FUNERALS are big business, so much so that, with the average cost of a funeral in the UK now coming in at just under £5,000, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a probe into the sector earlier this year.

In an interim report released last month, the regulator said that while the cost of the essential parts of a funeral have risen by three times the rate of inflation in the past decade, the increase cannot be justified by either cost increases or quality improvements. The larger funeral chains in particular were found to have implemented policies of consistently high year-on-year price increases, with customers remaining “extremely vulnerable” to future rises.

Announcing the launch of a full investigation into the sector, CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said that when a loved one has died relatives are “extremely vulnerable and at risk of being exploited”. “We need to make sure that they are protected at such an emotional time,” she added.

The move has been welcomed by Citizens Advice, which, according to its chief executive Gillian Guy, helps “thousands of people each year who struggle to work out over-complicated fees or who simply cannot afford the cost”. “People organising a funeral are being exploited at one of the most emotional and stressful times in their lives,” she said. “Huge upfront costs and unclear fees are far too common, with thousands of pounds of extras regularly added to bills.”

At £3,600, the average cost of a funeral in Scotland is well below the UK average, but the figure is still outwith the reach of many people or, indeed, the loved ones who are left behind to deal with funeral arrangements.

This has not been lost on the Scottish Government, which last year unveiled a Funeral Cost Plan designed to “address the inequalities that exist in our society” by tackling “funeral poverty” as part of the wider Fairer Scotland Action Plan.

While that has so far produced little beyond a leaflet on how to plan for a funeral, earlier this year the Government scrapped council fees for children’s funerals and ran a consultation aimed at informing a funeral expenses benefit due to be introduced by the summer of next year. It has also said that in 2020 it will launch a funeral bond to help people put money aside to pay for their own funeral, although details of that have yet to be released.

In the meantime, Stirling Council is piloting a scheme designed by one of its employees that will halve the cost of funerals. Developed by staff member Thomas Rennie, the Direct Funerals service is seeing the local authority take on a number of responsibilities, such as liaising with the bereaved and carrying the coffin, that would normally be dealt with by funeral directors at no extra cost.

As part of the scheme families are expected to provide their own transport to the cemetery, arrange floral tributes and organise the graveside service, but will only be charged for internment and plot fees, which come to £1,800.

Even that figure could be too high for many people to meet in one go, though, with Louise Eaton-Terry of Royal London noting that “bereaved families are being pushed into debt to give their loved ones a good send-off”.

In its National Funeral Cost Index for 2018, the financial services business found that the average amount of debt individuals take on to pay for a funeral rose by £375 between 2014 and 2017 to hit £1,680. In total, they calculated that funeral debt in the UK sits at around £160 million.

One way to spread the cost of a funeral is to save into a funeral plan, which carry the benefit of locking in costs at today’s prices. However, anyone looking to go down that route should be aware that many plans cover only the cost of the funeral director, meaning many bereaved families who think they will have nothing more to pay get hit with additional fees for items such as catering, flowers and transportation when they are at their most vulnerable.

Another option is to cut as many costs as possible, for example by taking a cheaper crematorium time slot - usually early in the day on a weekday - or choosing a biodegradable rather than wooden coffin. One Scottish company - Caledonia Cremation - even offers a service similar to the one famously chosen by rock star David Bowie, where for an all-in price of £995 customers can chose a so-called ‘direct cremation’, which is essentially a funeral without a service.