Ways to reduce funeral costs

Last updated: December 2020 | 9 min read

When considering how best to celebrate the life of someone close, managing the cost of their cremation or burial seems very cold. You may feel under pressure from surviving relatives to spend on high priced items in order to meet their expectations of an appropriate send-off.

Many people do not like the idea that their funeral would cost very much, and less so that it might place any financial strain on surviving relatives and friends.

Who pays for a funeral?

The cost of a funeral is the first thing that is repaid from the winding up of the estate. Although a relative out of convenience may pay directly for the arrangements, he or she has priority over everyone else to claim them back from the estate (once secured debts such as a mortgage have been repaid).

If you are paying for the funeral, but you are not an executor, it is a good idea to check with an executor how much money there is in the estate. The cost will come from the residuary estate, which means that people nominated in the will to receive specific items and sums of money will receive those in full in preference to those people who simply receive the remainder.

If there isn’t enough money in the residuary estate, then the other gifts are usually reduced in value pro rata.

For example, if the value of the estate is £5,000, the cost of the funeral is £4,000 and the testator left gifts of money for £3,000, then each beneficiary who was left a specific sum would receive (5,000 – 4,000) / 3,000 = 1/3 of the value of their gift.

Executors and beneficiaries may agree between them to vary the wishes in the will.

Having a low cost funeral can help the beneficiaries inherit the money and possessions that they have been left, and help make sure that the wishes of the deceased are followed as closely as possible.

Unavoidable costs

If doctor’s certificates are required, these must be paid for. The NHS does not pay for them except in rare circumstances where a hospital volunteers not to charge.

Certificates are required:

  • if the body is to be cremated
  • if the body is help by the coroner or the prosecutor fiscal

We have more information about registering a death.

Notifying people of the death

You are under no legal obligation to advertise the death. You may choose to run an advert or an obituary in a local newspaper, but doing so is not compulsory.

Compare the market for funeral directors

Costs vary widely between different funeral directors. Each can offer a slightly different service in terms of what is included for any given price, so identify what you want the director to do, and look for a package that offers as few extras as possible.

Then compare similar packages across different funeral directors.

You may be able to negotiate a discount on the total cost by pointing out the parts of the package that are less important to you and asking whether they can be removed or reduced.

If approaching service providers is difficult, you might want to do it with a friend or family member.

If you don’t want to come across as insensitive, you could lay blame for the need to be price sensitive with one of the executors. A funeral director doesn’t need to know about estate will be administered, and doesn’t need to know how many executors there are.

There is no requirement to use a funeral director at all. However, doing so often makes arranging a significant event at a difficult time much easier. The responsibility of organising the funeral yourself can be great – if only because you have to manage the expectations of so many other relatives.

Do not have the body embalmed

Embalming is a process that slows the natural processes of decay. It is done nowadays in order to give a life-like appearance to the body if it is to be shown at a funeral. It is often called a “hygienic treatment”.

If viewing the body at the funeral is not important, or if the funeral director has refrigerated facilities, or if the funeral can be arranged at short notice after the time of death, then you may not want or need the body to be embalmed.

Embalming is often a relatively high cost compared to the total for the funeral. It is also a service that can be upsold with pressure, as no-one likes to think about natural degradation of the body (and what that means in terms of loss of the person) so soon after death.

Choose a non-cemetery burial

Burial plots are in high demand and in low supply, particularly in crowded areas such as London. It can be a significant cost.

It can be cheaper to find a more attractive plot outside a cemetery in a designated “natural burial ground”. Instead of a tombstone, a tree can be planted above the grave and a plaque used to record who is buried there. For example, not using a headstone can save hundreds of pounds.

There can also be fees for scattering ashes in a cemetery. You might like to take the ashes elsewhere in the countryside or at sea, which is free to do.

Choose a less traditional coffin

A coffin is used just once.

Modern designs mean that it does not have to be built out of wood. It could be made out of composite wood such as ply, or even very strong cardboard. You can also have effects added such as bright colours, wood effects or patterns. Some coffin manufacturers also allow you to print photos on the coffin.

Using recycled materials tends to be environmentally friendly.

You do not have to buy a coffin through a funeral director – you can source one yourself, for example online.

If the burial is a natural one, you might consider a cloth shroud rather than a coffin.

Use your own vehicles

There is no legal requirement to use a hearse or any other registered vehicle to transport the coffin.

Nor do you need to hire limousines to follow the hearse.

You may not want to collect the coffin yourself, but the funeral director may have an alternative to a hearse, which could be significantly cheaper to use.

You could follow the vehicle carrying the body in personal cars, or meet directly at the funeral venue.

Keep the service and the wake simple

The service and a wake is a good way for everyone to find emotional closure. You might choose not to have one, and make the other more special.

Flowers are expensive. You could use handpicked ones from a garden (make sure the owner of the garden, or any other landowner agrees), and/or use fewer.

The officiant who takes the service, unless it is a religious service, could be a family member or a friend. His or her role could be largely to give structure to the service, calling up other people to speak or read, and introducing music.

Orders of service can be printed at home, or via a cheaper online printing service. Services designed for funerals tend to be premium priced.

Anyone can be a pall bearer, and being one is a really good way of playing a key role in the service. You do not have to carry the coffin on shoulders. Between four people, a coffin can be carried relatively easily.

Catering costs can be shared. You might hire a private function room in a pub (which might be free if enough people turn up) and let each attendant buy their own drinks. Or you might hold a wake at home, and ask each person to bring food or drinks (perhaps along the theme of memories of the deceased). A catering service can cost over £20 per head for basic food, so sharing the work between family members can save a lot of money.

Direct funerals

Direct funerals are basic, low-budget funerals. They are a burial, but more usually a cremation, without the funeral proceedings.

The funeral director collects the body, provides a basic coffin, and arranges the cremation or burial at a time suitable to them. They handle the paperwork. You don’t have to do anything else.

Relatives have no say in when or where the body is cremated or buried. If cremated, it is usually at a less popular time, such as early in the morning, or in the evening. The body may wait for a cheaper slot to become available, so it may be longer than usual before the burial or the cremation takes place.

Ashes can be returned, although a courier fee may be charged. Or you could simply be notified of where the ashes have been scattered or the body buried.

Direct cremation costs start at around £1,000. You may need to budget twice that to cover extras.

The advantage of a direct funeral is that it does allow you to budget more for a memorial service at a later date or in another country.

Use a funeral plan to lock in costs

A funeral plan is a good way of spreading the cost of your funeral over time. You could buy a funeral package (for yourself) now for the amount you want to spend, and then split the cost over twenty years.

There are two advantages to buying a funeral this way.

The first is that there is an insurance element. If you die before you have paid all the instalments, then you still receive the package.

The second is that you pay for a package now that is likely to have gone up in price by the time you die. At the rate funeral costs are increasing at the moment (3.5% in 2017), they are almost doubling every 20 years. By buying now, you could save 50% on the price at the time of your death.

More information

We have plenty more information about writing a will and carrying out probate. 

If you haven't yet made a will, we encourage you to do so. It is one of the most important legal documents we make as individuals. To help, we provide some of our more straightforward will templates absolutely free with no catches or conditions. If you need any help, you can just ask.



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