How-to Guide to Arranging a Funeral

Funerals – Rights and Responsibilities

This guide looks at some of the legal rights and responsibilities involved in arranging a funeral.

In western society we have become increasingly removed from the process of death. One of the consequences of that distancing  is that general knowledge of what is permitted with regard to the disposal of a body has become less and less well known.

Who has the right to arrange a funeral?

Anyone may pay for the cost of a funeral and give instructions about the type of funeral to be held for someone who has died but only certain people have the right to take charge of the deceased’s body for the purposes of burial or cremation and obviously without a body a funeral can’t take place.

The person or persons having the legal right to take control of a body will depend on the circumstances in which the death has occurred.

Here are some examples of the persons having a right to take control of a body.

a) The Coroner

Unless the death was from natural causes the Coroner will be involved and in such cases it is the Coroner who has the legal right to take possession of the body. A funeral can’t take place until the Coroner agrees to the body being released for disposal.

b) Executors of a Will

If the death is from natural causes or the Coroner has released the body it is the persons appointed in the deceased’s Will to administer their estate (the Executors) who are entitled to take possession of the body and arrange the funeral.

c) Nearest Relatives

If there isn’t a Will, the nearest relatives of the deceased will be entitled to take charge of the body.

d) Anyone Intending to Pay for the Funeral

There are sometimes circumstances where there are no close relatives available and no executors have been appointed but there may be friends who are willing to arrange the funeral in which case they can claim possession of the body for the purposes of disposal.

e) The Householder

If a person dies within someone else’s property the property owner has the right to take charge of the body and arrange the funeral so that the body can be removed from their property.

f) The Local Authority

The local authority for the area where the body is lying may take steps to ensure that a body is disposed of if they consider that there would otherwise be unreasonable delay which could pose an environmental health risk or create a public decency issue.

Who pays for a funeral?

The issue of who has responsibility to pay for the cost of a funeral can be quite confusing and as a result sometimes leads to disputes.

Basically, the person who signs the agreement with a firm of funeral directors has a contractual responsibility to pay their fees.

So, if you are instructing funeral directors to undertake the funeral arrangements it’s important to make clear to them whether you are acting on your own behalf or if the cost of the funeral is to be paid by someone else such as the executor of the deceased’s Will.

If you are not acting in an official capacity and don’t want to be personally responsible for paying the bill then you should make sure you get the agreement of the person(s) who is going to be responsible for the funeral costs to agree to the amount of the charges in advance. Otherwise, if they subsequently refuse to pay you could find yourself having to pay some or all of the charges yourself.

Do the personal representatives of the deceased have to pay for the funeral?

If the deceased made a Will it is usually stated in the Will that the executors are to pay for the funeral from the estate (the assets) of the deceased. If there is cash in the deceased’s bank account the executors can take the funeral bill and a copy of the death certificate and the Will along to the bank with appropriate identification and the bank will usually release money from the deceased’s account to pay for the funeral – without any need to wait for a grant of probate to be obtained. The bank is not obliged to do this but in most cases provided there are sufficient funds in the account the bank will comply with the request.

If the deceased didn’t make a Will (or there is no mention of who is to pay for the funeral in the Will) the persons eligible to administer the deceased person’s estate, known as the personal representatives (usually relatives if there is no Will) will also be able to request the deceased’s bank to release money to pay the funeral account.

However, if the cost of the funeral or the funeral wake is very high and includes unusual features that have pushed the price up excessively the personal representatives could face objections from beneficiaries of the estate or enquiries from HMRC. In such a circumstance they might not be able to justify paying the whole cost from the deceased’s estate.

What if there isn’t enough money to pay for the funeral?

If the deceased did not have enough assets to cover the cost of the funeral you may be able to get financial help from the Social Fund.

To be eligible for a funeral payment from the Social Fund you or your partner must be in receipt of one of the qualifying state benefits such as Income Support or be receiving tax credits. For more information on funeral payments see the Gov.UK site

 Is it possible to avoid using a funeral director?

You don’t have to use a funeral director to arrange a funeral.

There is an increasing range of alternatives to the traditional form of funeral generally supplied by funeral directors and it is not a legal requirement that a body should be stored prior to burial or cremation in a hospital mortuary or a funeral director’s premises.

Provided that the body does not present a risk to public health and is not treated in a way that would offend public decency the body can be prepared for burial or cremation in a private residence or any other suitable building.

There are very few statutory rules. Essentially, before a funeral can take place:

  • the death must be registered within 5 days (in England and Wales unless the Cornoner’s Office has been informed);
  • a Certificate for Cremation or Burial (the ‘Green Form’) must be issued by the registrar.

Arranging a funeral yourself

If you don’t want to use the services of a funeral director you can contact the Cemetaries and Crematorium Department of your local authority once the death has been registered to arrange for burial or cremation.

If you do not wish to use a conventional burial site you need to obtain permission from the local authority.

Burial in your own garden is permissable under the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 but as there could potentially be a public health issue environmental legislation will apply and usually someone who is a licensed operator would need to be involved unless the local authority gives special permission.

It is important however, to think about the long term consequences. You might not always live at the property and if you need to sell or lease the property a grave site in the garden is likely to seriously affect the value and some potential buyers or tenants may find the idea off-putting.

Funeral expenses and IHT<
The costs of a funeral are deductible from the value of the deceased person’s estate for Inheritance tax purposes and you are also permitted to deduct ‘reasonable’ mourning expenses of immediate family members. What is considered to be reasonable by HMRC will largely depend on the individual circumstances but headstones or tombstones are deductible.