How has COVID-19 affected funeral costs?

Woman tending to a grave

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is difficult at any time, but the coronavirus crisis has changed the way funerals are conducted – and crucially, how much they cost.

By Shilpa Ganatra

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” the USA’s Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said. The death part is an eventuality we don’t like to think too much about, but that often means for a bereaved family, funeral costs are part of the turmoil. The timing is less than ideal: four out of five people become worried about their financial situation after the death of a loved one. 

Sadly coronavirus has brought this issue to the fore, as income for many households has become less stable, and the sudden illness claims the lives of many ahead of their time. It’s an unwelcome reminder that it pays to think about these things in advance, as those who have funeral expenses cover know all too well.

New guidelines for funerals

As with all aspects of life these days, usual rules do not apply at funerals, and accordingly, costs have changed. 

The UK government’s coronavirus guidelines are always under review so it’s best to confirm the latest on the official site. At the time of writing, funerals should not be delayed until after the crisis. Instead, they should take place within usual timelines, while following general rules of social distancing and hygiene.

Mourners are limited to a small number of close family members who aren’t displaying coronavirus symptoms. They need to keep two metres apart. The exact number of mourners allowed depends on the individual venue as well as local guidelines – for example, in Northern Ireland, no more than 10 attendees are allowed. Afterwards, no gatherings can take place for the moment, not even at home. 

The changing cost of cremations and burials

This has an impact on costs. In more usual times, the average cost of a funeral is £3,989 1 although this can go up to £10,000 2. Now, the average has slightly changed says Lindesay Mace, Acting Manager of Down to Earth, a helpline for those struggling to pay for funerals. 

“Simple cremations are still easily over £3,000,” she says. “We’re still seeing high costs from funeral directors. And crematorium fees haven’t changed – they’re still from £700 to over £1000. Burial fees still apply too: in London, where prices are the highest, some of our clients have been quotes £5000 for a simple burial.

“But the coronavirus changes have meant there’s a reduction in the need for add-ons, like limousines, flowers and newspaper notices, which can lower the cost. For cremations, there’s a change in the law that means you only need one doctor to sign a certificate rather than two, so this cost has lowered from £164 to £82. It’s not a lot, but it adds up.”

Lowering the cost

A few thousand pounds is still a small fortune to pay unexpectedly, not least when dealing with the all-encompassing effect of grief. Mace notes that calls to their helpline rose 117 per cent in April compared to March, as many bereaved people faced startling bills in the midst of the crisis.

This, along with the order for intimate services only, is perhaps why direct cremations have risen in popularity (it helps that David Bowie opted for one ahead of his death in 2016).

“A direct cremation is when there is no service, and a body is cremated with no attendees,” Mace explains. “Many families are choosing it, while others are forced into it if their local crematorium has suspended services. They can cost upwards of £1,000, so it’s significantly cheaper than a funeral with a service. But it’s still a big ask for many people, whether the death was expected or not.”

While direct cremations sound like a reasonable option for those with limited access to funds, the catch is it’s often charged upfront. 

Paying for funeral expenses

When it comes to shelling out, those with life insurance can often get early payment to cover funeral expenses. Or there’s always the option of loans or overdrafts, though getting into debt is “problematic” for many households, warns Mace. 

A limited amount of help is available for children’s funerals 3 and those on benefits, who can apply for a Funeral Payment 4. This is a government grant to help cover some of the expenses, which might have to be paid back later.

Mace caveats that “we’re seeing long wait times for the payment to come through. Yesterday, a client said that they were told they’d be waiting for three months. A funeral director I was speaking to said it was a similar length. That’s a long time to put your grief on hold.”

The Department of Work and Pensions has told Mace it’s changed the process to speed things up, which should help clear the backlog. 

Coronavirus has changed many things in our work, lives and relationships, but death and its associated farewells is still an eventuality. By being prepared, we can at least make the logistics easier. Even if, with any luck, it won’t matter for a long time yet. 

Life cover can help your loved ones deal with funeral costs. Find out about Aviva’s 50+ life cover.

And if you’re looking to pay for your funeral ahead of time, to help ease the burden on your family, you might want to consider a funeral plan.