Diana Clement: Time for Specsavers approach to funerals

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In this boom time for death industry it might pay Kiwis to think about costs

People often overspend on the casket because they don't want to seem cheap. Photo / Thinkstock
People often overspend on the casket because they don't want to seem cheap. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm waiting for Specsavers to start offering funerals. I think the funeral industry needs a dollop of real competition of the sort Specsavers added to optometry.

Edgecumbe reader John Riley wrote requesting that I look into the cost of funerals. "After all, in the cold light of day, what is the true value of a particle-board casket and an hour's use of a chapel, plus a short ride in the back of a hearse to the crematorium?" he said.

Riley is willing to say what some of us only think. "The sorry fact is that the funeral directors move in at a very low point in our lives [as] survivors. I have seen the casket catalogue and invoice book presented almost before the body has cooled and the tears have stopped.

"People don't want to appear to be cheapskate, so the casket spend is probably over the top in most cases."

I've been presented with one of those casket lists as well and did worry about being "cheap". "Don't," says Sally Raudon, a Churchill Fellow who researched contemporary funeral and mourning practices. "People think it is unseemly to talk about money when there is a death. That is part of our cultural baggage."

Not long ago I read the story of a young man who was $7,000 in debt thanks to giving his father "the send-off he deserved". If I had no savings left I wouldn't deserve a funeral that put my children into financial hardship — although some readers will disagree.

Whatever you think, it's boom time for funeral directors. We're dying in ever greater numbers thanks to the growth in population.

Statistics New Zealand says deaths will rise from 29,568 in 2013 to 50,000 by 2046.

The average funeral costs about $7,500, says Katrina Shanks, chief executive of the Funeral Directors Association. "Most funerals are held within three days of the person dying," says Shanks. "Decisions are made very quickly and they don't spend time researching all options.

"This is just a reality of working within short time frames."

Families often have no idea how much the total funeral will cost until the final bill arrives.

The Law Commission is reviewing the Burial and Cremation Act and Raudon says one of the changes expected will be that funeral directors, as they do in Britain, will have to provide a price list.

The costs soon add up. Caskets alone can cost thousands of dollars if you want the very best for your loved one from a craftsman such as Return to Sender or LastPost. In no other part of our lives would we spend $8,000 or $9,000 without getting a firm quote first, says Raudon.

The cheapest complete cremation package available in Auckland is $1,795 from Souly Cremation. The deal is close to the amount of money Work & Income will pay for a funeral to those who qualify.

Such a package includes removal of the deceased, basic cardboard casket, cremation, registration of death, medical paperwork, death certificate and returning of ashes.

There is no viewing, no funeral service, no flowers, no nothing with that. But families can still make the funeral beautiful by adding the extras themselves, says Deborah Cairns, funeral director at State of Grace.

There is no law that says we must use a funeral director. It's possible to simply keep the body at home. It can be picked up from the mortuary in a large vehicle and kept cold with icepacks.

In days gone by families would have washed the body of their loved one and prepared him or her for burial. Muslim charity Working Together offers a mobile Janaza body preparation service which I'm told can be used by non-Muslims.

The simplicity of being buried or cremated in a shroud appeals to me; there seems something depressing about caskets.

Looking into to it I found 15m of wide calico from Geoff's Emporium would cost $120. Devonport Timber told me a suitable piece of plywood for the base would cost $58.50.

As you might expect, instructions and videos can be found on the internet describing how to wrap a body in a shroud. I think I'd be proud of my children for their ingenuity if they did the job themselves.

A growing number of funeral directors offer shrouds. A shroud and "bearer" (which looks a bit like a half-coffin) from State of Grace, with the body preparation and wrapping, is $1,250 for silk or $500 for calico.

If I was to be buried in a casket it would be much more special for it to be homemade by one of my family and perhaps even hand-painted.

After giving it some thought this week I came to the conclusion that I'd rather be transported in my casket in a private vehicle — or even on the roof rack — than in the back of a hearse. The latter reeks of death, not celebrating life.

Raudon believes Kiwis need to be empowered to take advantage of the options available to them.

DIY funerals require someone in the family to make the arrangements such as direct bookings with the crematorium. It is also the family's responsibility to ensure the death certificate has been completed.

Auckland City's crematoria can sell and prepare a burial plot, provide cremation services, hire you a chapel, lounge or auditorium (at the larger sites) and offer additional services such as filming and audio visual equipment, says Catherine Moore, the manager of the city's cemeteries.

Charges vary, but cremation costs $564 for an adult at Manukau Memorial Gardens and you can hire the Magnolia room from $179.

People who go direct to crematoria usually make their own arrangements for printing a funeral service leaflet, a celebrant and venue decorations, says Moore.

Celebrants, organists, flowers and many of the other trimmings are optional, whether or not families use a funeral director. Some families ask everyone to bring a flower and/or foliage from their gardens. Likewise, they can bring a plate to save on catering costs, says State of Grace's Cairns. In many cases mourners want to do something to help.

I've been to two funerals in recent years that were family-led and that had recorded music and a home-made order of service.

There are other non-essentials that are presented to us as a fait accompli by most funeral directors. Embalming, which costs $450 to $650, isn't necessary in most cases.

At State of Grace, which champions eco-funerals, under a 10th of bodies are embalmed.

One funeral I attended had a beautifully home-crafted casket, which contradicts one funeral director's suggestion that crematoria won't accept home-made caskets.

Auckland Council's Moore confirmed home-made caskets are accepted, but families should talk to the council ahead of time if they planned cremation to ensure that a few practical requirements and materials standards were met.

For example, there are size specifications and rules against using tanalised wood, plastic, PVC or lead paint. "This is an important condition under our air discharge resource consent," says Moore.

"There are no materials restrictions on home-made caskets or shrouds for burial." Bodies for cremation or burial in a shroud must have a firm backboard.

Private crematoria may have different rules and it's a good idea to contact them if you want to use a home-made casket.

Increasing numbers are choosing not to have a funeral at all, according to University of Otago research cited by Raudon. We may even write it into our wills. In that case families often use the "direct disposal" route where we are picked up and cremated, but may have a memorial service later.

- NZ Herald

Diana Clement is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and careers. She has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years in both New Zealand and the UK. Diana has contributed to a large number of local and international publications. Her pet topic is the secrets of saving money.

Read more by Diana Clement

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