Everyone should be able to access a dignified funeral when someone they love dies. More and more people can't. This is a topic of growing concern to the public, as we can see from the widespread media coverage that funeral poverty is receiving.
Funeral poverty has been ignored by government for too long. We’re lobbying central and local government, calling on them to improve how bereaved people on low incomes are supported. With the cost of funerals predicted to rise even further above inflation and with more people approaching the end of their lives, all evidence suggests that without action from government, this problem is set to get a lot worse.
Different government departments need to work together to make a sustainable impact on rising funeral poverty. Right now this isn’t happening.
Over the last 13 years the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment, the main source of government support to bereaved people on low incomes, has reduced massively in real terms. The Fund, available to people on qualifying benefits where there are no other means to pay for the funeral, used to cover the full price of a basic funeral. It now covers around 37% of the price. As a result even successful applicants are left with huge and often unmanageable debts.
There are lots of ways the Social Fund system could be improved to alleviate distress to bereaved people. Applying for the Fund is a lengthy and complex process. Many bereaved people miss out on the money they’re entitled to because the form is too confusing.
In January 2016, a poll by the Daily Mirror found that 83% of people agree the ‘DWP should provide more money for poor people’s funerals.
Bereavement benefits (made up of Bereavement Allowance and Widowed Parent’s Allowance) supports people when their husband/wife or civil partner dies. From April 2017 this benefit is changing for new claimants. The main group which will be negatively affected is widowed parents with dependent children: the Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 96% of families will be supported for a shorter period, and at least 75% of whom will be worse off in cash terms.
Under the new system (being introduced in April 2017), as with the current system, cohabiting couples can’t claim Widowed Parent’s Allowance, even if they had children together and had been living together for many years. However, a recent ruling at the High Court in Belfast found that a woman who had been with her partner for 23 years and had four children with him should be eligible for Widowed Parent’s Allowance. The implications of this ruling are still being worked through.
Funeral directors' fees and local authority fees for burials and cremations are both increasing steeply, well above inflation.
Funeral directors charge hugely different prices for the same goods and services. Finding clear, comparable prices can be very difficult; most funeral directors don’t put prices on their websites and many don’t offer their most affordable options over the phone. This is a big problem when you consider how vulnerable bereaved people tend to be as consumers and how unlikely they are to shop around. Click here to see how we’re addressing this with our Fair Funerals pledge.
The cost of local authority cremations has increased by a third in five years. And there are big differences in what authorities charge, from £495 in Lichfield to £1080 in Hackney, suggesting there is more than inflationary pressure at work.
In places like London where land is scarce, the price of burials has increased massively.
The Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Management have raised serious concerns about the future sustainability of local authority burial and cremation services.
Partly in response to budgetary pressures, more local authorities are selling their cremation services to private companies. The numbers of privately owned crematoria has risen by more than 200% over the last 20 years. This is a cause for concern because private crematoria charge the bereaved consumer on average 13% more for the same service provided by local authority crematoria (data from the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management).
It’s not easy talking about death. It’s even less easy talking about death and money. Professionals often shy away from talking about the cost of funeral for fear of offending people. And there is very little clear, neutral information about the financial aspects of death.
The state has a significant role to play in initiating conversations and providing information that will help people avoid funeral poverty.
Local authorities and hospitals have a statutory duty to make arrangements for a funeral where there are insufficient funds in the deceased’s estate or among family and friends.
The number of public health funerals organised by councils has increased by 11% in four years at a cost to the state of £1.7million. This figure will continue to rise steeply until sustainable action is taken to address funeral poverty.
Through our Down to Earth project we support more and more people who have no choice but to turn to a public health funeral, either because they’re ineligible for financial support, because the Social Fund is inadequate or because it takes too long to pay out. People who access public health funerals are often among the most vulnerable that we work with.
There are no national guidelines on how hospitals and local authorities manage public health funerals and in reality there are huge discrepancies in how these services are provided. In response to budgetary pressures many local authorities are making it more difficult for bereaved people to access a public health funeral.
A cross-departmental approach
Limits on benefits for the bereaved should be set considering public finances overall. It’s likely that limits on the Social Fund are working to displace costs onto hospitals and local authorities forced to provide public health funerals.
Central government should provide guidelines to hospitals and local authorities to establish national minimum standards for public health funerals.