then maybe asked one or two undertakers, but make sure they are independent.”

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With more demand for burial plots in city areas, Mr Mitchell believes that it’s time we reimagine what it means to grieve and to reconsider what a graveyard is and could be.

“The other thing I had in mind, the city could plan a new park or the county plan a new park that would have as part of it a new graveyard, and a sort of a place of respectful meditation,” he says, suggesting that the headstones could be laid flat and visitors could have a cup of tea, pray and talk to the departed one.

“Graveyards could become sort of meditative parks, so that you could develop a new park and have a graveyard as part of it and it could be very respectfully incorporated.”

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