Revealed: the one and only fix for funeral poverty

Charles Cowling




The problem: 

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



19 thoughts on “Revealed: the one and only fix for funeral poverty

  1. Charles Cowling

    A good example of transparency:
    No frills cremation works out at £1575. No minister, family act as pallbearers, provide own ashes casket and lowest cost crematorium chosen. And this includes a limo.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      This may seem a little alarming, but everyone knows that they are going to die at some point. Let’s just use old terminology here, on average we live for 3 score years and 10. Today maybe 20 longer than that. This gives the average person around 50 years of their life at work. It works out at less than £1.00 a week to save for their own funeral. I have not even attempted working out the 50 years of accumulated interest. Why do we not do it?

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Michael Jarvis

        Many people used to do it, Gavin: those of us above a certain age will remember the man from the Pru, or the Wesleyan & General, or whoever, walking up garden paths on a weekly or fortnightly basis to collect premiums of a few shillings. The vast majority of people haven’t suddenly become deliberately indigent, it’s lack of death education that has failed them. Their forebears understood death and its practical consequences more because it happened around them. As death became institutionalised the less people thought about it and that includes financial planning.

        Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Paul Asher

    The trouble with a basic funeral is this:-
    People ask for a basic funeral price and then they want all the traditional things, like out of hours viewing and drawing up at home before the service. All these extra things cost funeral directors extra time and money. A basic funeral is a basic funeral and should be purchased and accepted as such. It would be like going to a cafe for eggs and bacon for a set price and then asking for the sausage beans and tomatoes to be included.for free. Why not just buy the breakfast.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Ian Quance

    Old pirates of course, used to wear gold earrings in the hope that whoever nicked it when they died would feel enough guilt to give them a good send off.

    The problem is not funeral poverty, it is poverty itself. That our society tolerates that anyone can live with so little that they cannot bury their own is damning indictment of the whole system (as it was in the nineteenth century). Speaking as someone who often feels more affinity with pirates, that is.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    Regrettably, the current system of social fund payments is badly abused – FD’s are asked to readdress invoices to a person in the family who qualifies for a social fund payment. Often in these cases, two invoices are prepared by the FD, one addressed to the qualifying relative for the basic social fund funeral services and a second invoice (which social services don’t see) is issued to top up the funeral to the more lavish service that the family requests. This second invoice is addressed to the non-qualifying part of the family. In doing so, the funeral trade is complicit in abusing the system. I understand that it happens all the time.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    It’s called capitalism. End of.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Simon Lamb

    Chilterns Crematorium charges £520 for a full adult cremation so a saving of £366 by taking a relatively quick drive down the M40. My point is there are always choices but people have to take the time to research them!

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      I always give an option of what Crematorium someone would like to go to and I give them prices for all three. So far, I have had two that wanted to go to Banbury, but everyone else chose Oxford for ease of getting there.
      Hopefully the new Crematorium in Oxford will give people a bit more choice who want to keep either the funeral or direct cremation local.

      Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Simon Lamb

    Those on the inside know there is a huge range of prices charged by funeral directors so families that are prepared to shop around can get a better deal. Insurance companies routinely raise their prices by enormous amounts when the policy is up for renewal safe in the knowledge that most consumers will not question them. Phone them with an alternative quote and they are quick to match it!
    On the Oxford crematorium point, it must be worthwhile driving to an alternative location to save money? Difficult to believe there isn’t another crematorium within a 30 minute drive.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      There is Banbury and Chilterns Crematorium and while they believe they offer “direct cremation” what they actually mean is they will charge the same price regardless of if you have a service or not.
      There is good news though, a new Crematorium is under construction just outside Oxford. I am keeping everything crossed that the company who owns it, prices it at a decent rate and offers direct cremations at a discounted price.
      I have found there is a need for it, but when a family knows they will have to pay a few quid short of £900, they then decide to get their monies worth and use the chapel. I can’t say I blame them either.

      Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Really interesting article again. Funeral poverty needs to be addressed in a serious way and the only way forward that I can see, is that the funeral payment needs to be increased.

    While those without (or with these days) funds may opt for direct cremation to keep the costs down, this isn’t an option in some areas. Well, it is, but you get charged the same. Oxford Crematorium is owned by Dignity. For £886 you get your 30 minute slot and the ashes returned to you after the cremation.
    A direct cremation costs £886…absolutely no difference.

    While DIY funerals are an option for some people, not everyone has the frame of mind to do that. Funeral directors are here because the majority of people are not able to arrange everything themselves. It may be due to grief or it is more likely to be because they don’t want to have to deal with the realities surrounding death….and that is absolutely fine. Why should those who can’t afford a funeral directors services be punished?

    The only thing that will help is an increased funeral payment. £1500 would cover the cost of Oxford Crematorium, Doctor’s fees, Ministers Fees, and a coffin. Everything else, the family would have to find the money for.

    I will always help anyone I can and I have always said, no matter what someone’s budget, we will find a way to make a funeral happen. I am not alone….many funeral directors help families where they can and this could be at cost to them.

    I have always been honest and said that my company is a business, but I am not here to rip people off. I believe I charge an honest price for what I do on behalf of families. We can’t be expected to subsidise families or take on bad debtors. If we do, then companies owned and run by the good guys aren’t going to be around for long and then God knows what will happen.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    A Celeb

    If our National Insurance contributions paid for simple funerals (sadly it’s not going to happen with the NHS on the point of collapse) these would be labelled paupers’ funerals. Sadly, most people still can’t bear the thought of choosing a ‘simple funeral’ or the ‘cheapest coffin’ let alone shopping around for a funeral. There’s a great shame attached to it. Just as there is for direct cremation in some minds. However, there is hope: there is usually one person involved in a funeral arrangement who has always told his/her family not to spend too much – unfortunately it’s the dead person.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      It’s all very vexed, A Celeb, I agree. Ireland has just abolished its universal death grant and I don’t know of any other European country that awards a sum of money towards funeral expenses unconditionally.

      But surely there has to be way of breaking this vicious cycle whereby people go into that good night with their eyes tight shut and not a bean stashed away for their funeral, leaving their LOs feeling they must beggar themselves to give them a respectable funeral? Honestly, I can’t think of a topic that generates more hot air than funeral poverty. I do not, of course, exclude myself.

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Jonathan Taylor

        Perhaps, Charles, a cremator could be designed that runs on this hot air, thereby eliminating funeral poverty at a stroke.

        Only, come to think of it, if it worked properly it would immediately run out of fuel.

        Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    My fault if I gave the impression that I favour nationalisation. I had intended the emphasis to be, rather, on compulsory saving for funeral expenses by means of a proportional tax like NI. This would spare the very poor and eradicate funeral fecklessness (no one ever talks about funeral fecklessness), and would enable everyone to qualify for a sum of money to pay for a simple funeral which they could upgrade if they wished or could afford. It would take care of the money side, whether the provider is the state or the private sector.

    With respect, Hilary, I think that DIY is only for a niche, if by that you mean caring for a dead person at home. As for awareness… Well, I think that still looks like a long-term project *sigh*.

    Wholly agree with you about crematoria, Ken. Efficient incineration coupled with a drop-off facility – there’s nothing standing in the way of it – would make a huge difference. A direct cremation in the US is half the cost of the UK.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Hilary Jackson

    Great and thought provoking article Charles, as usual.

    However isn’t one of the issues about public awareness? We all know a funeral director isn’t a necessity but many do not. Families can do practically everything themselves, the ‘DIY’ approach, which would cost a lot less. Government intervention is a horrendous prospect. Education and death awareness instead?

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Ken West

    Agree with so much of what you say Charles, but not the conclusion. The bureaucracy involved would sink the enterprise before it left harbour. The answer is to throw open the market, breaking this absurd convention that local authorities must defer to funeral directing. Private crematoria, because they are tied to funeral directing concerns, likewise support the convention. The government must force, or coerce, crematoria to bypass the need to use a funeral director by offering and promoting Direct Cremation. A similar Direct Burial could also be easily set up at cemeteries. The localism legislation supports local authorities acting this way but they choose not to because their services are contacting so much. Also, poverty has no voice in the current government. Let them suffer in silence!

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    vita incerta

    Fabulous article, Charles.

    Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that something must be done about funeral poverty, I shudder to contemplate the chaos and expense to the tax payer that may ensue, should funeralworld become a state run enterprise.

    Sir Philip Green’s efficiency review gave an eye popping account of alleged failings in government procurement processes. £350+ for a printer cartridge costing £17.50 at Staples, anyone ? So how much a simple coffin ?

    It is broke, so it needs fixing, but the likely imperfection of government intervention on such a grand scale…I don’t think so.

    Charles Cowling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>