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Funeral planning has evolved over the years, as Simon Head of Head and Wheble explains.

Simon and his family firm of funeral directors have been helping families plan funerals since 1926. He shares his experience and tips for planning the funeral your loved one would want. You can listen to Simon’s interview on The Retirement Café podcast – which is sponsored by MFP Wealth Management – here.


Changing consumer demands

In the old days it used to be always somebody died more or less at home or in hospital, and the funeral service would be a service in church followed by a burial, almost always.

And then cremation started coming in, in the ’30s and ’40s. More overly after the Second World War, cremation was a more accepted form of … sadly, it’s called disposing of a body. Because we are people in our lifetime, but the way we recognise each other, of course, is in our physical form. When the spirit clearly goes, you’re left with what we recognise as the shell, and that needs to be disposed of.


Where to start

My friend’s mum recently passed away, so I asked Simon where he should start to plan her funeral.

The first question you need to ask yourself is where actually has the person died? Does the body actually need to be moved? If for example, the lady has died in hospital, then there’s no pressure immediately on him to make further arrangements. The paperwork needs to be sorted out and the hospital administrators will do that.

If she’s died in the community, then the body will need to be moved to a funeral directors, or if the doctor is unable to ascertain straight away what she’s died from, then the coroner will be informed and the body will be moved to the public mortuary.

Again, that’s pressure off in terms of him having to make instant decisions which are going to affect what he’s going to do in the next two or three weeks.

Certainly, you can’t do anything until you’ve got a medical certificate of cause of death, which is issued by the attending doctor in the last period of time.

If a doctor has seen the person within 14 days of their passing and they know what they’ve died of, then they can issue a full medical certificate. Then you register the death and then you can make funeral arrangements.


When to call the funeral director

You can call the funeral director at any time.

Sometimes people call in blind panic, and the first thing you always say to them is, “Just take a breath. Okay, everything’s going to be fine. It may take a little time just to sort out, but we can help you through with what stage you are at. We can ask the various questions which you might not think of, and just work through things with you carefully and slowly so that eventually you, and in this case mum, can have the funeral arrangements that you’ve possibly thought about.”


Burial or cremation?

You need to make the decision of whether you want to be buried or cremated or what have you, prior to your death.

The law has changed now, but some time ago you actually had to put it in your will that you wished to be cremated, otherwise you were automatically buried. That is now not the case, but it is sensible, because the paperwork is quite different to arrange a burial. The paperwork is much less than it is with a cremation. You can’t actually move somebody from a hospital, for example, until they know whether it’s burial or cremation. So, that is something that you need to think about.


And the costs?

It would range probably anywhere from about £2,000 upwards.

You can spend silly money on silly things, but then that’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s a bit like love, it’s in the beholder. But it doesn’t have to cost crazy money, but it depends on what your aspirations are.

It often depends on your relationship with the person that’s died. Is there a little bit of guilt in there somewhere? Are you going to make practical decisions or are you going to make emotional decisions?


Planning ahead

Planning something is important, but it oughtn’t really to be in the forefront of your mind all the time. So if you do get a thought, write it down, put it on a piece of paper somewhere separately, and then revisit that if you get another thought. My wife Katherine’s up to about three days of music at the moment, with, “That’s nice. I ought to have that at my funeral.” Well, I mean we’ve got three days of music, so she’s going to have to hone that at some point.

There are unusual requests, but what is unusual to you might not be unusual to me or to the people that come to us. Family backgrounds are important, and what is important to them, it depends on their upbringing, of course.

I suppose, odd, where do I start really? You can get some very colourful characters that want to do things that are slightly off the wall. Now as long as it’s not illegal, then it’s doable, and most things aren’t illegal. You’ve got to be pretty daft to try and do something illegal. It’s rather difficult, in a normal sort of situation, really.


What’s allowed for burial and cremation?

You can have any type of music. You can virtually have any type of coffin these days. For example, you can have a cardboard coffin and it can be decked in all sorts of colours, flags, or anything you want. Visions of different animals or people. I think we had one with a Napoleon on it at some point on a charging white horse, and that’s pretty unusual, but it’s doable because it’s all imagery.

The majority of people that come to us want something fairly straightforward, which means it’s a coffin, which is a flat lid with plain sides. It’s all fitted properly inside and out. But you can also spend a lot of money on caskets.

Burial, you have a lot more in terms of size and shape and costings, and actually what it’s made of. With a cremation, the funeral director actually has to make a legal declaration to the crematorium authority that he’s not presenting something to them that they can’t burn effectively, so there are smoke emissions issues with that. So your limitation is slightly more with cremation than it is with burial. And if a coffin’s too big, you can’t get it in the cremator and you have to bury it. And if it’s too big to go in one grave, you have to buy two, which is rather expensive.


Paying for the funeral

Funeral expenses can be paid out of liquid funds. It doesn’t have to wait for probate. But obviously if funds are in something less tangible, then we have to wait for probate, or the family or the individual would pay for it out of other funds.

Insurance or pre-payment plans – There are two ways with this.

  1. You’ve got a life insurance policy which pays on death, and then that sum of money is paid into the estate. That can be used for all sorts of things.
  2. Now going on slightly at a tangent from that, with a prepayment funeral plan, basically it is an insurance policy, but it’s with a funeral tag-on. That has implications as to who actually is the plan provider, but who is the provider of the funeral service? The two sometimes marry up. In many cases, they don’t, because the insurance policy is a national policy.

A prepayment plan is restricted to the region in which you purchase it, where as an insurance policy is a national policy which can be used anywhere. This provides more flexibility is you move and die elsewhere.

it means that if they move area they haven’t got the rigmarole of trying to change it. That is one of the benefits of a national policy, is that they have the same arrangements with whomever the funeral director might be. The difficulty with that is that the funeral director doesn’t know who you are, and some people tell you something and sometimes you know they don’t actually mean that, they actually mean something not completely different, but slightly different. It’s knowing the family background that can often help you in that situation.

The other thing that’s important is that you know that the sum of money that you’ve paid for a prepayment is going into actually doing that service, not into administration costs. So again, be aware of how that might fit together and whether that fits what you want it to do for you. Whatever the sums of money are, that’s almost irrelevant. It’s what is it going to do?


The most important things

  1. I suppose the most important thing is actually nothing to do with the funeral. It’s actually, if you haven’t got a will, please do a will. It makes life very, very much easier and legal when you’re no longer here. Also, you may need to look at lasting powers of attorney. I know this is not my subject, but it actually is very important.
  2. In terms of your funeral arrangements, if you like the sound of something, whether it’s you’ve come across a reading or a poem or a piece of music that you like, write it down. And this can be ongoing. Your list is probably going to be quite long. Not everybody goes to church these days, so we don’t have so many hymns, but you might have three or four hymns that you think, “That might be rather nice,” so write it down.
  3. If you want to formalise it in terms of a prepayment, be very careful who you do that with. Do your research. Might be better to at least go and talk to a local funeral director rather than a group. Depends on your aspirations, depends on how much money you want to set against it, but there isn’t probably any one situation where a funeral prepayment will cover absolutely everything at the point of need.

Thank you to Simon Head for sharing his tips.

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