Pricewatch casts a cold eye on the cost of death

With costs for a basic funeral about €4,000, death is an expensive business

Nichols accepts that spending thousands of euro on a coffin is probably unnecessary

Nichols accepts that spending thousands of euro on a coffin is probably unnecessary

 

“We lost our mother a few weeks ago and were in a funeral home hours after she died to go through the arrangements,” began an email sent to us earlier this month. “The attitude seemed to be purely about getting us to spend as much money as possible. One example was we were told a floral spray was free when it actually wasn’t; we got billed €150 for it. The person we dealt with showed no empathy given our mother had died a few hours before and I had to leave the room halfway through. I couldn’t take it.”

The story gets worse.

The author’s father had paid “for a lot of the stuff years before he suffered a stroke but they wouldn’t allow us see what he had paid for and wouldn’t give us a copy. The bill was for nearly €1,400 when we were told it wouldn’t be higher than €700. It’s wrong how funeral homes operate if this is the norm. Some of us are getting bereavement counselling and it kind of compounds it that they’re almost trying to steal the money our mother left for her grandkids.”

The experience this reader had is upsetting, but it is probably not the norm. It is certainly in breach of a very clear – if voluntary – code of practice which many funeral homes sign up to. Under this code, drawn up by the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, members commit to agreeing charges with next of kin in advance unless they are expressly asked not to discuss finances. And they promise to offer sensitivity and professionalism in arranging funerals as well as openness about costs.

Funeral director Gus Nichols is fully committed to the code. He takes costs very seriously and says it is his company’s policy that everyone who comes through their doors gets a written estimate outlining all costs. “If they ask us not to discuss it with them directly, then we email the costs so they have a record. I see it as the responsible thing to do, to give as much information as possible and work with the budgets people have.”

He accepts that some smaller firms and part-time operators “say they find it difficult to talk to their customers about money through some kind of mawkish embarrassment” but then dismisses such claims as “rubbish” and says the “reality is if you do it properly there is never a problem and everyone will know from the start what the costs are”.

Nichols says while some people don’t want to talk about money as they get ready to bury their loved one, others are happy to shop around. He recalls an instance when one family member was with him getting a quote while another member of the same family was in a different funeral director’s office getting a separate quote. “People find that difficult, I know they do, but it you were to be perfectly analytical and take the emotion out of it, shopping around is good practice.”

Although many funeral directors follow the code, others do not. And that leaves people who are in the depths of grief struggling to navigate a process that can be baffling, not to mention heartbreaking. The shake-down can start almost immediately, as families who have just lost a loved one are walked through coffin showrooms where elaborate American-style caskets made from solid oak, with brass handles and hand-carved depictions of the Last Supper are stacked alongside much cheaper boxes.

It can be hard for a family to go with the cheapest option even though the price differential can run to thousands of euro and both boxes end up in exactly the same place – in the ground or a furnace – after being on display for a just few hours.

The coffin is only the start. When the preparation of remains, transport, celebrants, funeral notices, singers, service booklets and flowers are totted up, few families will have much change out of €4,000, according to a pricing survey published late last year. In the mid 1990s, the average cost was about €1,300, which suggests a rate of inflation to rival the property market. And that doesn’t even take in the cost of a grave, internment or cremation.

Finding the plot

The cost of a burial plot is usually the biggest funeral expense. That’s particularly true in Dublin. Single plots in Deansgrange Cemetery cost €16,000, because it is nearly full, and only a limited number of plots are available. Nearby Shanganagh has better capacity with plots available for €2,900.

In Galway, plots in the New Cemetery in Bohermore (which is, incidentally, ancient) or in Rahoon (which is new) cost between €780 for a single plot and €1,836 for a double. Plots in graveyards in Donegal, Cavan and Roscommon can cost from €200 to €500.

The Glasnevin Trust operates Glasnevin Cemetery and also runs cemeteries in Palmerstown, Dardistown and Newlands Cross. The cheapest plot in Glasnevin costs €2,100 although prices climb to €8,000 depending on location and size. There are no new plots available in Palmerstown while in Newlands Cross a pre-booked grave costs €4,350 or €2,175 for an immediate burial.

The prices do not include internment fees of €1,040, foundation fees of around €350 or the planning application for a monument, which will be €110. Yes, a gravestone can require planning permission.

Business model

Nichols accepts that spending thousands of euro on a coffin is probably unnecessary but points out that the cost subsidises “an awful lot of other costs borne by funeral directors. The traditional model here and in the UK and US is that a lot of income comes from the coffin sale, while we charge nothing for other services. I think, perhaps, that the business model is wrong. The figure that funeral directors charge is right but the way they get to that number could be considered wrong. It is an unusual business but the market still functions normally and I have never seen any signs directors are making supernormal profit”.

A big change in recent times is the growth in the number of cremations, with almost 40 per cent of people choosing this option. It is certainly cheaper. The basic cost of cremation in Glasnevin is €415 but there are add-ons such as an environmental fee of €75 and a charge of €100 for using the on-site chapel. A cremation cert costs €20. A wooden casket for the ashes will be €100 while a space for it in the columbarium wall in the graveyard is €1,000. Glasnevin also charges an administration fee of €20 “for any cremation not arranged using our online funeral arranging system” and if the service takes place on a Saturday or on a bank holiday there is a surcharge of €180.

As with everything else, the nature of funerals, their cost and how they are paid is evolving. Online insurance policies have taken over from the old Penny Policies and CUsafe.ie offers up to €10,000 insurance with premiums priced from €2.50 a week.

Greener options

Some people are also looking for greener coffin options – although a wicker option will still cost more than €1,000, while smaller numbers look for tree alternatives to headstones – although as Nichols says, most people “like the rock with a name on it”.

Some people have taken to streaming video footage of funerals and there is an app to help people plan their own – or someone else’s – funeral at aftering.com.

There are also fewer limousines now than in the past and flower arrangements are less elaborate. A big shift in the past two decades has seen significantly fewer evening removals in churches and now little more that 10 per cent of funerals in Dublin involve a removal to a church on the night before the funeral. This has cut down on costs although people losing their religion, the availability of priests and not penny-pinching explains that shift, according to people in the know.

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