Student Alex Craven writes about losing his husband Paul, being unable to afford a funeral.

By Alex Craven

After a long struggle with ill health and years of caring for him, my husband Paul passed away last year. I had lost someone who was my whole world. I had reached the lowest point in my life. But I was forced to put my grieving on hold whilst I struggled to find a way to do my duty for my husband and bury him.

I had been Paul’s carer when he was ill, and as a result got into huge debt trying to make ends meet. I was also a student in the middle of my studies. As a student, I wasn’t eligible for the government’s Funeral Fund. This is available to some people on qualifying benefits who have no money for a funeral, but it generally isn’t available if you’re a student.

I felt ashamed at having to ask for help. I sincerely wish that I was able to provide for my husband, but in this case I had no alternative but to approach the hospital and ask for a public health funeral. These are funerals which hospitals provide for people who die in their care, who don’t have any money.

But the hospital refused to help me. My distress was compounded by the lack of compassion shown by the hospital, who seemed to believe that I was attempting to fraudulently obtain assistance for funeral costs. They told me it I needed to apply to the government Funeral Fund and then provide a rejection letter as proof that I wasn’t eligible. When I tried to make an application to the Funeral Fund, the Department of Work and Pensions told me I couldn’t even make an application because I wasn’t on the right benefits.

I was being passed from pillar to post, and had no idea how I was going to give Paul a funeral.

I spent a whole month after Paul’s death desperately asking for help and trying to navigate the complicated system. The woman I spoke to at the hospital was particularly unkind and unhelpful. She suggested that I give up my university course and sign onto the dole in order to claim support.

I eventually found my way to Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth service. After several conversations Clare from Down to Earth persuaded the hospital to arrange a public health funeral for Paul. I am eternally grateful to Down to Earth, but it seems a shame that I needed the involvement of a charity before the hospital would agree to arrange a public health funeral that was so clearly Paul's only option. 

Earlier this year I was approached by a journalist who wanted to print an article about my experience. The hospital were asked to comment, and I was shocked when they gave a completely fabricated and dishonest account, saying they’d been unable to help me because I had refused to fill in the proper paper work.

When I was trying to arrange a funeral for Paul, I spent day and night making phone calls, writing letters and contacting my local MPs Caroline Lucas MP and Tim Loughton MP. I also went to the local press and a national charity. I would have filled in a hundred forms if I thought it would help provide Paul with dignity in death. The truth is, I did not receive a single form to fill out.

I was at my most vulnerable when Paul died. Since my experience I have spoken to other widows and widowers with similar stories to tell. It’s very worrying that grieving people are being denied help. The government need to take action and make sure that grieving people get the care and compassion they need from hospitals and the Funeral Fund system.

Clare from Down to Earth who supported Alex says:

“When Alex came to us for help, he’d been turned away by people who should’ve helped him, and was going round in circles. It’s quite shocking that Alex was advised to give up his university course so he could sign on and claim a Funeral Fund.

This difficult and painful situation for Alex was created partly by the hospital’s lack of understanding over what he was facing.

It also seemed to be down to attempts to save money. The hospital told me they were "clamping down" on hospital funerals. They seemed to doubt that Alex was in genuine need, perhaps because he came across as quite capable. It was obvious to me from our conversations that he had no choice but to try and access a public health funeral.

At Down to Earth we hear of this scenario all the time: people give up work or take time off to care for someone close, use up savings and are left penniless and ineligible for benefits or grants by the time the person dies.

I work with people every week who, because they’re students or in low paid work, can’t claim the government’s Funeral Fund, but have absolutely no way of raising the money to lay their loved one to rest. It’s time the government provided a proper safety net, so people in Alex’s situation aren’t made to face the pain and trauma of being unable to access a dignified funeral when someone they love dies.”

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