Cutting the cost of death

9:27 pm on 10 January 2024
Old graveyard in black and white with film noir feeling.

The average price tag of a burial in New Zealand is $10,000. Photo: 123RF

Much has been made of late about the cost of living, but have you ever considered the cost of dying?

The average price tag of a burial in this country is $10,000, and even cremation will set a grieving family back $7500, Funeral Directors Association figures show.

But it can be done for a fraction of that price, one man says, by bypassing the funeral industry altogether - as difficult as that is.

Fergus Wheeler's mother died in 2019, and he wanted to organise the cremation himself after having a bad experience with a funeral home after his father's death. But he ran into bureaucratic barriers around paperwork and unexpected costs.

"The medical fraternity - the doctors, the nurses and the staff - just had no idea how the system worked, and kept giving us the wrong advice," he told RNZ's Summer Times.

At the time, he told Stuff the "medical community has sleep-walked into the arms of funeral directors", with little information on offer for those who did not want - or did not have the means - to spend five figures on giving their loved one a fitting farewell.

"If you've got money upfront and you're going for burial, it's really straightforward. But unfortunately, the sense of mystery around the whole paperwork process is the problem."

In response he formed Death Without Debt to give Kiwis "the right to an affordable and dignified funeral process".

"Not talking about death allows the funeral industry to keep on making a lot of money out of us, basically, and the fault isn't actually with the funeral industry because they're just businesspeople doing what businesspeople have to do, and really, it's the job of the government - particularly the public servants - to make the system work for the public, and that's what's not happening at the moment."

He was asking the government to "change the Health and Disability Commission's code of patient rights and making it really explicit that it's the doctor's job, or the nurse's, to see the family through the paperwork process, which only takes them two minutes - and then the family is free to choose whether to hire a funeral director or whether to do it themselves, or to do some mix of the two".

"Once we get through that problem, all the massive enthusiasm all around the country for doing it yourself will be free to flourish. But at the moment, you have to be lucky or fairly rich to get through it."

Funeral home packages will usually include things like expensive coffins and hearse rental, he said, which were unnecessary - as was embalming, in many cases.

"In certain cases it's a good idea but most of the time you don't… You can keep a body at home for three days in winter and you have to use ice in summer. So, on a day like today it's going to hit 29 degrees, you'd definitely be wanting to use a freezer full of dry ice."

Another cost-effective option, composting, was not available - yet.

"There is a once-in-a-lifetime review of cremation, burial and death law going through at the moment, and that'll be the chance to turn that around."

A report from the Law Commission in 2015 noted the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 was "substantially unchanged since its enactment nearly half a century ago".

The latest review began in 2019, but was delayed by Covid-19. An online death certification process was launched in 2017, and last year the Ministry of Health said it was "reassessing our policy work in this area".

"We're looking at whether a broader range of factors need to be considered than were initially covered in the consultation, particularly given the time that has passed since the Law Commission completed its report. We're also considering the impact of the non-regulatory changes, such as implementing online death certification and updating guidance for practitioners."

In the end, Wheeler ended up spending $1100 on his mother's burial - barely a 10th of the average.

"That was including the venue. A lot of people sort of helped out with the food, but we did spend a certain amount on that.

"That was a cremation, [including] getting the pacemaker taken out, which was a big drama again because the local funeral directors had a monopoly and they were playing games on that."

Anyone looking for help doing a DIY funeral and/or cutting costs can look at the Death Without Debt site, he said, or check out DIY Funerals, whose founder Frances Potter spoke to Checkpoint in November.

Potter said the key was being prepared - once a person had died, there was little time left to organise. Wheeler said having some money set aside would cut costs.

"If you don't have the money upfront to book and pay for cremation or to book and pay for a burial, then you kind of have to go to the funeral industry anyway because they act as a sort of a temporary credit system.

"But as soon as you go to them, of course, you're starting to pay professional service fees and things like that, which can come in at several thousand dollars."

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