The UK’s funeral directors are facing increasingly aggressive behaviour from families arguing over funeral arrangements. In a survey among the 4,000 UK funeral homes that are members of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), nearly two-thirds (57%) reported a rise in conflict in the past 12 months, which had led to funeral directors being targeted and in some cases having to take extreme action to make peace among warring families.

In response, the NAFD, in association with Dying Matters, has released an updated edition of its guide My Funeral Wishes, which encourages people to plan their funeral with those close to them, and to record a written guide to ensure their wishes are clear and help to avoid future conflict and distress for their families.

Alison Crake, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said: “Positive change is happening, but clearly not fast enough. More and more people say they are willing to talk about the end of their life, but this isn’t necessarily translating into practical planning and it is leaving families with uncertainty that is increasingly exacerbating fault lines and turning into conflict.

“As well has having a terrible impact on families this is also exposing funeral directors and their teams to aggressive behaviour and increasingly leaving them with unpaid debts too.

“We urge people to use simple tools like My Funeral Wishes to think about what kind of funeral they want and how it will be paid for – and to either share their thinking with someone close to them or leave the details somewhere they will easily be found after their death. In doing so, they will help the ones they leave behind to say farewell to them without additional distress, uncertainty or conflict.”

The top three sources of conflict witnessed by funeral directors surveyed were:

  • estranged families being forced together following the death of a relative;
  • uncertainty over a deceased person’s wishes and what the funeral arrangements should be; and
  • how the funeral will be paid for.

Funeral directors are increasingly finding themselves mediating between warring families over funeral arrangements. In the survey funeral directors reported:

  • family members ‘shouting and screaming’ in front of other bereaved families;
  • different sides of families threatening to go to the press over the choices made by their relatives;
  • ‘abusive and threatening behaviour’ towards funeral home staff;
  • unpaid or late payment of the costs of the funeral; and
  • ashes remaining uncollected for months – even years.

Funeral directors have reported setting up password systems after families expressly forbade certain relatives from visiting deceased people; another being caught in the middle of a row which had delayed a funeral taking place and finding herself communicating between one side of the family sitting on one side of the church and the other side of the family on the other, and one funeral director saying that he now offers to split ashes due to the frequency of arguments over who owns the cremated remains of a relative.

According to new research by Dying Matters, 65% of people want their friends to be more comfortable talking about dying, death and bereavement. This accords with the NAFD survey findings, which showed that 61% of funeral directors agreed that campaigns to encourage people to talk more openly about their death and funeral had had a positive impact.

However many people are still all-too-often reluctant to talk about the end of their life. Indeed, YouGov discovered in their 2016 survey Funerals Matter that almost one in seven Britons said that nothing at all would prompt them to think ahead to their funeral.

The uncertainty and upset among families is being exacerbated by a change in the savings culture of the nation, with far fewer people setting aside any funds for planned and unplanned expenses in life. A survey in 2016 by the Money Advice Service revealed than 16 million British adults had less than £100 saved – a figure that wasn’t necessarily related to income, but was more about a change in the nation’s view of how expenses will be paid for which, when coupled with a general reluctance to plan ahead, leaves families without either financial resources or important information to carry out the funeral of a loved one.

Claire Henry, Chief Executive of Dying Matters added: “This research shows how important it is for us all to talk about dying, and to make our funeral plans in good time. Discussing what you want for your funeral, and leaving it written down, can help avoid family arguments at a time when people are grieving and emotions are running deep. None of us wants to leave a mess behind, and this is a really important part of putting your house in order. Especially when so many of us have complex families and  different relationships during our lives.

“There’s real comfort in knowing that the deceased person has had the funeral they wanted, and this can help us get on with grieving and starting to adjust to life without them. We all need to plan our funeral, and we need to let those closest to us know what our wishes are.  Don’t leave it too late: start thinking about your funeral, and start talking to local funeral directors to see what the options and costs are.”

Copies of My Funeral Wishes can be downloaded by clicking here, or collected from NAFD member funeral homes.