Funeral poverty: whose fault?

Charles 18 Comments

There’s an awful lot of talk just now about the inadequacies and iniquities of the Social Fund Funeral Payment. There’s also a lot of lobbying and campaigning going on to try and fix it.

And a new term is born: funeral poverty.

That the Funeral Payment is presently inadequate and its administration iniquitous is a matter on which all agree. The debate about where we go from here is being held in the context of a social security system which has always been there for people at a time of bereavement.

Until 1988 everyone who had paid their National Insurance stamp got a death grant. Then John Major’s Conservative government brought in the Social Fund Funeral Payment set at a level high enough to ensure that the poor and the disadvantaged could go out and buy themselves a decent funeral.

In 2008, by which time the value of the payment had been devalued by inflation, the Labour government announced, not an increase in, but a redefinition of the payment. Henceforth, the capped sum of £700 was to be seen as a ‘substantial contribution’ only; it was not intended to be sufficient to pay for the entire funeral.

That £700 is now wholly inadequate. Worse still, applications take too long to process and have no certainty of approval. The bereaved now suffer precisely the shame and degradation that the original payment sought to prevent — not to mention the attentions of loan sharks.  You’d think that an organisation like Co-operative Funeralcare (founded by working people for working people) would be doing all it can to mitigate the distress of those in difficulty, but it coldly carries on extracting top dollar — far more than most independents.

The present government wants to reduce dependency on the state. Well, if there’s a dependency culture around funerals, it is of the state’s making.

Which isn’t to say that fecklessness does not play its part in bringing about the predicament that so many bereaved people find themselves in. If people started saving earlier for their funeral, most, probably, would be able to salt away enough to pay for it. But they don’t. They don’t even think to do that. Many don’t save anything at all. And no one’s terrified any more by the ignominy of a pauper’s funeral into stashing away a sum for the simple reason that a pauper’s funeral is not ignominious. 

Though it matters not how much debt a person dies with, their next of kin cannot be held responsible for any of it. And yet failure to make provision for funeral expenses transmits to next of kin a responsibility which has the full force of a debt for which they are responsible. Any person who dies in old age without having made provision for their funeral is wholly spared the consequences. It’s their nearest and dearest who suffer. 

We cannot expect people to save for the funerals of those members of their family who have been unable or have failed to do so.

So: we should not subject them to the humiliations they presently undergo. 

If a simple sense of duty is not enough to impel people to provide for their own disposal, perhaps an element of compulsion is required, together with a radical approach. 

The state has already diversified into moneylending. It lends money to young people to enable them to go to higher education. Why not extend this to funerals? Try this for size:

When a child is born, it is automatically lent, say, £3000 in the form of an untouchable loan which grows at the rate of funeral costs. When that child starts work, repayments are collected via HMRC calculated according to the person’s level of income. Should their income fall below a particular level, repayments are halted. The debt is cancelled when it is discharged or when the borrower reaches a particular age — retirement, perhaps. The sum goes on growing.  When they die, the matured sum is immediately made available to their executor/administrator. 

If anyone should die before their loan is paid off, their executor/administrator would receive the matured sum in full. Everyone would get a decent funeral. Children’s funerals would, of course, be paid for in full by the state. 

The cost to the state would be far less than it is today.

We’d have no longer have any need of funeral plans.

People would live with an enhanced sense of their mortality and the awareness that death can happen at any time. 

Spot the flaw. 


  1. Charles

    This is a subject very close to my heart as I am currently working on producing a handbook on how to plan affordable and meaningful funeral ceremonies.

    Whilst I agree that the State does need to do more the public also need to be made aware that a funeral does not need to cost the earth. The burden of funeral debt can be reduced significantly by shopping around and opting for less expensive yet still meaningful funeral ceremonies. I also believe that every family rich or poor who desires a simple, end-of-life funeral option that is dignified and professionally handled should be able to locate a funeral director in their area who will assist them with little difficulty.

    My handbook will contain the details of local Leicestershire funeral directors who are willing to do whatever they can to help families create a simple funeral and also low income families who are wanting a dignified and budget conscious funeral. The handbook is being funded by the National Lottery Millennium Awards Trust who are quite keen to develop the idea in other parts of the country. If any readers are interested, please feel free to get in touch.

    1. Charles

      Colin, I can’t help but echo the sentiments of my colleague Fran Hall. We have been doing all you suggest, and more for over twenty years. What is it that is new exactly that you are offering?

  2. Charles


    err…………………the old ‘Death Grant’ was truly an enormous amount before it was axed, namely either £30 or £15 depening on circumstances


  3. Charles

    Hello Charles

    a very good piece here, thanks

    and as for your reference to Funeralcare’s charges, I’m afraid that there’s literally no chance, no chance at all



  4. Charles

    You say that you think the state should do more, Colin, but we know where the wind is blowing from. What about my Big Idea for compelling people to save for their funeral/disposal?

    There’s what I reckon to be an important principle here. Why should nearests and dearests have to pick up the tab?

    I worry about the value of the funeral in this price-obsessed age. I agree that you don’t need to throw money at a funeral to make it meaningful and memorable. Easy enough to persuade educated middle class types of this. Much harder to persuade ‘working class’ people that this is the case.

    I worry that we’ll soon arrive at a point where people come away from a funeral whistling the price, bigging up how little it cost. A funeral needs, above all, to be useful. We’re in danger of forgetting that.

    1. Charles

      Maybe the nearests and dearests are willing to foot the bill knowing it’s a bit rich sending it to the only participant who hasn’t the capacity to witness a single moment of it – a bit like debiting the other absentees?

      Also, besides price it’s accessories, choices, additions, boosters, customizers, ecologicalizations, decorations et al that create a danger of detracting from, rather than contributing to, the usefulness of a funeral.

    2. Charles

      Your idea is interesting Charles but people cannot be forced to save or take on a loan. For most funerals the cost is paid from the estate belonging to the person who has died. For cases where there is no money the nearest and dearest do not have to pick the tab, they can walk away from it. There were 45 council paid funerals in Leicester last year, many of these were brought about by the next of kin not wanting to take responsibility for the funeral cost.

      I am not sure about your comment that the “working class” cannot be persuaded to consider less costly and meaningful funerals. In my experience in Will writing I have done countless Wills for working class people who expressed their wishes to me that they would like a simple funeral arrangement.

  5. Charles

    Well, I don’t know, Colin. People are taxed so that their healthcare costs and pensions can be covered.

    There’s a reluctance to go down the council funeral route. I can’t see councils welcoming a growth in numbers.

    1. Charles

      What we need in the UK is to set up an organisation similar to The Funeral Consumers Alliance of America. An educational organisation which through it’s affiliate groups helps people to choose meaningful, dignified, affordable funerals by giving them the information to make informed choices.

    1. Charles

      We could make it possible. I have already made a start with The Association of Community Funeral Advisers. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of America publishes local price guides which gave me the idea to produce a publication that provides the details of local funeral directors who will offer a budget conscious funeral service. If we can get more people interested we could do this.

      Jenny I will send you an email shortly, thanks.

  6. Charles

    What actually is the use of a funeral, Jonathan? Wherein lies its value? The matter of rationale is greatly neglected by the D Trade. What would grievers say if you asked them, ‘What exactly is it that you are trying to accomplish here?’

  7. Charles

    Hi guys – we’re already there with a growing national list of funeral directors who will help!

    The Natural Death Centre has been educating and informing the public for coming up 22 years now helping them to make informed choices about meaningful and affordable funerals, and we have a list of Recommended Funeral Directors here:

    Transparent, flexible and accommodating, the companies who have agreed to our criteria now proudly sport a Recommended by the NDC sticker in their window.

    PS Love your Big Idea Charles – just the tricky waters of a budget slashing government and the vested interests of the funeral plan providers to negotiate…

  8. Charles

    good stuff Fran

    and oooo, what a coincidence, they’re all Independent owned businesses

    …………not a Corporate Animal in sight

    which yet again confirms the total resistance of the Corporates to be flexible…………it just isn’t part of their business model


  9. Charles

    Coming to this late. Interesting idea: a government loan at birth ring-fencing £3,000 for our funeral costs, to be paid back over the years through our taxed earnings?

    But why a loan? Why not just tax us more and make funerals part of our state-owed rights? Doesn’t it amount to the same thing?

    Even with the Coalition’s so-called austerity cuts, the government last year spent £120 billion more than it collected in taxes. The welfare state is broke without either massively raising taxes or reforming the NHS and state pensions (ie semi-privatising).

    All parties tinker round the edges, leaving the debt problem for future governments. When ecologists talk about saving the environment for future generations, we cheer. When economists say the same thing about clearing debt for our offspring, we jeer.

    But back to the loan. There are around 724,000 births each year in England and Wales. With each getting £3000, that’s over £2 billion extra expenditure. (This sum would be reduced somewhat as more than a quarter of those births were to immigrants, some of whom may not take permanent citizenship, but the figure remains high nevertheless).

    Finally, employees, capable of repaying a loan through taxes, are not those most likely to be unable to afford their funerals. It’s long-term unemployed people, who don’t pay taxes, who require state help, and whose families are also more likely to be poor too.

    Clearly the ideal scenario is people should pay for their own funerals and not rely on state funding via taxpayers or their families. It’s good that there are education initiatives around to stress how essential it is to save responsibly and set aside the right amount, whether they want to spend a lot or a little.

    If they fail to do this, or are genuinely hard up through no fault of their own, the family should be obliged to pay rather than taxpayer. When welfare is too readily available it leads to abuse.

    If the family can put up a strong case that they are too disadvantaged to pay for the funeral of one of their own, the state, as a last resort, provides the most basic of funerals.

    Private pre-paid funeral plans also seem like a sensible idea for those needing to spread payment over a long period of time.

  10. Charles

    Hello, good blog with good ideas ,dont see the gov setting a safety net soon on simple funeral services. DWP at present take about 2 months to decide on any payments & if at all in most cases? With the issue of Co-op they ad fingers burnt big time taking on funerals over many years with debts in the millions unpayed funeral accounts & still unpayed, payments for third parties before the funeral & Funeral Directors fees billed after funerals Co-op ,Dignity & other Large Groups & small Indys funeral providers work this way , also with the NAFD involved with simple funeral service option etc .
    It is a big issue which will not go away.
    Instead of a blame game of Large Group V Small Indy WAR ! i think all funeral providers in the UK with the NAFD SAIF BIFD & BIE etc need to push the Government into making a safety net for families & fast !
    If not other lots of funeral providers will get burnt by debts & poss bankrupt !!!
    But most important and more so heart break to many more famlies !!!!
    Action required now by everyone within the Funeral Industry rather than sitting on the fence !

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