Too Poor to Die

Life is difficult in austerity Britain and now, too, is death. Rising funeral costs and reduced state support means many poor families are forced to rely on the council to bury their loved ones.

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Feb 26 2015, 4:00pm

Image via Pixabay

Burying or cremating someone you love is a bizarre, gut-wrenching experience that, whatever stage of grief we're in, has to be done. But imagine having to do it in your own back garden because you can't afford a proper service. With funeral poverty becoming a growing problem, this is fast becoming a morbid reality for many people across the UK.

As the cost of funerals has nearly doubled in the last decade, one fifth of the 500,000 families who are bereaved each year are struggling to afford the unavoidable expense of a funeral – the cost of dying is rising seven times faster than the cost of living. In turn, increasing numbers of people are being forced to turn to payday loan lenders, sell their possessions or even bury their relatives in the back garden.

As if the grief and trauma of losing someone wasn't difficult enough, more and more people are also living with a mountain of funeral debt. It's currently estimated that 110,000 people live with funeral debt in the UK – with each person owing an average of £1,300.

Nevertheless, funeral poverty is an issue that persistently slips under the radar. Discussion of cost surrounding death, for many, can feel cheap and disrespectful. While someone might talk freely about how much they've spent on an extension, for example, they may wince at the idea of divulging how much they spent on a casket for their father. In turn, funeral poverty combines a double taboo – death and money.

Jacqui Woodward-Smith, 48, has experienced the anguish of funeral poverty first-hand. "When my partner, Will, died in February last year, we had no way to afford the funeral," she says. "I work part-time as a councillor in primary schools, so don't exactly have much spare cash. His only other close relative is his 19-year-old daughter".

"He died of deep vein thrombosis at the age of 54, so it was very sudden and completely out of the blue," Jacqui adds, her voice catching in her throat. "I had nowhere to turn. Both of his parents are dead and his daughter is a student, so I went to the Department of Work & Pensions because it said I was eligible for a funeral grant on their website".

However, Jacqui was outright refused a grant. "They said I wasn't eligible because I'm not the legal next of kin – that was his daughter – but they said she wouldn't be eligible either and that she shouldn't get herself into debt at such a young age".

In the end, Jacqui was advised to "let the council 'dispose' of him".

"What a word to use. I couldn't believe it," she says. "I spoke to all sorts of officials during that time and, while many weren't particularly kind, as soon as I explained that my partner had died, they'd be nice and polite. It was only the DWP who were so rude to me. They treat you the same as if you're calling to try and get benefits and are harsh and insensitive to people while they are grieving".

Stranded with few options, Jacqui posted a public tirade on Facebook that led to several pledges of support. "I didn't want to ask for charity," she says, "but I had no choice. In the end people were really supportive and offered to donate money. Somehow, it all came together".

With the support of her friends and their friends, she was able to put together a funeral for her partner. "It was a rather DIY affair, but if it hadn't been I would've struggled with the money," she tells me. "I ordered a biodegradable coffin online for £450 and we transported him to the burial site ourselves. We did it all on our own".

The service was held in Glastonbury, after which Will was buried in a natural burial ground near Stonehenge. "Over a hundred people turned up. It was a beautiful day. There were speeches and Will was a guitarist so we made sure there was lots of music – we had Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel".

Jacqui recognises that not everyone is this fortunate. "I can't imagine what I would have done without everyone's help. I suppose I would have had to let the council 'dispose' of him, but I don't know how I could've lived with myself," she says. "He deserved better than that. When somebody you love dies, you feel responsible because it's the last act you're going to do for them".

Jacqui is not the only person who has been denied a funeral grant by the government. Half of all applications are rejected. What's more, the maximum amount granted is capped at £700 – a pitiful contribution given that the average funeral costs £3,551. Even if you are lucky enough to be successful in your application for what is known as the Social Fund Funeral Payments system, you will still be left with a big shortfall to make up. Only those on benefits are eligible for this grant, too. Anyone on a low-income is discounted.

Compounding matters even more is how inefficient the Social Fund system appears to be. Not only do families have to wait several weeks to hear if they are successful, the application also requires an invoice and means that people have to commit to funeral costs before they know whether they are eligible for financial help. Funerals are routinely delayed as people await the outcome. For this reason, a recent report found that this failing system of state support is not only "outdated" but "overly complex" and "insufficient".

For the families who are denied a Funeral Grant and cannot find a way to scrape together any extra funds, they are left with no choice but to opt for a Public Health Funeral – paid for by the local authority and echoing what was known as a Pauper's Funeral in Victorian times. There is no service provided for the family, and the graves themselves don't even have a headstone to say who is buried there. Just like a fly-tipped sofa, you are transported in a van – not a hearse – before the council neatly "disposes" of you. The council ensures this all takes place at 9AM – something known in Dickensian times as the "9 o'clock trot".

While local councils have always had a duty, under public health law, to dispose of bodies that nobody else takes responsibility for, pauper's funerals have become increasingly common. Once a last resort and intended for people who die alone with no family, local authorities are now experiencing a significant increase in demand. Exact nationwide figures are unknown – councils are often reluctant to release figures – but these funerals must be at significant cost to the government.

In the last year alone, the cost of a Public Health Funeral has risen by 7.1 percent. What's more, last month a Freedom of Information request revealed that 258 people in South Yorkshire have had paupers funerals in the last three years, at a cost of £235,00 to councils.

As the cost of funerals continues to skyrocket – far outstripping inflation – more and more low-income families are struggling to afford this basic necessity. Not only did the average cost of a funeral rise by a staggering 80 percent between 2004 and 2013, the cost of kicking the bucket is expected to radically increase over the next five years. In addition, the difference between what funeral directors charge is astronomical.

The rising cost of dying is causing increasing numbers of people to get into serious, unmanageable debt. Heather Kennedy, the Funeral Poverty Officer at Quaker Social Action warns that "not only do financial worries cause shame and stigma, they also stop people from getting on and being able to grieve properly".

But the question remains: why is the cost of dying rising so fast?

Firstly, the cost of a burial plot has increased as the cost of land has grown. It's much cheaper for your corpse to decompose in Hull than, say, Islington. Cremation costs have increased, too, as EU regulations have forced crematoriums to install costly new filtration equipment in order to decrease mercury emissions.

And then there's the funeral directors themselves, who often guilt-trip families into buying guilt caskets, spectacular bouquets and other ostentatious extras. Gently implying that you might as well go the extra mile and buy that gold engraved tombstone as a final mark of respect.

Moreover, prices across the board have further increased since Dignity, Co-operative Funeral Care and Funeral Partners have bought up more and more of the small independent companies. Your local high street funeral directors might still say Smiths & Sons on the outside, but, often, is owned by a massive company with a big-business model. The Good Funeral Guide warns customers against using them as they are more expensive.

Image via Wiki Commons

In order to address the problem of cost, Catherine Joy decided to set up Brooks, a funeral directors which provides affordable, low-cost funeral services in North London. After growing fed-up at the funeral parlour she'd worked in previously, Joy chose to go it alone. "When the place I was working was bought up by Funeral Partners, a massive chain, the prices went up and everything went downhill," she says. "Now they charge £525 for a removal from the hospital to the mortuary – you have to pay all that before you do anything. They have so many hidden extras."

As someone who is faced with multiple deaths on a daily basis, Joy knows full well that, when someone has died, the family are left in an incredibly vulnerable position. "It means they are susceptible to being ripped off," she says. "My analogy is it's not like buying a car where you go out and test-drive 10 and then argue the dealer down. Number one, you're not in the frame of mind to phone round 20 funeral directors. Number two, you don't want look as if you're being mean towards your loved one"

This is precisely what eventually drove Catherine to set up her own independent affordable no-frills service. "I started to feel terrible when I'd have little old ladies phoning me up and saying, "I desperately want a nice funeral for my husband. Is there anything you can do? I'm destroyed I can't give him a good send off". After being constantly asked the same thing, I'd had enough".

"Funeral directors know that, once they've got you through the door, it's very embarrassing for you to then walk out"

Brooks offers direct funeral services for as little as £499 and, unlike many other funeral directors, ensure that there's hidden extras that will sting you at the end. "We include everything in our prices, unlike other services that will quote a fee without including a coffin or a hearse. They know that once they've got you through the door, it's very embarrassing for you to then walk out".

When a family is trying to arrange a funeral for someone they love, the funeral director's job isn't just about the nuts and bolts practicalities, either. "It's a job that often involves being an informal grief counsellor," says Joy. "Every day people get upset in front of you and you have to help them deal with it." Only making a marginal profit, Joy is clearly motivated by her desire to help people at a time of their lives when they need it most.

She's not the only dedicated to offering cut-rate funerals, either. The Natural Death Centre, a charity that helps people plan funerals, also offers money-saving advice. Rosie Inman-Cook, who has spent the last eight years answering their helpline, tells me that it's entirely possible to organise a funeral for under a grand. "You can buy your coffin online or use a shroud (also known as a burial cloth), opt for a "direct cremation" service and organise your own transportation to save money".

Cook even suggests digging the grave yourself, as grave-digging can cost anywhere between £150 and £600. Nevertheless, while DIY funerals might be less costly, she acknowledges that lots of people do not have the support networks, time to emotional reserve to organise them.

Funeral poverty is a growing problem in this country, but our inherent squeamishness around talking about the practicalities of death – how a decomposing body can be physically taken care of, with respect – means it continues to be ignored. No one wants to mull their own death or the people around us dying, but we're all going to croak it one day and, unless you want to be "disposed" of by the council, someone is going to be left behind to foot the bill.

@MayaOppenheim

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