Coping With A Funeral Arrangements Dispute

1 June 2022

The National Bereavement Service often receives calls from people who want to exclude specific people from a funeral. We also receive calls from those who feel they should have been consulted about a funeral and have objections to what is being arranged. 

With a dispute about funeral arrangements, understandably, emotions can run high. Here we talk about the rights of relatives and loved ones, and what you can do if you are involved in a disagreement about a funeral.

Why might a dispute about funeral arrangements arise?

Many of us live in ‘blended’ families where there has been more than one marriage or civil partnership. We might have step-parents and step-siblings. Sometimes when families blend there are challenges, especially if a relationship hasn’t ended amicably. This can make organising a funeral very difficult.

There are times when families have been held together by the person who has just died and people have got on together for the sake of the person they all love. After that person’s death, relationship cracks tear apart and deep resentments, anger and even hatred emerge.

How can a funeral dispute be prevented?

If you are concerned that a dispute may arise after your own death, there are steps you can take to reduce the chance of this happening. You can make your wishes clear in a formal document, ideally a Will, and purchase a funeral plan. 

When you buy a funeral plan, you usually make payments in advance that are held ‘in trust’. This means the money can legally only be used to pay for the funeral and not for any other purpose. This money does not form part of your estate and so it isn’t counted in Inheritance Tax calculations. From this summer, funeral plans become a regulated financial product so you should seek further advice from a funeral director.

Funeral wishes

A funeral wishes document does not have the same legal status as a Will and does not involve any money. However it can also be very helpful in preventing a dispute. In this document you record what readings and music you would like played/performed at your funeral. You might also specify which person/people are to take part and provide a eulogy (tribute). If you anticipate possible disagreements between different family members, you may want to specifically ask people from different branches of the family to take part of involve more friends than family members.

This cannot guarantee there will no problems, but giving copies of this document to more than one person, including the funeral director you have chosen, will help ensure your views are taken into account. 

Who can legally arrange a funeral?

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), one of the professional associations of funeral directors, has produced a leaflet which provides a hierarchy of who they believe is entitled to arrange someone’s funeral.

Interestingly the NAFD leaflet suggests that a long-term partner (of at least 6 months duration) has priority over an adult child of the person who has died. The Department for Work & Pensions also allows cohabiting partners to claim for a Funeral Expenses Payment, although they are not entitled to other benefits that would be paid to a surviving spouse or civil partner. It is also important to know that if there isn’t a Will (which means the person has died ‘intestate’) a cohabiting partner cannot inherit from the estate, but ought to be reimbursed for anything they have paid for the funeral. 

Who owns someone’s dead body?

When a person dies no one can own the body. It is possible to be in possession of a body (in other words, to take physical care of it), but that does not give ownership or the right to do anything with it or to it.

Will permission be given for a cremation if there is a dispute?

The Application for Cremation form is usually completed by the nearest relative or an executor of the Will. If this person has not completed the form, they are required to explain why this is the case. 

The person filling in the form must state whether the deceased person’s nearest relative has been informed of the proposed cremation and whether they have objected. The crematorium management then decides whether the rationale given is acceptable to them.

Are the funeral arrangements requested in a Will legally binding?

No, the funeral arrangements requested in a Will are not legally binding on the executor. However, there must be a very good reason for not arranging what has been requested. 

One good reason for not following the instructions in a Will is that there is insufficient money in the estate to cover the cost (for example, if the cost of the funeral would mean creditors could not be paid). It is also possible that those who might otherwise have benefitted from the estate who do not agree with the arrangements could take legal action if funeral costs are excessive.

Is there a legal requirement to hold a funeral?

There is no legal requirement to have any ceremony after a death. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic have seen a rise in ‘direct cremations’. This is where a funeral director transports the person who has died to a crematorium, and no-one attends. 

The only legal requirements after death are that there must be a burial or cremation. Other possibilities for dealing with physical remains are being developed, with the aim of being more ecologically sound.  

There are various reasons for holding a funeral. In some faiths, the rituals are essential for ensuring the onward journey of the soul to the next phase of their existence. When this is the case the religious tradition or individual leader may provide guidance about attendance at the funeral. 

Can you stop someone going to a funeral?

If a funeral is arranged through a funeral director, then the funeral director can bar access to anybody not permitted by the person who has arranged the funeral, while the body is within the funeral director’s private premises. A crematorium owned by a private company, such as the Co-op, Dignity or Westerleigh are also private premises, so the same can apply if the crematorium management agrees to restrict entry. 

However, many crematoria are owned by local authorities and are usually classed as public buildings. As public buildings they generally have open access during published opening hours. 

Speaking to the former manager of a local authority crematorium, I was informed that they would not deny access to anyone who wanted to attend a funeral in their chapel. However, if the person arranging the funeral requested it, the ceremony would be marked as ‘private’ on the list of funerals shown outside the premises, without the name of the person to be cremated. 

What can you do if you are prevented from attending a funeral?

According to the former crematorium manager I spoke to, sometimes mourners who were not part of the main funeral party would be permitted to quietly spend a few moments in the chapel with the coffin, after the main funeral party had left. They did say, however, that this varies between crematoriums. Some crematoriums allow enough time between appointments for people to visit, but not all do.

If the ashes have been scattered in the grounds of the crematorium, it may be possible to visit the location and even have a separate brief ceremony. Even when the precise location of the ashes or a grave is unknown, this can still happen. I have recommended this course of action to people who have called the NBS for advice because they haven’t been invited to a funeral or have felt that attending would carry too high a risk of disruptive behaviour, embarrassment, and additional distress. 

A separate visit to the crematorium can also be a possibility for those with disabilities or children. Sadly, some people arranging a funeral specifically ask that people with conditions such as cerebral palsy or Tourette’s Syndrome and small children are not brought to a funeral. Sometimes having a quieter ceremony can provide the opportunity for more creative ways of remembering the person who has died.

What does the NBS recommend when there is a dispute about the funeral?

In general, we encourage people to allow others to attend a main funeral ceremony. Research has yet to show the long-term effects of being unable to attend a funeral (due to coronavirus restrictions) but the almost universal existence of funeral rites in cultures across the globe, suggests how important they are. 

If someone calling us proposed an illegal course of action over a dispute about funeral access, we would, of course, explain why this cannot happen. However, when clients ask us for advice we provide it to them in complete confidence. That means we must trust their good judgement on how they act afterwards.