An Undertaking

Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4, had an interesting item the other morning, about Undertakers. It set me thinking and researching. Ok, so a week ago I felt like death, this week I was in need of distraction from the creaks, groans and pain emanating from my body.

When you think of an undertaker, what image springs to mind? A sombre man dressed from top to toe in black? Perhaps attired in a top hat, tailcoat, or long dark Overcoat and leather gloves all above shoes polished as if for a military parade.

If we take a look back in time to the late 19th century, most deaths (apart from casualties at war) occurred  in the home setting. The bodies stayed at home. Were laid out at home. Laid out by he women of the family or by a few chosen ones in the local community, sturdy stalwarts who were regularly called upon at times of hatching or dispatching.

In the 1930s public mortuaries & chapels of rest began to appear, but after the introduction of the National Health Service, ‘death’ was moved away from the domestic setting and was placed in the hands of funeral directors. These funeral directors were all men.


Bereaved families are vulnerable and often easily encouraged to show respect for the deceased with a good coffin, shiny hearse and multiple mourning coaches.

When arranging a basic burial, you might well be talking £3,000.00. Get more than one quote to compare costs.

The fee for the purchase of a plot depends on which cemetery is chosen, and where that cemetery is located. In my local graveyard, run by the local Council, the purchase of a grave plot for a resident of the borough is £300.00, it increases to £900.00 for a non resident. The 1st Opening £280.00, for a second and subsequent opening the cost would be £170.00. If you live in a large city, the costs may well be much higher.

On top of that – pun intended, Headstone Pricing can be anything from £900.00 to £2,650.00. These prices include installation of headstone, engraving of up to two names and sentiment but not cemetery fees of £100.00.

Then there will be costs to consider for a newspaper notice, flowers, and minister’s fee, the cost of a coffin, and the fees that are paid directly to the undertaker for the use of their services to arrange and conduct the funeral, tips for the organist and the verger at a church for making the preparations (dusting the front pews!). If you add in venue hire and catering costs, you might well be talking of £4,600 and odd pounds.

I told you it was BIG BUSINESS!

A cremation would be somewhere in the region of £2,500/£3,000  – this dying is not cheap! In addition to the fee of approx £600/£700 paid directly to the crematorium for (striking the match) carrying out the cremation, organists and medical referee’s fee and the use of their chapel for your allocated time, there will also be a fee to be paid to each of the doctors who complete the cremation certificates. I am always amused that it takes only one doctor to declare the ‘body’ dead for a funeral, yet two doctors must sign separate forms for a cremation. Currently in the UK this fee is set at £78.50 per doctor, giving a total fee payable of £157.00. This fee is set by the British Medical Association, and is reviewed and revised annually.

Next we need to think of the B O X.

Coffins are a whole different ballgame. Coffins are graded according to (the colour, the shine) the wood finish, and the brass or silver trimmings.

My exhaustive research of visiting one undertakers website, informed me that the range varied from a traditional veneered oak coffin with raised lid and polished teak finish @ £305.00 to a solid Paulownia wood³ casket polished in teak finish with luxury padded interior @ £2470.00. An 18 gauge steel casket, platinum finish with ebony shading and luxury padded interior was £POA – price on application, in other words, if you have to ask, you cannot afford it! They catered for the ‘Greenites’ too with a willow coffin manufactured from sustainable sources and available in traditional or oval shape. With water resistant lining, chipboard base and matching wooden frame it would only knock you back £595.00.

Are you worn out and ready to flop yet?

Never fear, the wind of change is beginning to whirl.  Women are increasingly taking on roles within the funeral industry and are reclaiming jobs viewed in recent times as male. It is no longer the preserve of gentlemen. We now have women undertakers, and that programme I mentioned way up there at the top of the post, had three wonderful ladies of the trade on the show:- Poppy Mardall, an undertaker, Liz Rothschild, a funeral celebrant, and Tara Bailey, a former undertaker who’s done a PhD at the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath.

I certainly learned a few things….

It was like an old vault opening and letting in the daylight. You do not need to have the full formal funeral with hearse, mourning cars and church or funeral home service.

When someone dies there are three or four things you MUST DO in the first few days:

  • Check if the deceased is on the organ donor list and talk to the GP or hospital doctor ASAP. The sooner you do so, the more helpful it can be. Let your loved one live on in another person. Perhaps pass on the gift of life!
  • Get a medical certificate – it states the date, time and cause of death and must be signed by the doctor who declared the person’s death. You’ll get this from a doctor (GP or at a hospital) and you need one to register the death.
  • Register the death within 5 days of the death – you’ll then get the documents you need for the funeral. In the UK, unlike ROI, the death must be registered officially before a grave can be opened or a cremation booked. One tip I will give you is to ask for several copies of the Death Certificate from the Registrar at the first appointment², at this stage there is no extra charge, otherwise, at a later date, you will be asked to pay for each extra copy.
  • Arrange the funeral – you can use a funeral director or do it yourself. If you decide to do things yourself, the Registrar will give you another form that must be filled in to say what has happened to the body and returned to the Registrars office. Even if old Uncle Felix is sitting in an hourglass on the mantelpiece, you must say that on the form.

Are you listening Elly…….

There is no law that says you must use an undertaker or need a fancy box or the flashiest hearse in the country.

You can transport me the stiff the body, yourself…. In the boot of your old banger the car. That’s right. Bundle me up and bung me in there like an unfinished picnic in a sudden downpour!  Get my son-in-law to fire up the BBQ and away I go! Then go have a “She wasn’t so bad after all!” party and have a ball!

Sorting my personal affairs… NO. Not Toyboy affairs. I mean – hiring a skip, selling the house etc, can all be done later.

If the death has been reported to a coroner you can’t register the death until the coroner gives permission.

A doctor may report the death to a coroner if:

  • the cause of death is unknown
  • the death was violent or unnatural
  • the death was sudden and unexplained
  • the person who died was not visited by a medical practitioner during their final illness
  • the medical certificate is not available
  • the person who died was not seen by the doctor who signed the medical certificate within 14 days before death or after they died
  • the death occurred during an operation or before the person came out of an aesthetic
  • the medical certificate suggests the death may have been caused by an industrial disease or industrial poisoning
  • The coroner may decide that the cause of death is clear. In this case: The doctor signs a medical certificate, and you take the medical certificate to the registrar.
  • The coroner issues a certificate to the registrar stating a post-mortem isn’t needed.

A Post-mortem/autopsy is held:-

To find out how the person died, the coroner may decide a post-mortem is needed. This can be done either in a hospital or mortuary. You can’t object to a coroner’s post-mortem – but if you have asked, the coroner must tell you (and the person’s GP) when and where the examination will take place.

After the post-mortem:

The coroner will release the body for a funeral once they have completed the post-mortem examinations and no further examinations are needed.

² You will need extra copies of the Death Certificate for:

  1. Undertaker if you use one.
  2. Solicitor if he is dealing with the deceased person’s will and/or estate.
  3. Probate office, if everything is straight forward and there is a will, and you feel comfortable in dealing with things yourself.
  4. Bank/s (If you have a joint account and take the death certificate in to them, they will usually make a note that they have seen the death certificate, remove e the deceased person’s name and return the certificate to you, if it is done by post, then they make take weeks or indeed months to return it! Well the poor banks need an excuse to make even more money out of us.
  5. Building societies.
  6. Wages department, if deceased was in employment.
  7. Insurance Company
  8. Pension provider

Do not photocopy a Death certificate, it will be treated like fake money. You need to go back to the Registrars office and pay for them or have a solicitor provide a certified copy…. You will pay handsomely for this.

This site might help: What to do after someone dies in UK

Some local councils run their own funeral services – eg non-religious burials. The British Humanist Association can also help with non-religious funerals.

To arrange a funeral yourself, contact the Cemeteries and Crematorium Department of your local council.

All prices lists above are in £Sterling.

³ I never heard of Paulownia wood before, it comes from China…. All the way to the UK to be used for one day and buried in a hole in the ground, or cast into an oven! That link above makes for an interesting read, and tells of many uses of the wood for making the soundboards of stringed musical instruments, for chests, boxes, and clogs (geta), and is burned to make charcoal for sketching and powder for fireworks.

17 thoughts on “An Undertaking

  1. wisewebwoman

    The high cost of dying, I think there was a book about this, American something, memory fails, came out in the 80s (?).

    I read of a new method, GM and it sounds fantastic, where the body is wrapped in cotton, put in the ground (not a graveyard) and a tree is planted on top so that the tree is fertilized with the decomposition.

    That’s what I want, no muss no fuss. Alternatives here in NL are not happening yet. Everything is church based with a list of fees for your death at the head of every church bulletin. Can you believe? Yes you can.


  2. Mike

    When I think of an undertaker, what image springs to mind?

    David, my wife’s brother.

    He got in trouble with his wife once when he stopped at home with a body in the company van after picking up a body. “What if the van won’t start. What if the neighbors find out.”

    We plan to go the cremation route.

  3. Grannymar Post author

    WWW – ‘Dig a hole and plant me’ sounds good to me. People have been doing that with their pets for years.

    Mike – I know of a clergyman who was sent ashes in a small urn all the way from New Zealand for burial in a family plot, at the graveyard attached to his old church. The letter with them said they hoped to be home in the incoming year. This thoughtful clergy man decided to stall the burial until the sender arrived. That urn sat for years on the mantlepiece in the manse. Eventually it was committed down under without any appearance of family from down under!

  4. speccy

    A good undertaker is worth his/her weight in gold, and will make things straightforward. He’ll even do the burial, church admin, newspapers etc for whatever it is the Credit Union pay out, so you only have to pay for the soup and sandwiches 🙂

  5. Grannymar Post author

    speccy – ‘good’ being the operative word. It has been fifteen years since I arranged and paid for a funeral on my own, though I have been involved with many other funerals in the intervening years.

    I went looking for prices for this piece, but most of the Northern Ireland undertaker websites, had no breakdown of costs available on them. It is still very much a closed book. What if a family have no credit union to fall back on?

  6. Rummuser

    The process in an “advanced” country seems elaborate, time consuming and expensive. Here in this “backward” country, it is much simpler though the Christians of all denominations seem to make it difficult for their flock. Having recently taken care of two funerals and the aftermath, I can safely say that I would rather die here. I would not have to leave a blog post addressed to Ranjan as you have done to Elly. That about sums up my rant.

    Now to tell a story about the business. As you know Urmeela was a Methodist. Her elder sister spent most of her life in Nigeria as an educationist and retired to India and died after a few years of coming back. We knew that her end was near and were driving down to Hyderabad from Pune but she died in the evening and we could just see her corpse. The household was in a chaotic condition as no one capable was in charge. Thankfully I took charge and the first thing I had to organise was the funeral. That is when Urmeela finally cut her cord to her religion of birth. The church would not allot a plot for burial as they claimed that Promeela was not a member and had not paid her dues for many years while she was away in Nigeria. They asked for some ridiculous sum of money to allow the body to be buried. I took charge and arranged for her to be cremated much to the chagrin of some of the relatives assembled there. I suggested that they take charge, and pay the dues if they wanted to bury her in the Church cemetery. And that was that.

  7. Brighid

    Having been down this path in the recent past. Cremation is the way to go. The funeral parlor was not real happy when they learned that we just wanted Himself cremated and put in a cardboard urn. (This was his wish) After the cremation we took him up to his favorite place and scattered his ashes on a piece of earth he dearly loved. Still it cost around $1,000 for this simple service.
    My mother on the other hand has purchased a plot in another state, with a huge headstone, in a town and state she has never lived in. I told her if it was left to me… I would just prop her up in the passenger seat to get her there… she has made other arrangements. And most likely written me out of her will… for not the first time.

  8. Grannymar Post author

    Ramana – Some people manage a simple dignified funeral, while other go right over the top with oneupmanship and expense. If you think back to the funeral for the Princess of Wales and all the cut flowers wasted. I often wonder if it was a florist that came up with the idea in the first place.

    Brighid – I like the cardboard urn idea. The older I get, the less fuss I want after I breathe my last. If people cannot make time for me while I am alive, then it would be a waste of time showing up after I have gone.

  9. Alice

    We have a living will that stipulates cremation. If I correctly understand it, in the U.S., we’re still required to provide a box. Such a waste if you ask me! Ramana is right…dying is much simpler in India.

  10. Brighid

    Alice, I don’t know what state you live in, but here in California, it is not required to have a casket. (Assuming that’s what you meant by box.) I guess it could be a local requirement where you are. Interesting!

  11. Grannymar Post author

    Alice – Living wills are becoming quite popular over here too. Do you think that Ramana should emigrate west and start up a ‘Fiery Dip’ business? If he is looking for me, I’ll be hiding behind the couch!!

    nrhatch – I try to find the fun in everything!

    Brighid – I am sure that Alice will be back with an answer.

  12. Grannymar Post author

    Tilly – They have their place. I suppose, like everything else, they are a mixed bag.

  13. Grannymar Post author

    Big John – At last we have moved to the 21st century with at website. Pity it was not around when I needed it.


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