The Guardian has today released a film covering the harrowing journey of Amanda as she tries to arrange her son Rahim’s funeral.
Amanda sought advice from Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth funeral support service and bravely agreed to share her story on film, along with her son’s girlfriend, Chelsea.
Sadly, Amanda’s story is not unique; we receive many calls at Down to Earth where the death of a loved one is sudden or unexpected. Not only are the bereaved having to deal with the shock of the death, but they now have to find several thousands of pounds at short notice that they hadn’t planned for. ‘Where would you find £9,000?’ asks Amanda. Indeed.
Funeral costs are rising rapidly; there has been a cumulative price rise of 122% since 2004, and the average funeral cost now stands at £4,271, meaning 1 in 8 people will struggle to pay for a funeral (Sun Life Cost of Dying, 2018). Land prices in London are extraordinarily expensive, so burials are particularly expensive in the capital. The 2018 average burial price in London was £7,538 (Sun Life Cost of Dying, 2018).
A burial may be required for religious or cultural reasons and people have limited ability to ‘shop around’ for their grave as local authority cemeteries tend to charge an ‘out of borough’ fee, for those not living in their area, which can be up to four times the cost of the grave. One option is to consider a shared grave, but this can be an unpalatable or heart-breaking idea.
On top of the cemetery element of burial costs, there are funeral director’s fees. Amanda was ‘lucky’ enough to find a funeral director who worked hard to bring the cost down, but many people struggle with an over-inflated price. The Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently investigating the funeral industry as they say over the last 14 years, funeral prices have been rising at twice the rate of inflation – a scale of price rise which ‘does not currently appear to be justified’. Of course not all funeral directors overcharge, but finding transparent pricing at short notice can be nigh on impossible. That is why we launched the Fair Funerals pledge, which requires funeral directors to be transparent about their most affordable options. Sadly, the CMA is not investigating over-inflated cemetery costs, so the government needs to address this.
The government also needs to improve support for people struggling with funeral costs. The DWP’s Social Fund Funeral Payment criteria are bafflingly complex at a time when bereaved people struggle to absorb information; in response to this QSA has designed a new training session to demystify this benefit, for professionals supporting clients with funeral costs. The Social Fund Funeral Payment was established in 1989 to cover the cost of a basic funeral, however in 2017-18 the average Funeral Payment was £1,461 (DWP Annual Report by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Social Fund 2017-18), around 34% of the average funeral cost. Therefore, even people awarded a grant are left with a potential shortfall of thousands of pounds.
Chelsea says that she and Amanda would get up early and the first thing they would think about was arranging and paying for Rahim’s funeral; they were so worried about how they would find the money. The DWP says it aims to process a claim within 15 working days – that’s three weeks at most times of the year and that’s when it meets its targets. However, with most funerals taking place within two weeks of a death, most people won’t find out the outcome of their claim until after the funeral, meaning they have to commit to a funeral without knowing whether they can afford it.
Amanda and Chelsea considered pay day loans in a desperate attempt to pay a deposit for Rahim’s funeral. These loans have very high interest rates, but many people feel they have no other choice. The DWP allows people on certain benefits to claim a Budgeting Advance (or Social Fund loan) toward the cost of a funeral, but these take six to eight weeks to pay out, and are often only a few hundred pounds. This is far too long to wait.
In autumn 2018 QSA submitted a budget representation to HM Treasury asking them to improve the Social Fund Funeral Payment and Loan, but our recommendations have not been taken forward. We will not give up and we are continuing to work with government and the funeral industry to change the landscape for those like Amanda with a broken heart and an empty purse.