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Basic cremations soar as COVID-19 and David Bowie erode 'pauper's funeral' stigma

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·6-min read
Pure Cremation's Charlton Park Crematorium in Andover. Photo: Pure Cremation.
Pure Cremation's Charlton Park Crematorium in Andover. Photo: Pure Cremation.

The pandemic has fuelled a surge in cremations carried out without funerals, as lockdown curbs, financial pressures and shifting attitudes change how Britain honours the dead.

Such direct cremations, as they are known by the funeral industry, were once widely seen as a form of “pauper’s funeral,” with no ceremony or mourners at the time of cremation.

But providers say ‘no-frills’ cremations allow the bereaved to hold separate funerals how, when and where they wish later on, such as scattering ashes in special places, rather than following industry customs.

COVID-19 has left many families with little choice but to accept direct cremation, but there are signs the growing trend could outlast the pandemic.

The highest deaths in a century

Pure Cremation, one of the leading UK providers of direct cremation, saw demand for its services more than double in 2020, carrying out 2,900 more cremations than the previous year. The second wave sparked its busiest ever January.

The company trebled both its mortuary capacity and its workforce, which now stands at more than 100 staff. “It was not what he had planned for, but we coped,” said Catherine Powell, its co-founder and customer experience director.

Part of the Andover-based company’s growth reflects higher deaths in the UK, the catastrophic legacy of COVID-19. More than one in three people it cremated last month was suffering from the illness when they died.

Official figures last month showed UK deaths from all causes hit their highest level in a century in 2020, and the highest age-standardised rate since 2008 when population growth is taken into account. COVID-19 featured on the death certificates of more than 81,000 of the 608,000 people whose deaths were registered last year.

But higher deaths alone are not the only reason direct cremation numbers have risen.

WATCH: UK deaths from COVID-19 pass the 100,000 mark

The cost of traditional funerals

Direct cremations have grown not only in absolute terms, but also soared compared to other more traditional ways of marking death.

They made up a quarter of all funerals during the first wave of the pandemic, compared to just 3% in 2019, according to life insurance company SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying report.

Catherine Powell, co-founder and customer experience director at Pure Cremation, said many families felt direct cremations were the most “sensible” thing to do amid the pandemic. Worries over the virus, caps on funeral attendance and travel restrictions have made it impossible for many people to commemorate loved ones as they would have wanted.

Cost is another factor. Many households’ incomes have taken a hit during the pandemic, while average funeral costs have soared so much over the past decade that competition regulators launched a probe.

READ MORE: Coronavirus derails plan to cap funeral and cremation costs

The average UK direct cremation costs £1,554, less than half the cost of standard cremation (£3,885) and less than a third of the cost of burial (£5,033), according to SunLife.

SunLife’s report noted families choosing direct cremation avoid paying for hearses, embalming, officiant’s fees, limousines, and other extras. Funeral directors interviewed for the report predicted job losses would keep pushing up demand for simpler funerals.

Powell said some of Pure Cremation’s clients would have preferred ceremonies at the time of cremation, but “weren’t prepared to pay full price for five people attending.”

From ‘pauper’s choice’ to David Bowie

Catherine Powell, customer experience director and co-founder of Pure Cremation. Photo: Pure Cremation
Catherine Powell, customer experience director and co-founder of Pure Cremation. Photo: Pure Cremation

Shifting attitudes may be just as significant as the pandemic and costs, however.

Direct cremation remains controversial. Some families will feel loved ones lost during the pandemic had inadequate send-offs.

“It was initially seen as a pauper’s choice.” said Powell, noting the company’s online adverts had sparked fierce debate. Direct cremations used to be barely available or “grudgingly available with lots of judgement—’you can’t love your mum, then’,” she added.

But there are signs opinions are beginning to change.

Funeral directors told SunLife said awareness of the option was rising, and it was starting to lose its stigma. “People don’t just see it as a cheaper option now but as another choice,” said one respondent to its survey.

Powell is adamant direct cremations are not an inferior option. “It’s been described as brutal by some. We would absolutely disagree,” she said. Relatives “trust us to carry out a practical task with dignity and respect.”

READ MORE: One in eight families in ‘funeral poverty’

David Bowie’s direct cremation in 2016 is credited with boosting take-up prior to the pandemic. “I will be forever grateful to David Bowie, who blasted that [‘pauper’ image] out of the water.”

Crucial for Pure Cremation is the fact direct cremations mean relatives can “uncouple” the commemoration of a loved one from “the logistics of the coffin and funeral directors’ or crematorium diary,” as Powell put it.

Families organising funerals themselves are also more easily able to abandon funeral industry customs, from smart hearses and uniforms to black clothing. Powell dismisses the idea existing traditions necessarily mark the best way to grieve or are even what most families want.

“We’re not here to tell people how they should say goodbye,” she said. A recent Pure Cremation report linked current practices to Victorian customs and Christian ideas of the after-life, rather than a growing interest in “secular celebration” of life lived.

‘Funerals are about to get really interesting’

Last year the group commissioned a YouGov poll of 2,000 people who have chosen direct cremations for themselves in advance. More than a third said traditional crematorium services were too depressing, traumatic or felt like a production line.

Instead, customers using Pure Cremation typically organise subsequent funerals at significant places or anniversaries of personal significance, such as scattering ashes in gardens or beaches on birthdays.

READ MORE: Top tips on making a will and protecting yourself

She said her experience pointed to a class divide however, with working-class families seemingly more likely to be attached to established funeral traditions. “Ironically this is actually a middle-class choice; these are secular professionals who are confident they can arrange a decent farewell.”

But the pandemic means many such commemorations are yet to be held. With lots of direct cremations driven by COVID-19 restrictions, Powell acknowledged clients’ perceptions may be shaped ultimately by just how satisfying their own commemorations turn out to be.

“People are just waiting, longing to share stories and memories. We hear common themes around significant places, hobbies, food and music,” she said. “Funerals are about to get really interesting.”

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