The circumstances of the death do not admit of any effective competition or precedent examination of the charges of different undertakers, or any comparison and consideration of their supplies. There is not time to change them for others that are less expensive, and more in conformity to the taste and circumstances of the parties … The survivors are … seldom in a state to perform any office of everyday life; and they are at the mercy of the first comer.
Might not the funerals of the labouring classes be greatly reduced without any reduction of the solemnity, or display of proper and satisfactory respect?
The above was written by Edwin Chadwick in 1843. As you can see, people have been banging on about the price of funerals year in year out since long before our grandparents were born, rehearsing the same old same old arguments and getting nowhere.
Now it’s the turn of Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields. She is going to present a Bill to tackle funeral poverty on 9 December. There’s quite a lot of excitement about it. You may have had a round robin from Church Action on Poverty, a member of the Funeral Poverty Alliance got together by Quaker Social Action, urging you to support the Bill by writing to your MP.
Edwin Chadwick was a very thorough Victorian and he drilled down into things rather more than Ms Lewell-Buck seems to have done. Chadwick calculated that funeral expenses for the poorer sort could be halved:
“It appears from the detailed enquiries, made of tradesmen of experience and respectability … that the expense of materials at present supplied to funerals admit of a reduction under normal arrangements of, at the least, 50 per cent.”
No such target for Ms L-B. She calls instead for a committee or somesuch to review “funeral affordability”, and report in Sept 2015. Yawn. She calls upon the DWP to generally get its arse in gear.
And… (this may induce an attack of deja vu) she proposes a, ta-da, simple funeral.
“But there already is one!” you cry.
Not so fast. Was. Have you had a look at the new NAFD Code of Practice yet? Well, have a gander. It’s gone.
Whaaat? I vaulted into my car and rocketed up to NAFD HQ to find out why from ceo Alan Slater himself, no less. He told me that the simple funeral had become meaningless. There was no uniformity – every undertaker’s simple funeral was different — eg, do you allow viewing or don’t you allow viewing? It bred anomalies. It wasn’t policeable. It stigmatised poor people. Like a lot of simple fixes, it simply didn’t work. I think he may be right.
And come to think of it, do we expect The Ivy to include in its menu a Simple Meal of egg (58p) and chips (65p), total £1.23?
Lewell-Buck also proposes:
1) A funeral director must provide to a customer an itemised price list for a Simple Funeral Service before selling that customer any funeral service.
2) The individual components of the Simple Funeral Service must be provided to the customer at the listed price if the customer requests them.
3) The components of a Simple Funeral Service may be established by the Secretary of State through regulations.
You can spot the snags. Please let off steam below. Is this Simple Funeral a package? I don’t know. I mean, bereaved people can already choose from itemised lists from a great many good undertakers, whether or not those undertakers are members of one or both of the two trade associations, which already require lists. And that’s exactly what growing numbers of bereaved people are doing. They are choosing what they want from an undertaker’s menu and sourcing other stuff — coffin, flowers, service sheets — from elsewhere. It’s been described as a cafeteria approach.
As for 2) what on earth does that mean? Do undertakers customarily hand their clients a menu with prices and then charge them more? I’m sure I’m missing something here.
As for 3), well…
Given the great and increasing number of ‘Aldi’ undertakers these days, you’d expect to see Ms Lewell-Buck calling for price lists on websites. But no. Opportunity lost.
There’s a principle here. 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? No? Then why expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service? It is for the market to decide whether or not they are any good and whether or not they offer value for money.
There are already 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.
It is folly and distraction to require undertakers to take one for the poor. Folly and distraction because the problem is not of their making. This is a political problem caused, not by undertakerly greed, but by the refusal of government to increase the Funeral Payment. The solution therefore has to be political.
It’s cheap and lazy to go after the undertakers. Ask anyone at the Dog and Duck and they’ll tell you that they’re predators who feed off grief, exploiters of the vulnerable; they’re jackals, they’re hyenas, they’re vultures. Scavengers. Rip-off merchants. All of them… except for those lovely people who took care of our Nan’s funeral.
Sure, there are some bastards out there. But for all their reputation for rapacity, even Chadwick conceded (in 1843) that:
“Notwithstanding the immensely disproportionate profits of these persons in some cases, and the immense aggregate expenditure to the public, there appear to be very few wealthy undertakers. They are described by one of them, “as being some few of them very respectable, but the great majority as men mostly in a small, grubbing way of business.”
Plus ça change.
We are uncomfortable with a commercial model, it seems. As we were back in 1843. As one of Chadwick’s consultees expressed it:
“One may be excused for thinking and speaking strongly in reprobation of a system which degrades the burial of the dead into a trade. Throughout the whole scheme and working of this system, there is an exclusive spirit of money-getting, which is revoltingly heartless.”
But Chadwick had more imaginative solution to this than Ms Lewell-Buck’s waffle-shop-cum-undertaker-tax gesture politics. As a member of the Labour Party, Ms Lewell-Buck ought to approve of it. Chadwick proposed that:
If there be any sort of service, which principles of civic polity, and motives of ordinary benevolence and charity, require to be placed under public regulation, for the protection of the private individual who is helpless, it is this.
For the abatement of oppressive charges for funeral materials, decorations and services, provision should be made … by the officers having charge of national cemeteries, for the supply of the requisite materials and services, securing to all classes, but especially to the poor, the means of respectable interment, at reduced and moderate prices.
Yup, nationalise them. Nationalise the cemeteries. Get cemeteries to look after the dead. Get rid of the undertakers. All of them. Bring the whole shooting match in-house. Pay for it with a public insurance scheme.
It didn’t happen. And yet, 171 years on, Chadwick is bang on the money. If you want to solve funeral poverty, whether or not you leave undertaking to the private sector, you do it with two letters. The first of these is N and the second is I. End of.
Saif’s code of practice still has a simple funeral.
Read Ms Lewell-Buck’s Bill here: Funeral Poverty Bill