The one thing we can all be certain of – even more so than paying taxes – is that we will all eventually die. It’s something we all have in common, which in theory should make it the ideal conversation starter – one to rival even the weather.

But it isn’t. In fact it’s quite an effective conversation stopper. Nothing makes one shrink away in shame and avoid all future eye contact more than nonchalantly asking a colleague if they’re feeling better, thinking they’ve been off sick with a cold, and being told of the death of a family member.

Because of that, we’re not making plans for when the inevitable happens, leaving those left behind to reluctantly sample a career in event planning while grieving.

Charles Cowling, who manages website Good Funeral Guide, says he started the business to shed the light on “an industry which to this day has a somewhat North Korean mindset”.

“Nobody was talking about it at grassroots level, and I thought there ought to be a conversation.”

“Generally speaking, it’s the people who can least afford it who feel compelled to spend most,” says Cowling. So it’s no surprise that debt collection companies are regular attendees at corporate funeral exhibitions.

According to a study by the British Seniors Insurance Agency, the average cost of a funeral in the UK is £4,136 – though that would get you a fairly basic package. Meanwhile Sunlife puts the total cost of dying, including dealing with the estate, at a chilling £8,126 – making it the fourth biggest expense you can incur in a lifetime behind house, wedding and car.

The cost of cremation can hugely drive up the total, while burial costs depend on location. Naturally they’re highest in London, where even the living are willing to pay £502 a month to sleep directly above the shower. In some European countries graves are recycled after 15 – 25 years, but not so here. So despite death long being perceived as the great leveller, you’re still in on a postcode lottery after the fact – in Lewisham, south London, the typical send-off cost is as high as £11,148.

Fourteen percent of people admitted they had struggled to pay for a loved ones funeral in 2014, saying they used credit cards or loans from banks to cover the cost.

You could always stick it to the man and DIY it, of course. Realistically, there’s nothing stopping you stocking up on MDF and banging out a bespoke, handmade coffin – Cowling says the law is very clear on the fact that you don’t have to pay anyone for a funeral. “The only thing you mustn’t do is expose the corpse in such a way as to outrage public decency. That’s it,” he says.

But very few people do opt for the DIY route. There are all sorts of things to consider – the danger of rapid-onset decomposition being just one that no grieving relative wants to be left to deal with. According to Royal London in 2015, about eight percent of funerals in the UK were classified ‘woodland’ or ‘natural’. But “you need to be brave, clued-up and have a plan B,” says Cowling.

It could be that our attitude to death needs to change before the industry can.

And while it’s much cheaper to opt for no headstone or gravetending, that’s a big sacrifice to make when everyone’s focused on giving their loved one the most appropriately elaborate send-off. That’s why so few opt for a no-funeral funeral, a la Bowie, who posthumously enraged the mainstream media by requesting a private cremation shortly after his death.

“Generally speaking, it’s the people who can least afford it who feel compelled to spend most,” says Cowling. So it’s no surprise that debt collection companies are regular attendees at corporate funeral exhibitions.

William Ecclestone, managing director of the National Federation of Funeral Directors (NFFD), says debt in the funeral industry is rife because most people don’t know what should or shouldn’t be included, and so “rely on bonus-incentivised staff to ‘advise’” – and often the invoice is not sent to the family until after the event.

To demand payment upfront would of course be considered in bad taste, but it does mean grieving, vulnerable people are more likely to add on the sometimes unnecessary extras, knowing they won’t have to worry about it until later. The NFFD encourages all funeral directors to take payment before the event, and be transparent on prices throughout.

The problem is that the funeral directors’ market is largely made up of a few big corporate players, all charging similar prices. The two largest firms take around 50% of the entire market, and while independent operators publicly lament the corporations, Ecclestone says some have begun increasing their prices “with the hope that one of the big boys will come and buy them out in the near future”.

It could be that our attitude to death needs to change before the industry can. If we made it clear to relatives before cashing in our chips whether we really were insistent on the ten-piece brass band or the gold-plated casket or the smoked salmon canapés at the wake, maybe they wouldn’t feel so guiltily, blindly compelled to go all out. No one wants it to look like they don’t care, and cutting corners or shopping around for the cheapest option may be viewed as somewhat of a taboo – plus the fact it’s probably the last thing on most people’s minds.

Before that, the stigma surrounding death needs lifting. Ecclestone says that planning ahead is essential – which might be alright for some, but a lot of young people don’t, and don’t want to think that death can happen at any moment. But there are twenty-three million people in the UK thataren’t prepared for the financial implications of dying. It’s easier said than done, but maybe we all need to start having more conversations about the inevitable.

Lizzie Meager About Lizzie Meager
Lizzie is a financial law reporter and a true turophile. She also likes facts. A lot.