They’ve become known as they “takeaway funeral”, with no-frills and no mourners, they’re one way to avoid the eye-watering costs of a traditional funeral.

Demand for direct cremations without mourners in attendance has soared in recent years: they are now said to account for nearly one in five UK deaths.

They may be cheap, perhaps not terribly cheerful – there’s no need for flowers, music, eulogy or ‘bung’ for the minister – but concerns are mounting that the low-cost option could come at a heftier price than may initially appear.

And there are warnings that mourners may be embracing the plain and simple ‘unattended’ funeral without pausing to reflect on what might lie ahead.

According to the National Association of Funeral Directors, four in every ten UK adults say they would consider arranging a direct cremation for either themselves or a loved one.

However, its research showed that two thirds don’t really know what it is. 

Research from the Co-operative reveals one in 25 of all funerals it arranges are now direct cremation, with the traditional religious farewell a dying breed: just one in ten people say they would opt for one, while three quarters of its funeral directors say requests for funerals to take place outside of a religious setting have increased.

James Morris, Director of William Purves, the funeral company that organised the Queen’s procession from Balmoral, says the trend for ‘simple’ style cremation over more traditional funerals has soared in the wake of the pandemic.

But, he warns, they may not always be what they seem.

“I think there is lots of confusion around what ‘simple’ is and what it looks like,” he says.

“People might see an advert that suggests a hearse driving up to the crematorium, with flowers, and it’s very dignified.

“But the reality can be a van pulls up to the hospital, fills up with coffins piled together and nothing is done with the body, it’s just cremated and the ashes are handed over.

“It’s more like a body disposal service.

“It’s a man with a van – a bit like what happens when your dog is put down at the vet. It’s pretty crass.”

There is a place for a simplified option, he stresses, but with the caveat that mourners are aware of the processes and have the choice to mark their loss in a way that feels appropriate for them.

“We urge people to talk to independent funeral directors.

“While we see people want more simple funerals, a significant number still want a service of some kind, often in our own chapel, after which we take the coffin to the crematorium.

“That saves money, and they don’t have to go to the crematorium themselves.

“People are becoming very creative,” he adds. “We’ve done services on beaches, in garden centres, hotels.

“Once you take having the coffin there out of the equation, it opens up huge new possibilities of venues for a funeral service.

“People can then divorce the cremation part and concentrate on celebrating life, or having that traditional rite of passage  without the element of the deceased’s remains in front of them.”

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For many, the idea of an unattended cremation first emerged in 2016 following the announcement of David Bowie's death from liver cancer. The star is said to have made plans 12 years earlier to have a 'secret' cremation with no mourners and no funeral.

Novelist Anita Brookner and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld also left instructions for a 'no fuss' direct cremation.

According to Mark Shaw, of Aberdeen based Mark Shaw Funeral Services and the President of the NAFD Scotland, removing all ceremony from the process could backfire.

“A funeral service, whether it’s religious or non-religious, is part of the grieving process. To take that away feels like it is removing some sense of recognition that someone has died.

“And how does that effect the rest of the family or friends going through their grief?

“Not having any kind of ceremony is fine but it doesn’t take away the need to have some kind of grieving process.”

There are concerns among some that removing the ceremonies that come with loss may lead to people become even more detached from the process of dying and failing to confront some of life’s toughest moments.

A study by religion think tank Theos in December claimed less than half of people quizzed (47%) clearly want a funeral when they die, leading to the Archbishop of Canterbury The Most Rev Justin Welby warning society is forgetting how to “cope with loss”.

The Herald: Is it the death of funerals?Is it the death of funerals? (Image: Newsquest)

The study, which quizzed more than 2,500 people on their preferences for a funeral service, said financial pressures and an increasing secular society were behind a shift toward dispensing with funeral rites altogether.

Of those who did not want a funeral, 67% said they felt the money for it could be spent in a better way, while 55% said they did not “see the point”.

In his foreword to the report, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “People around us are increasingly sheltered from the physical reality of death, they know less and less about how they will die and how to cope with loss.

“It is shocking to discover that death may be seen as expensive, time-consuming and irrelevant.”

He added the findings “prepares us for a future in which death is increasingly taboo and grief shameful, possibly managed by technology: a future of griefbots”.

At bereavement support charity, Cruse Scotland, Director Nicola Reed says the very personal nature of funerals, loss and grief means there can be positives and negatives surrounding the direct cremation choice.

“We have seen some examples were there is a financial driver: for some people getting into funeral poverty is a huge worry.

“While Covid led to people realising they have choice over funerals.

“Often a funeral is for not just for the immediate family but also for all the other connections of family and friends that might want to go and pay their respects,” she adds.

“For some people, there can be a sense of ‘does my grief does not count because I was ‘just the neighbour’ or colleague or second cousin twice removed.

“We call that disenfranchised grief, when someone feels they don’t have ‘permission to grieve’ because they are not in a close relationship to the deceased person.

“When there is no funeral, it’s very hard to recreate that setting for yourself.”

And for close loved ones, there may be feelings of fear and guilt over not being present as the deceased makes their final journey.

“With some direct cremation we might know when the body is going to be taken to the crematorium, but with others you might not know.

“There’s not that point of reference, which can be hard.

“But if you know when the body goes to the crematorium, you can choose to mark that time in whatever way you want.

“We have had people who have struggled when they didn’t  know, and then worried they could have been in the supermarket doing their shopping when it happened.”

Funerals can be challenging but they can also bring comfort, she adds.  

“Funerals are about people coming to show respect, to honour the life of someone they knew, to show support. They might find out things about the deceased that they didn’t know.

“They can be hard but they also be lovely and surprising.”

Soaring funeral costs are said to be partly behind the rising trend: according to the recent SunLife Cost of Dying report, in 2023 the average funeral cost was £4,141.

The shift from the traditional funeral is leading to a rise in demand at the Humanist Society Scotland.

Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland says: “There are significant changes in the way that funerals and memorials are being arranged with a significant increase in people opting for direct cremations without a funeral service at the crematorium.

“However, at the same time we have noticed an increase in inquiries for people looking to arrange memorial services which can be held anywhere and at any time and not tied to the specific date of a burial or cremation.
“We are all aware how the current cost of living is impacting many families across Scotland.

“This approach allows them to plan a more meaningful event at a pace that they are comfortable and within an affordable budget.

“It also allows people a wider choice of venue and ceremony structure rather than being tied to what can be delivered at a graveside or in a crematorium.”