Funeral poverty: The crisis for Britain’s poorest that begins the day your loved one dies

Mass graves, debt cycles and how ‘Big Death’ undertakers make money from the grief of British families 

Thomas Goulding,Hanna Miller
Saturday 15 April 2017 08:46
Funeral Poverty – the crisis for Britain’s poorest that begins the day your loved one dies

“We can offer you a simple package for £10,000,” said the undertaker to Percy. His brother Clifford had died suddenly at the age of 45. Percy had been on disability benefits for several years, unable to continue to work for an airline carrier, his late brother having cared for him nearly full time. Percy’s bank account showed a two-figure number.

“I said ‘Well, thank you for your time,’ and I just got up and left [the funeral director’s office],” he said. He hobbled to the top of the bus stop, and got on the first bus, with no idea where it was heading. His body was quivering. “I was empty and alone, hoping for a miracle. And the tears were just flowing.”

The second funeral director he spoke to offered him a package for £9,500. Until a support charity helped Percy negotiate a feasible funeral, Percy was being quoted, for a send-off for his closest relative and best friend, a figure that would most likely send him into probable arrears and unmanageable debt with a loan company for many years.

They promised Percy they would take good care of Clifford, and give him “the send-off he deserved”. This entailed a £2,000 coffin, £500 worth of flowers, and close to £500 for a procession of cars carrying Clifford’s coffin. After saying no to them, “they made me feel like I was short-changing a loved one who has just died”, he said. “They [the funeral directors] prey upon you at a time when you are grieving.”

The most affordable package Percy managed to ultimately arrange, for £6,500, saw him take on a £3,000 debt to pay for the burial plot alone. This entrenched cycle of financial deprivation that the death of a loved one can cause, known as ‘funeral poverty’, has been steadily on the rise since the financial crisis and the onset of austerity. Ever-increasing funeral costs, a deficiency in state support and the behaviour of funeral directors are, according to the Church Poverty Action Group and multiple charities, what cause a deepening of poverty and a huge burden of debt taken on by the poorest.

While any two funerals can look very different and cost massively different amounts, the average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at £3,897, a figure that has gone up by 5.5 per cent in the past year, outstripping inflation, wages and pensions. With huge regional variations, a burial funeral in Kent can cost up to £6,899 while one in the North East can be £2,000. These kinds of prices quoted by funeral directors, unaffordable for huge swathes of the country, require a scrupulous customer to scrutinise every element of the package they’re being offered to gauge what their options are.

At the very cheapest end, the removal of the body typically costs £195, while coffins start at £345. A hearse or equivalent transportation on the day of the commemoration is £350. “That’s at least £1000 of costs that are completely out of my control,” says Lucy Coulbert, a funeral director in Oxford that offers low-cost funeral services to those struggling to pay.

All this comes before costs for a religious or community service, the wake, catering, the burial or cremation fee, as well as the often elusive “undertaker’s fees” that are not itemised – and the part of the bill where some of the biggest variations lie. Choosing a burial, rather than a cremation, can add up to £5,000 in certain areas (partly due to a shortage of burial plots), while the presence of what is considered a ‘basic’ headstone, flowers and a car procession can easily add hundreds, if not thousands, to a package.

This means that around one in seven next of kin of the 600,000 people who die every year in the UK struggle to pay for funeral costs, with the average shortfall for each of them over £1,200, according to 2015 Sun Life research. The national figure for funeral poverty shortfall came to £131m, a 50 per cent increase in only five years.

It is unsurprising that the bereaved don’t typically behave uncompromisingly in pursuing the best deal, like typical consumers of a product. People’s overwhelming grief, their desire to resolve things quickly, or to pay tribute to their lost loved one by not appearing to be stingy all play in to the hands of funeral directors. There is precious little price transparency in the industry, and customers rarely engage in the sort of price comparison for the final send-off of your parent or sibling so natural to customers buying other services.

Funeral director desribes the 'subtle' and 'discreet' tactics undertakers use to squeeze money out of grieving families

Well aware of this, many undertakers take advantage of it, according to industry insiders. Ms Coulbert describes the “very discreet” tactics that some directors use to encourage service users to stick with them despite the high cost of their packages.

“It’s a very subtle pressure,” she says. “It’s things like, ‘we can go to the hospital today, and we can bring mum back here if you’ll just sign this piece of paper, we can do that this afternoon’. Already you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want mum in a hospital, I want her out of there as quickly as possible. Oh, I’ll just sign it. I’ve been here for an hour getting prices, I’ll just sign it.’”

When anyone dies, there is a death certificate for the local government’s register and a “green form”, issued by the registrar to be given to the undertaker, authorising the funeral on behalf of the family. Some undertakers often look to receive the green form to lock the bereaved into using their service. “Many of them will ask for the green form straight away,” says Ms Coulbert. “But leave it at home, don’t give it to anybody straight away. Until you’ve handed that to somebody, you can break the contract at any given point.”

The language used in many funeral packages can often be instructive as to the direction firms want to send consumers. According to an unnamed funeral director in the industry, the more expensive packages will contain descriptions that see higher uses of words such as “dignified”, “just” and “grand”, aligning the idea of the right kind of farewell with the pricier one.

Although the manner in which British people have said farewell to their dead has changed dramatically over the past century, with cremations now more popular (and cheaper) than funerals, the control over the process that undertakers exercise, and subsequently its lucrative business potential, has not.

With little state regulation, the British funeral industry is worth an estimated £2bn, but is dominated by a few big firms, notably Dignity, which made £84.9m operating profit in 2014, and Cooperative Funeralcare, which made £66m, figures that have been healthily growing year-on-year.

Funeral Director explains how 'Big Death' corporations dominate the funeral industry

For all the talk of giving the send-off that a loved one “would have wanted”, the greater control undertakers have over the process, the more money can be made.

Until the 1950s most people died at home, so dead bodies were kept at home until the day of the funeral. By the 1990s, only one in four deaths took place at the deceased’s home, with more than half of deaths taking place in hospitals. This made room for undertakers to play a role in the removal, storage and then transportation of the body in between the death and the funeral, a logistical process that allowed the often nebulous “professional fees” on the final bill to balloon.

While many people believe they are dealing with a local, community undertaker, large national funeral directors will often buy out local, small firms within months of them operating successfully and then retain their family name for branding. “I was open for three months, and I’ve already had someone offer to buy my company from me,” says Ms Coulbert. “An awful lot of money is quite hard to turn down.” The big firm will then run the business according to targets set by the national business model, which is typically more uncompromising.

“It would still seem like the individual funeral company, but I wouldn’t own it, the prices would go up, and nobody would know why,” says Ms Coulbert. “Just ask them outright: are you part of a large chain? If that’s what you want, stay with them. But if not, walk away.”

The prevalence of funeral poverty’s debt cycles reflect the discouraging picture for those who can’t afford the funerals put in front of them. State support comes in the form of a Social Fund that, when established some 30 years ago, aimed to cover the whole cost of a funeral for the poorest. However, as funeral prices have boomed, the fund now only contributes on average £1,225 to the overall funeral cost, around 35 per cent of the average total.

The fund is only available to people on certain benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, or if the DWP deems no other relative eligible or able to pay, regardless of estrangement or other mitigating factors. There are seven million Britons in poverty who live in working households, and one in four UK families have less than £95 in savings, around half of the applicants to the Social Fund.

“This support is so out of touch, it’s nowhere near adequate,” says Ms Coulbert. While poverty is behind most families’ lack of planning for funerals, the British social taboo over discussing and planning for death ensures those who could be saving often don’t. “It’s a taboo conversation because people figure that if you speak about it, it’s going to happen,” says Percy. “People believe you’re morbid [talking about it], so no one wants to hear about it.”

For those who want to make use of the fund, the bureaucratic hoop-jumping to receive the support is a more than adequate hurdle at a time when they want a quick resolution to a traumatic episode. Applicants must complete and submit a 25-page form to the DWP, and will only find out if they have received any funds at all up to six weeks after the funeral, when they have already committed themselves to paying thousands for the service.

One case from charity Quaker Social Action research told of how when the mother of Paul, 62, from Leicester, died, for whom he had been caring for years, he had little to no savings to use for the funeral. He applied to the Social Fund to pay for the majority of the funeral. Unfortunately, his first application was “lost” in the process. Without the fund, he would have been crippled with debt. He started to become anxious; funeral poverty manifests itself not only financially but also emotionally, with more than half the claimants of the Social Fund seeking help for depression, anxiety and insomnia, according to University of Bath research. Eventually, Paul received the fund money and took a loan to pay for the rest of the funeral cost.

For those who cannot raise money for a funeral themselves, the local council will conduct a public health funeral, which they are required to do under the Public Health Act. This entails a bare bones service where the bereaved are given no control over the procedure, but simply a date and time when the deceased will be cremated or buried, with the provision of a headstone or other lasting memorial unlikely. Public health funerals are on the rise in recent years, for the first time since the Second World War, as funeral costs continue to grow.

A Freedom of Information request by the BBC in 2015 revealed that the number of public health funerals had risen by 11 per cent in the previous four years. “It wouldn’t have been in the Church,” said Percy, who had considered this option. “And they said Clifford would be buried with six to nine other people. They bulk bury them.”

Funeral Director calls undertakers a 'disgrace' for charging extortionate fees

Several councils, such as Monmouthshire County Council in Wales, place the bodies handled by multiple public health funerals into shared graves to combat the land shortage. Rhian Jackson, who runs such funerals for Monmouthshire, said that while they normally conduct one such funeral a year, six were carried out during 2016 – a trend expected to continue.

Many will nevertheless try to avoid a public health funeral by taking on thousands of pounds of debt, pawning possessions or borrowing from friends and family to meet the costs of a bespoke burial. “Funeral services” was the most common item given for credit card usage in the UK in 2013, while one in 10 people had to sell belongings to cover the cost, according to Sun Life.

James, 47, from Yorkshire, says that despite successfully getting a grant from the Social Fund, he will be paying off a £12.50 debt every week for a long time for the funeral. “Having this debt hanging over me is a painful reminder of my wife’s death.”

Calls to reform the funeral industry go back as long as the business has been behaving in ways that the market incentivises, to maximise profit. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Martin Chuzzlewit both drew attention to the inequality in how people die between those who had financial clout and those who did not. In recent decades, as the industry has become a multi-million pound business, the “Natural Death Centre” has advocated for do-it-yourself funerals and woodland burials, to circumvent the grip that “Big Death” holds over the funeral processes.

“There’s no accountability anywhere,” says Ms Coulbert, who, along with Quaker Social Action in East London, have been called in as consultants in Parliamentary committee reviews of the current crisis in the past few years. Pushing to get undertakers to put their prices on their website is a big first step in helping put the bereaved in control.

“The funeral industry as a whole has completely forgotten why we’re here. We are here to serve the public. We have to be able to justify every single charge that we give them. Much of the funeral industry is not doing that.”

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