There has never been a better time to start saving for a standard funeral plan: Even that most basic of all funeral services—the cremation—is rising sharply in price. As reported by the BBC, the average cost of a cremation at a public crematorium has risen by fully one third since 2010. Today, the cost of just a cremation (without accounting for any associated fees, such as doctors’ fees or funeral service fees) is £640.
At present, there are two sides to the ongoing debate over what constitutes a fair rate for cremation: Those in favour of keeping the cost of a standard funeral plan as low as possible argue that crematoria are being run inefficiently—resulting in a higher overhead. Crematorium owners, on the other hand, cite the staggering cost of new anti-pollution equipment and the increasing demand for larger coffins as reasons behind the sudden increase in fees.
The crematorium owners’ arguments are far from being wholly invalid. In addition to demanding tighter overall emission controls, the government has recently passed regulations stating that certain types of emissions (such as those produced by mercury fillings) must be strictly curtailed. As a direct result of these guidelines, many crematorium owners have had to invest between £1 million and £3 million into new equipment. As Tim Morris, a representative from the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), explains: ‘Costs to cremation authorities have increased drastically. Crematoria have had to completely replace all of their equipment to comply with changes in environmental legislation, the latest being additional equipment to filter pollutants from the waste gases.’ Mr Morris adds that while cremation fees look steep, many public cemeteries actually run with an ongoing deficit. Even if any surplus money is generated by crematorium fees, it simply goes toward subsidising burial services, with the end result usually being a net loss for the business.
However, opponents of this view state that the sudden rise in cremation costs is out of step with these upgrades. They point to inconsistent rises in different areas and excessive increases as signs that something is amiss within the industry. In places like Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, for example, the fee for cremating an adult has quickly shot up by more than 100 per cent, going from £359 to £721. Proponents of keeping the standard funeral plan affordable say that rises like these are not in line with the real costs of cremation (£181 for staff costs, £163 profit to be put toward upgrades, £127 for standard building maintenance, supplies, regulatory costs, etc., and £29 for fuel).
Meanwhile, Keith Johnson, assistant director of Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council, tells a different story: ‘Crematoria are incredibly expensive to run, they are not cash cows. At the time of the price rise (in 2012-13) there were 314 crematoria in the UK, we were the fourth cheapest. We were completely behind the market and based our new price on the two nearest crematoria.’ Mr Johnson adds that, due to the new government regulations, his organisation must also pay a £53 government-imposed levy for every cremation they perform until they install new pollutant filters.
These messages conflict with those of other UK crematoriums, however. Lichfield council, for example, has lowered its cremation prices from £542 to £495, despite having invested in new equipment. In fact, a council spokesman for Lichfield council has said that having a newer crematorium has actually made the service less expensive to operate—hence the reduction in fees. Such discrepancies have led consumer advocates like Charles Cowling, author of the Good Funeral Guide, to label many of the sudden rate increases seen around the UK as ‘absurd’. Mr Cowling has stated that they are almost certainly the result of these institutions being run ‘grotesquely inefficiently’. He has recommended adjustments to the current system, such as reducing the number of crematoriums but running those left in operation day and night. This would reduce the cost of switching them on and off during the day.
Regardless of where one stands on the cremation price debate, there is no denying the fact that, as Heather Kennedy from the Fair Funerals Campaign so aptly put it, the cost of dying has ‘risen seven times faster than the cost of living’. Those looking to purchase even a basic standard funeral plan (such as a direct cremation plan) should therefore look into ways to manage cremation and funeral service fees ahead of time. Investing in comprehensive funeral insurance, for example, can prevent a stressful last-minute scramble for cremation funds.