SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying report always makes for sobering reading but this year’s, published on 15 January, even more so. I have been working with SunLife to highlight the health and wellbeing impacts of unaffordable funeral costs and, for the first time in 20 years, this information is included in the report.
SunLife’s Cost of Dying 2024 Report shows the price of a “basic funeral” has risen a staggering 126% in the last 20 years, more than general inflation (72%), wages (76%), or even houses prices (96%). It is unsurprising therefore that the proportion of families experiencing “notable financial concerns” when paying for a funeral has also increased, for the fourth year running, now sitting at one in five (20%). This equates to over 130,000 people in 2023.
At Down to Earth, this manifests in an increase in calls to our funeral costs helpline, which directly supported 11% more people in 2023 than in 2022. Through this work we have been gathering evidence on the impact of funeral poverty on people’s health and wellbeing for over a decade and this year we were pleased to work with SunLife to capture this in the Cost of Dying report for the first time. Across all people surveyed (1,522), one in four (24%) said that paying for the funeral had affected their standard of living, and of this group over four in ten (42%) had to cut back on essential items, like food, and nearly three in ten (27%) struggled to pay their bills.
“What I was doing was not paying for certain bills, I’d take off 10, 20 pound off one thing so, you know, it was mounting my own bills up … So I cut back on my food … every time I stood up I started passing out … So I knew if I didn’t get some help I’d probably be the next one who’s being cremated, you know what I mean.” - Teresa, past Down to Earth client
The health impacts are even starker, with three in four (76%) of those people who experienced “notable financial concerns” reporting that paying for the funeral impacted their mental health, and two in three (67%) their physical health.
“It [worrying about the funeral costs] had a very big impact on my sleep ... You’re just thinking about the finances, how I’m gonna get all this money ... it impacted my health. ‘Cause I lost appetite, I’ve lost a lot of weight over the time … 90% of my headspace was just around the funeral. … I wasn’t thinking of grieving, I was just thinking of giving him the dignity of laying him to rest.” -Brianna*, past Down to Earth client
The UK is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which requires governments to ensure people have an adequate standard of living and enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. In 2023 Down to Earth submitted a report to the UN outlining how funeral poverty denies people these rights and calling on the UK Government to act. In May, they are expected to submit a report to the UN explaining the measures they have taken to meet their obligations. We know they have not done enough.
On average across the UK, these payments cover less than 50% of the cost of a basic funeral and must be increased. It is also crucial that the eligibility criteria are expanded, particularly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where around 40% fewer people are able to access this help than in Scotland. We continue to call on the UK Government and devolved administrations to establish full-scale regulation of the funeral industry, including considering price controls, and to reform government funeral payments.
*Name changed to protect privacy.