With the average cost of a funeral in the UK now £3,757, and the average debt taken on by families to pay for a funeral reaching £1,744, the funeral poverty crisis is worsening every year. Funeral costs have risen steeply (up to 30%), as simultaneously the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the government’s crushing ‘Austerity’ policy have tightened the screws on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It’s a bitter irony that up to 200,000 deaths may be linked to ‘Austerity’, with a combination of food and fuel poverty, cutbacks to health, social and mental health care services, and suicide all contributing to this estimate. So many of us are now too poor to live, and also too poor to die!
Today it was announced that the cost of a death certificate has risen from £4 to £11. It may seem a small amount, until you consider that up to ten death certificates may needed to release the body, arrange the funeral, and access the estate. It’s yet another pressure on grieving family members already struggling to provide a funeral that reflects their love and celebrates the deceased’s life.
While it’s possible to apply for a Funeral Expenses Payment from the DWP if you are claiming certain benefits, the payment will only cover an average of a third of the costs, can take weeks to arrive, and if another family member is in work, or considered next of kin and is ineligible (e.g. if the next of kin is a child), the claim will be rejected. Desperate people on zero-hours contracts, living hand-to-mouth with no savings and no spare money for life insurance or pre-paid funeral plans, will not be eligible. Up to half of all applications are rejected.
So what’s the alternative? There’s been a steep rise in crowdfunding for funerals; in the first nine months of 2016, 2007 crowdfunding pages for funerals were launched, raising an average of £1,300 each. In the same year it was calculated that 1.2 million people in the UK had borrowed £576 million from payday loan companies to pay funeral expenses, landing themselves in a serious cycle of debt. More people are choosing ‘garden burials’ – literally burying their deceased loved ones in their own back gardens, which eliminates the costs of buying a plot, conducting a funeral service and digging the grave. While this has always been an option chosen by those with large estates, or those who want to keep their dead family members close, it’s still not an option for the poorest – you will need to own your own home and the land you intend to use as a grave site and fulfill certain environmental health conditions.
So, as usual, already hard-pressed and underfunded local authorities are being relied upon to provide thousands of Public Health Funerals in the UK every year. There are sad echoes of the ‘Pauper’s Funeral’ of the Victorian era here: burials (costing an average of £700) can be in shared plots with no headstones, these may be re-opened to inter further corpses at a later date; after council cremations (costing an average of £1000), ashes are often scatted in the crematorium’s garden of remembrance, and it may or may not be possible for the family of the deceased to take possession of the ashes. It’s not the send-off that most of us would wish for for those we love, adding guilt and shame to grief. Although councils can attempt to recover some of the costs from the estate of the deceased, in 2015 some local authorities were paying up £250,000 for Public Health Funerals, and these costs can only have been rising since.
Finally, hospitals may be having to cope with storing bodies indefinitely, if the family is caught in the bind where the body cannot be released without a fee (£1000+), but the social fund will not pay out until the funeral is underway.
It’s an emotive issue that most people don’t want to think about. It’s hard enough dealing with bureaucracy and arranging a funeral while you are shocked and grieving, without adding a lifetime of financial pressure (and a reminder of bereavement with every loan repayment) and the guilt of only being able to provide a ‘Pauper’s Funeral’. Those who incur debt to pay for a funeral will likely be unable to pay for their own funeral, either, meaning that this crisis will worsen in the future. If you are facing this issue, there is help and advice available online, or at your Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
‘Austerity’ is not over, it was never about reducing the deficit. It will never be over because it’s an ideology, not a fiscal recovery policy. Reducing our dignity, our sense of social security, and performing a sneaky and despicable holocaust of the poor, sick and vulnerable is what it’s about. If we cannot perform as tax payers/consumers then we are expendable. The ‘Victorian Values’ that Thatcher asked us to return to have indeed returned and it’s horrifying.