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Dig It Yourself



Passing away at the age of 101 is a big achievement. Lady Margaret Johnson, the widow of the High Court judge Sir William Johnson, did that in early June 2016. She had been living with her son John Wright, the child of a previous marriage, and he is now in charge of the funeral arrangements. As you’d expect, Mr Wright is a good age himself: 71. But his work on his mother’s burial will be more demanding than usual.

Why is that? Because he’s digging his mother’s grave himself in his own back garden. It’s proving tough work, because the ground is hard after a lot of hot weather and little rain. He didn’t want to do this, but he says he refuses to pay funeral fees that he regards as excessive and exploitative. When he went to a local undertaker’s, he was quoted the price of £5,300 for a complete funeral, including £2,500 just for the hearse that would take his mother from the mortuary to the chapel.

He found that price far too high and refused to pay it, but he couldn’t find an acceptable price anywhere else. He calls funeral firms “a cartel” that want to “strip every penny” from the pockets of grieving people who are not thinking clearly. That’s why he decided to do everything himself. He was a lawyer before he retired, so he used the internet to research the regulations that cover do-it-yourself burials. First of all, you need permission from the owner of the land on which you intend to dig the grave. Next, you need a “Certificate of Authority for Burial” from the Registrar of Births and Deaths, who has to be told of all births and deaths on British soil.

After that, you can go ahead and begin digging. The coffin needs to be buried at least two feet deep, so Mr Wright will be digging to four feet to leave a good margin. Graves also need to be a safe distance from wells, springs, streams and ditches, so that decaying bodies don’t contaminate any water. Mr Wright’s back garden meets all the requirements.

He’s also confident that the earth covering the coffin won’t collapse, so it looks as though his do-it-yourself – and dig-it-yourself – burial will do the two things he wants: save him a lot of money and give his mother a dignified resting-place. But before his mother is safely in the ground, he may have to take another step. Her body is presently being stored in a funeral director’s refrigerator, but he is being charged fees for the storage and may decide to buy a large refrigerator of his own and keep his mother’s body there to save money.

He says that he never expected he would have to go to all this trouble, but he’s obviously a determined and clear-thinking man. Why should he pay a large sum of money when he doesn’t think he will be getting value for money? By organizing a burial himself, he’s not being disrespectful of neglectful of his mother. On the contrary: he is fulfilling his duty to her with some hard work and initiative. He knew her for 71 years, so we can expect that he’s acting in a way that she would have agreed with. And he won’t have to travel to a churchyard to visit her grave: it will be only a short walk away from his house.

This is an unusual and interesting story that’s been covered by many news organizations. Millions of people will hear and read about it. They may be re-considering their own ideas about what should happen to them after they pass away. And Mr Wright’s story will actually give them an advantage over Mr Wright. He’s carrying out a funeral plan, but it’s one that he had to devise very quickly and unexpectedly, after his mother had already passed away. Preparing a funeral plan well in advance of someone’s passing is obviously better than that. We can give more thought to what we prefer and discuss everything thoroughly with everyone who is going to be affected. If we want a do-it-yourself funeral, we can prepare for that. If we want a more traditional funeral, we can shop for the best price and value.

With a funeral plan in place, we’ll then have peace of mind. And we can also save a lot of money, because with the right funeral plan we can pay a fixed price. After that, we can be confident that there will no hidden charges and no price rises, whatever happens to the economy in future. Mr Wright will save himself a lot of money with his dig-it-yourself burial, but he would no doubt have preferred to have made his mother’s funeral plan under less pressure and in a less of a hurry.

National Federation of Funeral Directors