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Why funeral costs are so high

Interview Subject: "I've almost finished paying off my husband's funeral."

Interviewer: "When did he die?"

Subject: "Just over 10 years ago." 

​1) Most people have no choice but to pay private businesses (funeral directors) to get them through the paperwork.  The paperwork is very simple for a funeral director to do.  However the public don't know that and therefore often don't suspect how much they are being charged for "professional services".

2) Once dependent on funeral directors for the paperwork, people often get lured into the funeral industry's business plan.  In fact the funeral industry's business plan is now largely accepted as the way things should be done.

3) Thanks to decades of commercial influence, do-it-yourself funerals are often discouraged, or carefully managed to ensure funeral industry profits are not compromised.

4) The funeral industry is unregulated.  There is no-one monitoring the industry on behalf of the public.

5) In rural areas and small towns, timely after-death medical attendance is often not available.  This forces people to hire a funeral director to transport the body to the nearest available doctor (or rarely, nurse) for death certification - often at great expense.

6) People are often being told they need to meet the expense of coffins when in fact, in most circumstances, they don't. 

7) Some people get stung by council weekend (after hours) charges.

8) In districts where there is no publicly owned and operated crematorium, people are often being forced to become full-paying customers of the attached funeral homes.

9) People are uniquely vulnerable to commercial exploitation after a death.

10) Getting probate is, in most circumstances, unnecessarily complicated.

The paperwork trap is the poverty trap

The average cost of a New Zealand funeral is about $10,000 - way more than many households and families can afford.  The knock-on consequences of this financial strain in a society where, for example, charities are forced to provide school lunches, are substantial and serious.

Public pressure is mounting for regulation of the funeral industry. But we also need to ask what makes New Zealanders so dependent on them in the first place. 

Under the current system, the public effectively have no option but to engage funeral directors to negotiate the pre-cremation and pre-burial paperwork requirements. Both government and the medical profession have abdicated on their responsibility. As a result, funeral directors can, and do, charge up to and over $2000 for a few minutes basic paperwork. This fee is usually hidden in the invoice under "professional services." 

Dependent on the funeral industry to get through the paperwork, New Zealand, as a whole, has been trapped in the funeral industry's business model.  Straightforward tasks such as transporting the body which were once performed by family and community are now "properly" done only by "professionals". This is not to say funeral directors don't play an important role in certain circumstances. They do. But no Government should be gifting them a captive market. 

Uniquely vulnerable

In the wake of a death, there is normally little time or mental space to negotiate an alternative and unfamiliar way forward. 

Death being the occasion it is, following what is taken to be protocol is, for most people, a mark of respect.  There is a great reluctance by most bereaved families to do anything other than conform. The stealthy commercialisation of death over many decades has resulted in a culture where people think paying one’s respects is something to be taken literally.

Doubts at any stage of the process, but most especially around the compulsory paperwork requirements, can force a family to engage funeral directors. 

Funeral processes have tight deadlines. There is a body, the tupapaku.  There is, normally, a funeral date.  There are jobs and family to get back to.  All these things apply pressure.  And then there is the reluctance, out of respect to the dead and everyone else involved, to quibble about expenses or be seen shopping around and swapping tips on how to save. 

All this make people uniquely vulnerable to commercial predation at this time. When it comes to death, it is, therefore important government paperwork requirements don't throw people into absolute dependence on private business operators. ​

Private crematorium monopolies

"Half an hour before we were to leave for the funeral, the funeral director rang. He'd been recommended as being a lovely guy.   But now he was extremely aggressive and said that the cremation we’d booked for after the funeral was cancelled. We’d managed to get past their $2,300 customer fee. The phone call was an attempt to extort money out of us.”  

Since 70 percent of all bodies are cremated (rather than buried) it is no longer defensible for councils and government to rely on private crematoriums to provide this essential service.

Publicly-owned crematoriums need to be provided in all districts.  In the meantime, private crematoriums should be required, on long term contract, to provide services at a standardised cost.

Council crematoriums and cemeteries should also be regularly audited to ensure they are catering equally to both funeral directors and the public and not misleading or pressuring people into buying coffins if they don't need them.

"The American Way of Death"


In 1963 Jessica Mitford’s witty unveiling of the American funeral industry, “The American Way of Death” catapulted the predations of the American funeral industry into prominence - quite a feat when you consider the issue had to compete with Vietnam war, the Cuban missile crisis, the space race and the civil rights revolution.

Mitford’s account of dysfunction in the American system are, like the revelations in Death Without Debt’s case studies, scarcely believable, both in the detail (her chapter on embalming reads like a Gothic horror tale) and the overview;  through nearly 300 pages she adds up the evidence that the “traditional” funeral is almost entirely a product of the profit motive.

The gross comercialisation of death may have originated in the United States but like Coke and tooth decay, has spread around the globe.  It's a familiar story of human vulnerability meeting business opportunity.

​In the United States the funeral industry makes most of its money off coffins and embalming.  Here the industry's effective monopoly on completing the compulsory death paperwork is the key to their lucrative business plan. 

​In New Zealand, in 1963, cremation was rare.  Paperwork requirements brought in that year required a second doctor to sign off the Cause of Death Certificate.  As cremation became more popular, it seems the medical profession increasingly abdicated responsibility.  Nowadays most doctors can be relied on to refer virtually all bereaved families to the funeral industry to get the paperwork done.

Although Kiwis are slowly waking up to the unnecessarily high cost of funerals, and the cultural cost of handing the process across to the business community, most of us are still trapped in the system by the paperwork.  Until doctors start doing the paperwork the D.I.Y. funeral movement will remain the domain of a small minority of well-resourced people.

In the end, Mitford’s tell-all wasn’t enough.  Consumer protections brought in as a result of Mitford’s book (and the work of other advocates) soon slipped as the the funeral industry flexed its muscle.  By 1996 things had got so bad Mitford had to update her book to make up for lost ground.  "The American Way of Death" is still the gold standard in understanding how we are all, funeral directors and public alike, the victims of the commercialisation of death. 

See Also "Ten Steps"


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