The spiralling cost of funerals is now taking its toll on the public purse. Today’s release of the BBC Freedom of Information request shows that not only are public health funerals increasingly common – up by 11 per cent – but they are also costing local councils on average 30 per cent more than they did four years ago.
So called 'pauper's funerals'
Usually public health funerals – in the past called “paupers funerals” – were for people who died alone or without relatives to pay for the funeral costs. Now more and more of these funerals are happening but friends and family don't have the resources to pay for a funeral.
Public health funerals take place when there is no other money available to pay for the funeral, either in the deceased’s estate or from family and friends. In this situation, local councils or the hospital where someone died, have a legal duty to pay for a simple funeral service.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Management, said "I think more people are being trapped in funeral poverty – that is, they just can't afford funerals".
Funeral poverty has increased by 50 percent in just five years.
Both the northeast of England and London showed the biggest increase in funeral costs but the postcode lottery of funeral costs means that councils in the southwest saw a 39 per cent rise in public health funerals in the last four years.
How QSA helps people facing funeral poverty
Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth project works with an increasing number of bereaved people who rely on a public health funeral after someone close to them dies. It is often the most vulnerable people who rely on those funerals.
Reasons for a public health funeral
There are two main reasons that people resort to public health funeral:
(a) they aren't eligible for Social Fund Funeral Payment, mostly because they're in low paid work rather than claiming benefits, or because they're a student, pensioner or have no resource to public funds;
(b) they are eligible for the funeral payment but they have no way of making up the shortfall (average grants only cover a third of the cost of a basic funeral). This also means they will have no way of raising the deposit which most funeral directors require before they'll proceed with a funeral.
A lot of stigma
There is still a lot of stigma attached to public health funerals, especially when they’re referred to as "pauper’s funerals" as the media often does. Down to Earth and QSA’s Fair Funerals campaign try to tackle this stigma. We’re very clear that there is no shame in having a public health funeral. It is often a simple, dignified service that should be available where friends or family are genuinely unable to pay.
But there are stark differences in the way hospitals and local authorities run their public health funeral services. Some, once satisfied there's no other means to pay for the funeral are very happy to extend compassion to a family and reassure them a dignified service will be provided.
What needs to change
Others have begun requiring a contribution from any next of kin, no matter what their financial circumstances or refusing to take responsibility for the funeral if there's any next of kin. Central government need to produce legally binding standards of councils and hospitals so vulnerable people aren’t exposed to this postcode lottery.
We’re also very concerned about these new figures showing in the increase in cost of public health funerals. These costs will continue to rise until action is taken to tackle funeral poverty. The government must stop burying their heads in the sand in the hope this problem will go away.
We call on policymakers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and conduct a cross-departmental inquiry into the underlying interrelated issues that are causing funeral inflation including; pressures on local authorities, the use of burial space and the privatisation of crematoria and burial grounds.
We would welcome a meeting with Caroline Dinenage MP at the Ministry of Justice, responsible for cremation and burials and Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for Community and Social Care to discuss how we can begin to tackle funeral poverty.