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You are here: Home arrow Articles arrow Everything else arrow Don't pay the Ferryman! DIY funerals


Don't pay the Ferryman! DIY funerals

Written by Behemoth

Dying, like life, can be a stressful and expensive business; particularly for those organising the funeral and sometimes for the deceased as well. Often it seems that official bureaucracy and funeral trade channel you down a certain route which may not be in keeping with your values or those of your friends and relatives. Things are done in a certain way because that's they way they are traditionally done, not because that's the way they have to be done.

I'm guessing that most users of Downsizer and other similar forums, even in death, would want to minimise the environmental impact of their funeral; the cost; and because we are peculiar bunch, do things a little differently. This article doesn't deal with the best way to handle grief or deal with loss, nor does it mean to place value judgements on the 'best' way to do things. Some will prefer the traditional route while others would like something different. Getting it right will help those left behind with their grief. At its most basic it's about the different options to dispose of a body in a DIY manner, a personal send off not reliant on an undertaker.

There are no hard and fast rules about who does what and burial of the body, with the exception of a little bit of paperwork. Cremation must be done at an approved crematorium, so no Viking pyres I'm afraid.

First lets deal with money, even when you're dead it's a problem. The Natural Death Handbook survey for its 2003 edition found that a basic funeral now costs from £400 to £1,250, with an average of £753. To this £753, which represents the funeral director's charges, need to be added the so-called 'disbursements' paid out on behalf of the client by the funeral director: the cremation fee (averaging £284), doctors' fees (£101) and minister's fee (normally £90), an average extra total for disbursements of £465 (assuming it is a cremation). Thus the average complete cost for a basic funeral is currently £1,218 with cremation or £1,590 with a burial. However, it should be noted that there are wide regional variations, especially where the cost of a burial plot is concerned.

Funeral directors are often not very keen to tell the public about their low end funerals. As a member of the public, you may have to use the magic words 'Simple funeral as specified in your funeral code' to be told this low price. There will be no frills, for instance just a hearse with no following limousine. This might be all you want.

But you can do it for less, simply the cost of a cardboard coffin or a shroud and the burial plot or cremation. Much will depend on the circumstances in which you die. If its unexpected there may be autopsies and hospital authorities to deal with but they're used to it, so it's quite straight forward. If it's not unexpected much of it can be lined up in advance.

So you die. What happens next?

The doctor issues a death certificate and your relatives register your death at the Register Office. Often the Registrar will ask for details of the Funeral Director handling you. There's no need for this information and your relatives can simply give their home address. In traditional circumstances the Registrar would post the 'green' form to the Funeral Director. This must be returned after you've been disposed of as it tells the Registrar how, where and when you were buried or cremated, see below. Your relatives can take this form away with them.

Say you died at home following an illness: The doctor visits and certifies that you are dead. If its cold they can just open the windows or use some of the frozen beans in the freezer to keep you chilled. For obvious reasons this is only possible if a quick funeral is organised. Alternatively you can be taken to the hospital morgue or your relatives can speak to an Undertaker and ask to pay to use his 'chapel of rest' for a few days.

If you die in hospital they can hold you in the morgue until you are collected. So if your death was unexpected this gives your relatives time to make the next arrangements.

When its time for your burial or cremation anybody can collect the body from the hospital, subject to the hospital completing a release form. It does not have to be the undertaker. The vehicle does however have to be suitable, so an estate or a transit van that can get the coffin in are ideal. Your relatives will need to bring a coffin or body bag with them. Remember that you are now a dead-weight and will take some heaving about.

Preparing the body may make some people uncomfortable and obviously the nature of your death may have some affect on their reactions but the simple fact is that you do not need to be embalmed. That's a relic of Christian belief of being resurrected whole and public health requirements for transporting a corpse before refrigerated vans were developed. Anybody can prepare the body for burial so your relatives can wash and dress you as you would want to be, which may be au natural or in a clown outfit. Of course this is where your relatives may have a laugh at your expense, but hey, what are you going to do? It may be that your relatives do not want to do this and both you and they are happy with the morgue staff dropping you in the coffin and shutting the lid.

Which brings us to coffins and things. You don't actually need a coffin to be buried although in most municipal cemeteries it will be a requirement. In private cemeteries it will depend on their ethos which we'll come to later. You do need a coffin if you are going to be cremated. The typical reader of this website will probably not be opting for a casket made of tropical hardwoods, silk linings with chrome fittings and will want something with a lower environmental impact and, as we're tight-wads, less cost.

A shroud can simply be made of any material, usually a natural fabric so it will degrade along with you. This is usually a requirement of 'green' burial sites (see below). If you are going to opt for a shroud you'll have to think of the mechanics of how you are going to be lowered into the grave. A plank will be necessary if you are going to be lowered on ropes. This can either be retrieved or left with you. Alternatively you could be passed down to some hefty volunteers in an oversize grave, but just make sure your shroud is robust enough to take the heaving about.

The cheapest coffins are made of cardboard and cost about £55. These are widely available now by mail order, next day delivery, and have the advantage of being biodegradable. Most now meet the minimum requirements for crematoria use as well. . You can even order coffins made from woven willow. Most undertakers offer a range of coffins and will supply one however some cheap coffins are made of chipboard etc and nor suitable where they need to be biodegradeable, so your relatives should check. Of course they can decorate your coffin anyway they like.

So now you're in your bag or box, what happens next?

Usually it's cremation or burial. Cremation at the local crematorium can be arranged by calling them and book a slot. There will be a cost. This will be more if the chapel is booked for a service as well. However you'll probably only get 30 minutes which is hardly enough time to do you justice and it's important to note that this is not the same as actually being present at the cremation which happens behind closed doors.

One way around this is to hold a remembrance service or celebration at another venue before or after the cremation, depending on what's important to your relatives. If they wish the coffin to be there it can driven around in the transit van, including delivery to the crematorium service entrance, again there's no need for a hearse. The crematorium will call your relatives when your ashes are ready for collection and then they can dispose of them as you and they wish.

For burial things can be a bit more interesting. For example you do not need planning permission to be buried in your own garden. Private burials of relatives and close friends on private land are allowed as long as it is not a commercial operation. There are some checks to be done, with the Environment Agency for example but these are quickly done. It will have to be mentioned to any future purchasers of the property. But quite simply your relatives can dig a hole in the garden, recommended to be about 6ft deep, pop you in and cover you up, not forgetting to return the green form to the Register Office. It's that simple.

This may not be the route urban dwellers want to take and may be suited to a more rural setting. So for those without land you've got to think about where you'd like to be buried.

There are plenty of conventional cemeteries run by local authorities and private organisations. Costs will vary as will their rules and regulations. Not much more need sot be said about these as we're all familiar with them.

More unconventional routes are now open as well. These mainly centre around what is generally termed 'green' burials. Often the ethos of the site is to develop a nature reserve or a woodland. While the location of your grave will be recorded it will not always be marked and they usually require all burial materials to be biodegradable. Again these sites will have their own codes rules and regulations and again costs will vary. These unconventional sites tend to be a bit more relaxed about the nature of any funeral service on site and may even allow digging and filling of the grave by the mourners.

Your relatives should give the green form to the cemetery management who will complete it and return it to the Register Office.

So now you're in the ground or your urn, what happens next?

I don't know. However, your friends and relatives should celebrate your life with tears and laughter in the way you would want to be remembered.

As you can see funeral cost and environmental impact can be greatly reduced by going down the DIY route. At its most basic the price of a cardboard coffin and a cremation or burial plot. The funeral and remembrance can also be more personal and less distressing for those left behind. This is only an introduction to the options available if you are interested in perusing any of these ideas contact the Natural Death Centre which provides information and support regarding suppliers of coffins; the location of and contact details for green burial sites; burials on private land; and the legal rights of the family to deal with your funeral and the disposal of your body as they see fit.
The Natural Death Centre
6 Blackstock Mews,
Blackstock Road,
London N4 2BT
Tel +44 [0]871 288 2098
Fax +44 [0]20 7354 3831