What is funeral poverty?

Funeral poverty is where the price of a funeral is beyond a person’s ability to pay. It is a growing national crisis most affecting those on the lowest incomes. 

In 2019, the average cost of a funeral in the UK was £3,785. 

This is a substantial amount of money which many people do not have. Furthermore, if a person is not able to afford this cost, there are very few options available to them.

Support from the government is limited. For example, the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is only available to people on income-related benefits. Even then, the complex criteria disqualifies thousands from receiving an award.

In 2017-2018 the average total payment for a successful Funeral Expenses Payment application was £1,461, which is only around 39% of the average cost of a simple funeral. 

As a result, the Funeral Expenses Payment is still leaving people with a potential shortfall in the thousands. On top of this, making a claim can be a long and complicated process, during which the funeral may be put on hold. This often leaves people feeling confused and frustrated at a very stressful and disorientating time.  

If no one is able to pay for the funeral of the person who has died, or there is no way of making up the shortfall from a Funeral Expenses Payment award, it may be possible to access a public health funeral through the local authority. 

However, despite a recent promise from the government, there are still no national guidelines on how local authorities manage public health funerals and in reality there are huge discrepancies across the country, with many vulnerable people receiving a poor service. There is also a lot of stigma associated with public health funerals, often still referred to by the media as “pauper’s funerals”. 

Nonetheless the number of people turning to public health funerals increased by 70% between 2015 and 2018. 

As the average cost of a funeral in the UK continues to rise, and the impact of austerity continues to bite, so will the burden of funeral poverty. 

In 2019, 12% of people faced with a funeral struggled to pay for it. 

Factors behind rising costs include the funeral industry being unregulated, with businesses free to set their prices as they wish. Meanwhile land prices are increasing, cemeteries are filling up and crematoria are costly to run. 

This issue is further complicated by a lack of price transparency within the funeral industry. It is difficult to find clear, comparable information about how much things cost and by when they need to be paid. There is also huge variation in funeral prices across the country.

When combined with bereaved people’s sense of disorientation, potential inexperience in arranging funerals, and a natural desire to ‘sort it out quickly’, this can all result in many people buying funerals they cannot afford and taking on unmanageable and devastating debt. 

The average debt taken on by people who struggled to pay for a funeral in 2019 was £1,990. This figure has increased by 14% since 2018, and 53% since 2013.

Funeral poverty can also have a hugely detrimental impact on people’s emotional wellbeing. Whilst arranging a funeral, bereaved people can experience a broad range of emotions, including a need to provide the person who has died with a meaningful tribute. This can lead to anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and, if there are limited funds, an overwhelming sense of guilt, distress and shame.

Therefore funeral poverty gets in the way of people’s ability to grieve. 

Here at Fair Funerals we believe that everyone should be able to access a dignified and meaningful funeral without worrying about the financial burden. 

We’re hoping to bring about positive change from within the funeral industry, by asking funeral directors across the UK to sign the relaunched Fair Funerals pledge 2020. 

If you’re a funeral director and want to join this community, sign the pledge today!

If you’re arranging a funeral and want to find a local funeral director committed to price transparency, search for one here.

If you’re currently struggling to pay for a funeral you can access support through Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth service here.