Britain’s secret shame: Funeral poverty and the crippling cost of dying

As watchdogs probe the industry over its pricing, there’s a move towards kinder – and more creative – ways to say goodbye. Dani Garavelli investigates

The grave where Gordon McGuinness’s father lies is still unmarked nine years after his death. Once Gordon is financially stable again, he plans to buy a headstone. But at the time, he had to go into debt just to pay for a basic burial.

Gordon was 23 when his grandmother, and then his father, died within six weeks of each other. His grandmother had savings but in the short period before the two deaths, his father, an alcoholic, spent quite a bit of the money in her account, so Gordon was left facing two sets of expenses.

I was angry as well as grief-stricken and having to worry about money made it more difficult to cope.

At the time, he was working a 25-hour week in Tesco. His younger sister was at university. The family applied successfully for the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Funeral Expenses Payment (FEP) and were given around £1,400, split into two halves. They topped it up with what was left of his grandmother’s savings. But he was forced to take out a loan to cover the £1,000 shortfall and paid it back over two years. “It was a very difficult time,” says Gordon. “I was angry as well as grief-stricken and having to worry about money made it more difficult to cope.”

Linda* had a similar experience. She had been travelling and planned to spend a year back in Scotland before emigrating to Australia, but shortly after she returned six years ago, her mother died of cirrhosis of the liver. She had been living in poverty and Linda was not working.

Aunts and uncles were estranged; even so, when Linda applied for the FEP,  she was asked for their national insurance numbers to check if they were earning. To complicate matters further Linda had not yet applied for any of the benefits you have to be receiving to qualify for the FEP, so even once it had been established that she was the responsible family member, no money was forthcoming.

A friend of Linda’s gave her the £400 the funeral directors were demanding up front  and – having applied for the benefits – she eventually received around £1,000. But the funeral cost in excess of £3,000, so she also took out a loan for the remainder. “I didn’t collect my mother’s ashes until I had paid it all off,” she says. “I felt shame to have a debt in relation to someone who had died.” Thirteen months later, Linda’s father suffered a fatal heart attack. By then she was working full-time – juggling her job with college – and so was forced to pay for that too. “Those events changed the course of my life,” she says. “I never went to Australia.”

Gordon and Linda are victims of an often-exploitative funeral industry and an inadequate benefits system which leaves many people struggling at a time when they are already bereft. Funeral prices have more than doubled since 2004: according to SunLife Insurance, the average cost of a cremation in the UK is now £4,271, while the average cost of a burial is £4,798. Yet, the part of the FEP that covers costs including the funeral directors’ fees has remained static for 15 years, and so covers an ever-decreasing proportion of the total.

“The system isn’t good enough,”  says John Halliday of Glasgow-based Caledonia Cremation, the first not-for-profit funeral directors in the UK. “If the benefit is there as a safety net for people with nothing, it shouldn’t put them in a situation where they have to fall into debt.”

In addition, the forms are complex and the DWP is not always sensitive to the emotions of the bereaved, demanding documents and asking intrusive questions. Only 61 per cent of applications processed in 2016/17 resulted in an award, but with the DWP requiring an invoice to process a claim, applicants must commit to meeting funeral costs without knowing if they will be successful.

In the last financial year, UK councils spent £5.4m on public funerals,

With many families struggling to put food on the table, there has been a rise in ‘pauper’ or public funerals paid for by local authorities because the dead person has no relatives or the family cannot afford to pay. In the last financial year, UK councils spent £5.4m on public funerals, with the greatest outlay in cities where deprivation is rife, such as Birmingham and Manchester.

Campaigns

Campaigns to raise awareness of funeral poverty are having an impact. In England there have been minor changes to the FEP, such as extending the claim period from three to six months after the funeral. In Scotland, where powers over funeral payments have been devolved to Holyrood, the FEP will be replaced by Funeral Expense Assistance (FEA) later this year. Under the new system, the process will be simplified and speeded up, eligibility will be increased by 40 per cent, and the previously capped part of the benefit will rise with inflation. But, as Halliday points out, as the payments are already so out of sync with the costs the FEA will not close the gap, merely stop it widening.

In the meantime – what are people with nothing supposed to do?

“The FEA is a replacement benefit that’s broadly the same, with some positive tweaks around the edges, which we welcome, but we require a step change,” says Halliday. “We are in favour of increasing the payment, and we will keep lobbying. But in the meantime – what are people with nothing supposed to do?”

Cremations

For centuries, the idea of giving a loved one a good send-off has been associated with pomp and ritual, an association the funeral industry has encouraged. At the same time, however, many people find crematoria soulless. The experience can feel more like a conveyor belt than a celebration of someone’s life. The idea behind the direct cremation movement is that a memorial service may be more meaningful (as well as cheaper) if it is held in a venue that meant something to the deceased.

In a direct cremation, the family do not go to the crematorium. The body is taken there by the funeral directors and later, the relatives receive the ashes and are able to organise a service on their own terms.

Such is the growing popularity of this option that Berkshire-based Pure Cremation has transformed itself from a traditional funeral director to a nationwide specialist in direct cremations, which cost around £1,195.

“We have been sought out by people who reject the pomp, the frills, the fuss,” says co-founder Catherine Powell. “We believe if people could understand how liberating it is, more of them would choose direct cremations and a more personal send-off.”

Pure Cremation does deal with many low-income families, but it is still a business. Caledonia Cremation, on the other hand, was set up specifically with low-income families in mind.

In the year it has been up and running, it has carried out 150 direct cremations, a third of which have involved families who have received the FEP. “The complexities of the existing system mean you can’t draw down the full £1,400 for a direct cremation, but we made our charge £995 – the exact amount paid out by the DWP – so no one who comes to us will be forced into debt,” Halliday says.

The service offered is all-encompassing. On the day of the cremation, staff will attend and bow their heads respectfully. If the family wishes, they will even say a few words or play a particular piece of music. A few days later, the ashes are delivered to the family’s home.

Caledonia Cremation guides relatives through DWP bureaucracy and is happy to help organise the memorial service. It also provides bereavement counselling.

One recent client – Rob*, in his early twenties – was left in limbo after his father died of a heart attack. A student, he was told he wasn’t eligible for the FEP. But, having cared for his dad, he was left on his own with little money to pay for food, never mind a funeral.

“I tried to get help from a local funeral director, but, even selecting the lowest cost option, they still expected a deposit of around £400,” Rob says. “There seemed to be only one option: a public funeral carried out by the local authority. I was heartbroken. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless.”

The advice service Money Matters helped Rob apply for Universal Credit so he would be eligible for the FEP. However, in the time it took to process the application he had already fallen into rent arrears.  It was Money Matters that referred him to Caledonia Cremation. “They explained the service and reassured me I would be able to get my father’s ashes back so I could scatter them in a place that meant a lot to us.”

Help from local authorities

In the last few years, some local authorities have also been looking at ways to bring down the costs. East Ayrshire, for example, has launched its Respectful Funeral service. It asked local funeral directors to tender for contracts, providing low-cost funerals. Now, six firms have become partners, offering packages ranging from £1,095 to just under £2,000.

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“A fifth of funerals in East Ayrshire are now Respectful Funerals,” says councillor Elena Whitham. “We reckon, since the scheme started in April 2017, we have saved local residents £281,638.”

Stirling Council is also piloting a scheme dreamed up by employee Tom Rennie, offering residents with access to a lair a burial for £1,800, with council staff taking on responsibility for liaising with the family, contacting a local funeral director and carrying the coffin.

In England, the charity which has done most campaigning on funeral poverty is Quaker Social Action. As well as raising awareness, it runs Down to Earth, a support service for those on low incomes.

Families who aren’t looking for a public funeral but who don’t want to use a funeral director’s services may also be supported to organise DIY funerals.

“Having to wait months to hold a funeral can affect people’s grieving,” says manager Claire Brandon. “We try to help people keep the cost down and raise money from various sources. We help them get any benefits they are entitled to, but we can’t work miracles.”

In Milton Keynes, the rising sums paid out to funeral directors prompted the local authority to start carrying them out themselves. Now bereavement services staff collect the bodies and order coffins direct. Families who aren’t looking for a public funeral but who don’t want to use a funeral director’s services may also be supported to organise DIY funerals. Other councils including those in Gateshead, St Helens and Wigan have similar schemes.

Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into the funerals sector. The issues it intends to explore include the reluctance of firms to disclose clear prices, the low number of crematoria providers and the planning regime and high fixed costs that make it difficult for new companies to enter the market. This investigation may eventually bring costs down, but could take 18 months to complete.

In the meantime, the benefits system remains difficult to navigate, support is patchy and the newly bereaved continue to struggle.

“When my mum died, I was so worried about trying to find the money to pay for the funeral, I didn’t have time to think what I’d want for her,” Linda says. “It all went by in a flash. I wish I could have done things differently.”

*Names have been changed