Catch 22 for the disadvantaged

Charles 15 Comments

A sad story here, and a sorry end we are likely to see more of. It was a Conservative government that introduced the Social Fund Funeral Payment at a level that ensured that the underprivileged and disadvantaged were not humiliated and marginalised when they had insufficient to pay for a funeral. How times have changed. Public attitudes are becoming increasingly hostile to benefit claimants, so we’ll probably see a lot more of this (extracted from the Oxford Times):

Out of work Michael Walton, 40, lost his brother David, 59, on August 31. But he has not been able to afford to pay the £480 deposit to book a £2,250 funeral with Reeves and Pain funeral directors of Abingdon Road, Oxford.

He has been seeking help from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Social Fund, but will not receive any money until a funeral date is arranged. The funeral directors will not arrange a funeral until a deposit is paid.

A brother and sister from Cowley, aged 51 and 49, with learning difficulties, have found themselves in a similar situation having lost their mother on August 10.

They have been unable to afford the £1,020 deposit needed to arrange the funeral and so far have been unable to obtain funds from the DWP.

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith, a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said: “The problem is that the social fund won’t pay until the funeral arrangements are under way and the funeral directors won’t arrange funerals until they have received money. For people on low incomes it is a real Catch 22 situation.

In London’s East End, Quaker Social Action’s Down To Earth project is doing great work to enable people on low/no income to arrange affordable funerals — they go to incredible and creative lengths to achieve this.

If government won’t step in to mend this unhappy situation, and in an age of food banks it looks increasingly unlikely that it will, organisations like QSA, working at the community level, look to have their work cut out for the future. 


  1. Charles

    yes, Charles

    and FUNERALCARE t/a Reeves & Pain, clearly are, as we have seen unwilling to help, despite the holding organisation’s vast and excessive profits – I’m sure that they do not wish to commit themselves to undertake (sic) possible funerals for those with similar financial difficuties arising (if they slashed their fees) and ‘making a precedent’ or am I being overly charitable here……not that I’m ever particularly charitable towards F’care

    and rightly a Local Indy, not a million miles away from Oxford has I hear expressed an interest in helping (although this little piece of info hasn’t been personally confirmed by me)


  2. Charles

    We have helped quite a few families who have been in this position and who are desperate.
    Shortly after opening (around 16 months ago now) we made the difficult decision that we were not going to ask for a deposit or for ‘dispursements’ up front. As far as I can see, we are very nearly unique in this and I totally understand why. We are not a large corporation and we do not have huge reserves of profits to draw on. Consequently, paying out for a funeral before we get anything back does have a significant effect on our cash flow. However, our experience has been that the families we have dealt with have bent over backwards to make sure we get paid as quickly as possible and, do date (touch wood!) we are not out of pocket. But its a big risk.
    When we see the people caught in this position, we feel, right or wrong, that we have to do something to help.

    Something needs to be done about tis on a national level, but as Andrew says, in the current climate it doesn’t look like its going to be the government. The problem isn’t going away any time soon and the chances are its going to get worse. So what is the solution? (that’s a genuine question, by the way, I don’t know!)

  3. Charles

    I would bet many of us small firms are in this position – so far no-one has been turned away by me for lack of funds – but I am already holding a few doubtful debts. Why? My guess is that some people have actually got no money, nothing. Their income, such as it is, is already committed to rent, food, heating.

    The large organisations seem to be totally inflexible – I hear some even disciplining staff who allow arrangements to be made without disbursements?

  4. Charles

    Yes, disciplinary action if they are not paid prior to the funeral taking place. These same firms are credit checking ALL clients during the arrangement and insist on FULL payment if they fail to pass. It seems they also have a policy that blacklists families from certain roads unless the ENTIRE funeral bill is paid in advance.

    To be fair, I do always ask for disbursements to be paid prior to the funeral day but will (and do) proceed with a funeral if I don’t receive them. It’s a risky strategy for a small business and I have to keep it under daily review. The bottom line for me is that I will not treat any client as if they are trying to catch me. If that means some do – then so be it. My cash-flow does become a little strained at times 🙂

  5. Charles

    I take my hat off to you, David.

    I’m afraid that I will not proceed without, dependent upon the arrangement chosen, either full payment of all charges, or all disbursements plus a deposit.

    I admit that I have made the odd exception…..

    As a result, I probably lose quite a few potential clients, but I have very few outstanding accounts.

    The plus side is that I keep my bad debts virtually non existent, and so pass that healthy financial fact to future clients in the form of lower overall prices.

    Having said that, the current DWP funeral payment is a complete disgrace – the amount of any award is low, but the real unfairness is the uncertainty of whether any payment will be made at all.


  6. Charles

    Once again, I feel that independents really can lead the way here. Our ability to be flexible and take each situation as it presents itself puts us in the driving seat to make changes.

    Rather than criticising F’Care, the DWP et al for the way they handle the situation, I prefer to be positive and try and find a solution. As mentioned above, the government is pretty unlikely to do anything about it, so we (by which I mean funeral directors) have to.

    The first thing I believe we have to do is to realise that we can carry out a funeral for £580+crem fee+doctors’ fees. I say £580 because a minister’s fee (£120 including a bit of travel) has to come out of the £700 maximum DWP payment. With the change in C of E fees in January 2013, this will rise to £160+travel, so we’ll have to bring our charge down to, say £520. On the positive side this will bring civil celebrants and humanists into the offering for the same charge.

    So we have to reframe our minds. £520 for a funeral? How can we do that? Easy! What does it cost us? A coffin. Anything else? Well, actually, apart from a bit of time, no. And I figure that I’d rather be £450 up on anything than £2000 down.

    For that reason, I offer a funeral for £1452 complete. That just happens to be £700 + crem fee + £152 for doctors. (It’s actually advertised as a direct cremation but a small amount of flexibility never hurt anyone did it?)

    I have found that the vast majority of people who ask about this service are relieved rather than worried. Scare stories of funerals costing £7000 in the media don’t help. Other undertakers quoting £3000 don’t help. Well, in fact, they do help, because it makes us forward-looking independents look great.

    I side with Nick on the question of payment. I do insist on full payment before the funeral is confirmed, but I have found a way around this too. We make sure that the DWP claim goes in immediately, giving the DWP every opportunity to pay quickly. We produce an invoice that says “The funeral will be delayed if the payment is not made by … (date)” which may or may not help, and we take payment by credit card which gives the claimant time to receive the payment from the DWP. The day that I receive the payment from the DWP, which is generally between 2 and 3 weeks after the claim is made, I put the money straight into the claimant’s bank account or, if he or she prefers, directly into the credit card account.

    The most common payment I receive from the DWP? £1452.

    We do this quite regularly, and to date we have zero bad debt because of it. It really does seem to be a win-win situation.

  7. Charles

    Simples Andrew! Thank you for explaining this – I spoke a local independent near me and he said he received the money from the DWP direct, so I couldn’t understand what the problem was – but it’s all in the timing it seems. He does what you do in regards paying the family back – it’s all based on good old fashioned trust, isn’t it? Hopefully the word will get out that Independents can offer the best service and the best price.

  8. Charles

    The DWP do not always pay out what families say they are going to get to cover the cost of the funeral service. I had one family where the Daughter only got just over £100 from the DWP and this is not even going to cover the cost of someone taking the funeral service.

  9. Charles

    I whole heartedly agree with Andy. As Independent Funeral Directors, we may do a funeral for less money, but think of the positives. Another family that think you are fantastic, and who tell all their friends, because the big organisations wouldn’t help them and you have.

    We will carry out a funeral at any West Yorkshire Crematorium for £1469.00 including the ministers fee and we have two fantastic celebrants who will carry out a simple service at the same price as a minister to help out.

    We also take some payment up front from the family, which we re-pay after the funeral if the full amount due is paid.

    A word of warning though – Be sure of your facts when sitting with the family. Are they entitled to claim? Find out exactly what benefits they are on. Make sure there is not some other family member that you don’t know about who is working! They will be expected to pay for the funeral. Has the person who has died received a benefit payment the week of their death. If they have, this will be deducted from the payment received. This may all seem like prying, at a time when the family are suffering, but done gently with care and understanding, they will soon see you are on their side.

    We sit with the family to ensure they fill out the form, and then we post it off on their behalf along with the invoice after the funeral. At least we know it has gone in the post and is not sat somewhere “waiting to go”.

    Fortunately we seem to have a good relationship with the DWP, who whilst they won’t discuss it with us, do ring to let us know we are being paid, and we haven’t had a payment turned down yet!!

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