The average funeral costs £9,000 – it’s no wonder they’re dying out

While everyone was busy poring over the music trends revealed by Spotify Wrapped last week, a more profound trend forecast dropped with a lot less fanfare. This one, though, has loads more consequences. Religious think tank Theos surveyed 2,500 people about their attitudes around death and found that over half of us don’t want to have a funeral when we die.

Ironically, Spotify had previously tricked me into thinking the funeral was in rude health. All year, I’ve met people who’ve started compiling a “funeral playlist” on the app. More people than you think, too, and predominantly aged in their thirties – all gleefully stashing songs away for that fateful day.

But what if, as this report suggests, there are fewer funerals for people to play their beyond-the-grave bangers? To most thirtysomethings, funerals are still a mercifully distant concept. But ringing in my ears are the words said to me by a late-fifties mate as I prepared to attend my first funeral: “Buckle up – you’re going to be going to a lot more…” In a grim way, I like to think he’s right: I hope I do end up going to more funerals. And maybe even his. The trick is to look beyond the word “funeral” and just insist that when there’s been a death, people should come together in any setting or context. I think this happens more than we think.

A number of people might be celebrating the slow death of the funeral, given how insanely expensive they have become. Despite talk of government action in the sector, such as mandating funeral directors to display a set price menu, the cost of dying has in fact gone up in recent years – by 3.8 per cent since 2021. End-of-life legal service FreeWill found that four in 10 people go into debt when contributing to the funeral of a significant friend or relative. The average cost of what’s seen as a “traditional” funeral – burial, memorial, wake, flowers, catering and other fees – currently stands at £9,200. It’s no surprise, then, that much cheaper “direct cremation” services (priced at around £1,000) are becoming much more common.

When my dad died, we steadfastly avoided all the ludicrous price-gouging add-ons and went direct: no £300 urn, no £60 urn bag, no £10 gold keepsake stand. What we picked up from the crematorium was a large, tall and heavy bag made of thick, layered brown paper. My dad deserved better than a potato sack – but it was also absolutely, totally fine. The idea that we would have honoured him more by buying overpriced junk sold to us rather callously during a period of heightened emotion is insane.

One explanation for the decline of the funeral is that the secular majority still has a lingering feeling that death involves having to engage with religion. It’s as though they have a stranglehold on mortality the way the mafia used to have a stranglehold on Las Vegas. We forget how much has changed. Take the quietly radical sight of a pop star (Elton John) singing a pop song (“Candle in the Wind”) at a funeral for a royal (Princess Diana) in 1997. Twenty years on, funerals can be bent to the will of the bereaved much further, especially in terms of music. The era of the funeral dirge or sorrowful march is extinct.

Co-Op’s annual Funeral Music Chart is a kind of Embalmed Spotify and a trove of cultural pointers. Apparently this year saw a spike in requests for “Break My Soul” by Beyoncé, as well as Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”. Another report from 2019 shows a growing popularity in alternative funeral locations (one was held at a McDonald’s “drive-through), plus an increase in desire for pets to have a role in the service. Funeral directors even reported that 11 per cent of events that year were held in fancy dress.

In clubbing culture, there’s been a funny reversal in the last five years where the “afters” (formally known as the afterparty) has become almost more hallowed and significant than the actual, well, clubbing part. I think the same thing has been slowly happening in death, too. The wake – very much the “all back to mine” part of modern mourning, given its synonymy with boozing, sandwiches and more boozing – is becoming the epicentre of how most of us communally grieve. It’s where we process death in the exclusive company of those who loved the deceased and draw from that an ability to contextualise their death. The wake, as well as the increasingly common concept of holding what are known as “celebrations of life”, have become two very popular ways to mark someone’s passing in an upbeat manner, away from the perceived gloom of death and funerals.

Another trend that threatens to grow in the next few years is “grief tech”: where a full suite of AI tools analyses a deceased person’s audio, visual and written archive to create, say, a robo-mum who might video message you every week from beyond the grave and continue to shred your self-esteem like a samurai using a cheese grater. The fact that William Shatner is a poster boy for such tech (he’s taping hours of himself against green screen for the company StoryFile) makes this all seem reassuringly doomed to fail, but perhaps the broader question is why are we so keen to evade death at all – either in the extremes of AI immortality or, more commonly, in eschewing the concept of the funeral because it’s, you know, a bit “deathy”.

This is where I have a rare pang of sympathy for organised religion. Christianity, for example, dictates that a funeral is downbeat and solemn because, as well as being a celebration, they are also slightly urgent opportunities to pray for the eternal salvation of the deceased. Or, in the words of the Theos report, “many of us experience bereavement without direct exposure to death”. I once heard a clergyman make the excellently catty remark on the radio that a non-religious funeral was akin to “an office leaving party”.

But what I think this attitude misses is that while a wake may superficially appear to be upbeat and convivial compared to a formal funeral, millimetres below the surface everyone present is experiencing an oceanically deep consideration of death. They are feeling the huge, agonising absence of a human being, who is missing from where they should be most: among all their friends at once, among a room of people who loved and cared about them.

The vibe at a wake might appear to be sausage rolls and pints and a chuckle at some anecdotes – but be under no misapprehension, death really does stalk an unconventional funeral just as much as a traditional one. Instead of interacting with a god or a deity, interacting with strangers about the loss you’re feeling is as moving a moment as they come. Whether it’s a funeral, a wake, a celebration of life, or even just a group of mates listening to a pal’s funeral playlist, surely no death needs to go unmarked or uncelebrated?

Message from the beyond: William Shatner is currently the face of the ‘grief tech’ movement


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