Yesterday we let the interns loose on the blog and they impulsively passed on an appeal to readers to write to Mike McCollum of Dignity plc and ask him to do his bit in the fight against funeral poverty.
What they conspicuously failed to do was identify a single reason why Mr McCollum and Dignity should feel any moral obligation whatever to alleviate funeral poverty. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics?
Sure, a great many people feel the big six energy companies should be doing more to alleviate fuel poverty, but this goes with a conviction that the energy companies overcharge because the energy market is not free, open and competitive. The funerals market, on the contrary, is free to the point of free-for-all. Dignity sells its funerals at a premium. Is a Dignity funeral the MacBook Air of funerals? Is it a high value product? Don’t answer, it’s irrelevant. People buy them, end of. They can buy cheaper if they shop around.
While Dignity ploughs its high-end furrow to the delight of its shareholders and the enrichment of Mr McCollum — that’s capitalism — there are hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.
Because, we remind ourselves, the Funeral Payment was brought in (by a Tory government) to enable everyone to buy a decent funeral. We have such a long history in this country of state subsidy for funerals that it has become an automatic expectation — a right. If that has now changed, then the government has a duty to register the change and explain it. You can’t just pull away a prop and expect people with no money to carry on as if it were still there.
Nor can you expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service. Good undertakers offer a high value service and deserve to make a decent living. It is folly and distraction to expect them to take one for the poor. If Dignity lowers its prices, does that make its funerals affordable? No. If it subsidises low-cost funerals at the expense of its wealthier customers, is that fair? Of course not. The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment. So while it may give passing pleasure to have a go at the fatcats, let’s not mistake righteous indignation for impotent fury.
And while we’re about it, let’s stop wilfully missing the point. Two factors which inflate the cost of funerals can easily be addressed. First, cremation can be carried out much more efficiently. Second, we can start re-using burial plots. To do so wouldn’t make funerals affordable for all, but it would make a decent-sized dent. Squeezing the undertakers, on the other hand, won’t make a blind bit of difference. There are enough already working for next to nothing.
The root cause of funeral poverty is political. The impact is social. The solution needs to be radical and will not be advanced by waving a bleeding stump at Mr McCollum.