Funeral Poverty is on the rise, the average cost of a funeral is now £7,622 leaving 1 in 5 saying they would struggle to pay. National funeral debt is estimated to be worth £117 million.
Carla Valentine, a former Anatomical Pathology Technician, is frustrated with all the fuss. She recently attended a conference where the focus was put on increasing taxes to fund funerals and says, ‘they kept saying funerals cost seven thousand pounds and so people weren’t able to afford them. But what they weren’t addressing was funerals don’t cost seven thousand pounds, you can do them much cheaper. Just that people want a funeral that costs seven thousand pounds because they feel somehow that if they went for a cheaper one that that wouldn’t be a real funeral.’
Quaker Social Action has started a programme called Down to Earth for bereaved low-income families who fear they will struggle to pay the funeral bill. The programme aims to support these families by helping them finding package they can afford. Heather Kennedy, the Funeral Poverty Officer at QSA, says, ‘The social safety net is woefully inadequate in the support it provides to bereaved people; the average social fund grant will only cover around 35% of overall funeral costs, meaning people on low incomes are taking on unmanageable debt at the most distressing time in their lives.’ She adds that, ‘This growing problem is part of the wider poverty crisis where people on low incomes are struggling to afford basics like food, fuel and furniture.’
In a report published by Dying Matters, Alan Slater, chief executive of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said its own research showed an increasing number of people falling into “funeral poverty”, with big shortfalls between the support available from the government’s Social Fund and the cost of a basic funeral. Slater said, “The NAFD has long campaigned for increases to the Social Fund. The average payment of £700 plus disbursements has not increased since 2003, and less than half of those who apply are successful anyway.”
But a representative for the Natural Death Centre points out that the industry is not a charity and like many other goods and services over the past few years, prices have risen. She says, ‘Yes, funerals have gone up but so have other consumer services. You can make choices to keep the costs down; you can choose to have a simple funeral.’ Valentine agrees, however she feels that culturally we are trained to think that more expensive means that it’s better, especially when it comes to our loved ones final rest. She stresses that it’s important to educate people on what the options are, ‘just because something might cost two grand doesn’t mean it’s not a real funeral.’
However, all the blame doesn’t lie with the consumer. The Office of Fair Trading conducted an inquiry into the funeral industry in 2001 and found questionable selling tactics. It urges the industry to give clear, honest and accurate advice to those soliciting their services. ‘I would like to say that a funeral director would offer the package that’s in their price bracket but that doesn’t always happen’, says the representative for the Natural Death Centre. She encourages people to shop around but laments that it is a distress purchase and 98 per cent of consumers purchase a funeral from the first undertaker’s shop they walk into.
Funeral poverty has been a major issue in the news lately. Valentine was incensed after reading a recent article advocating prepaying for a funeral. ‘It was completely missing the point to me, it was just ridiculous. I’m not going to start paying for a funeral now because it doesn’t have to cost that much. It’s the funeral directors that need to be looked at because they’re the one’s going, “Yes, you should have this coffin it’s four thousand pounds, that one, that’s two hundred pounds but you’re not going to put your mother in that, you must think more of her than that.” And that’s the way they are working and that’s the problem.’ While Valentine clarifies not all funeral directors work this way, the OFT finds it a cause for concern. They demanded transparent pricing of Gold, Silver and Bronze funeral packages.
So what can funeral directors do to help alleviate funeral poverty, or at least help provide consumers with clear pricing? Judith Moran, Director of QSA, says communication is key, ‘I think we would want them to engage with the debate. We want to understand the pressures and constraints on the industry and this is best done through dialogue. We understand that they have a business to run but we feel it cannot be in anyone’s interest to have a whole swathe of customers who cannot pay their bills – not for those customers nor for the funeral directors who then have to chase those debts.
We are very interested in the code of practice of the NAFD and we’d like to explore how access to a simple funeral can be strengthened, and made very visible to all customers, so that there is no need to have prior knowledge that it is exists and/or to have to ask for it, which can feel stigmatising.’ Kennedy adds that they work with a number of, ‘excellent local funeral directors who really understand the situation for people trying to pay for a funeral with limited resources. They share our concerns over funeral directors who aren’t talking to people about more affordable options or offering simple pricing structures.’ However she stresses, ‘ there needs to be more transparency around prices in the industry because bereaved people are not in a position to act as savvy consumers.’
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