Funeral Costs… natural disaster or man made crisis?

The cost of a funeral is now so expensive that people are suffering in the most inhumane ways when dealing with the loss of a loved one, if they cannot afford a funeral. There is a wider implication than just a financial one and this issue effects more people than just the poorer families.

  • The average cost of a Cremation is £3,744 (not including flowers, catering etc)
  • The average cost of a burial is £4,798 (not including flowers, catering etc)
  • The average amount spent on items considered as discretionary such as flowers, cater etc, is around £2000
  • The spend on funerals across the income levels is similar
  • The average cost of a funeral amounts to 40% of the annual expenditure of the lowest income households
  • Funeral Costs have risen at twice the rate of inflation year on year for the past 14 years
  • The annual sale of funeral plans up by 245% between 2006 – 2017
  • The Funeral Industry is worth £2 billion

While the problem is quantifiable in statistical data what does that actually look like in reality? Put simply the reality is debt, psychological trauma and exploitation. There are actually human beings behind the facts and figures who are undeniably suffering, you cannot fail to be impacted by the video Funeral Poverty: One woman’s battle to pay for her sons funeral, a short film made by Richard Sprenger for the Guardian documenting what reality is like for one Mum. The experience of this lady is not uncommon at all.

An investigation carried out by ITV news found that a quarter of Hospital Trusts said that bodies were being held for 3 months or more due to financial strain placed on the bereaved, with 2 hospitals saying that they had kept the deceased for 14 months. What must the families be going through during this time?

Families without the financial means to meet the costs of a funeral are hurled into the unrealistic situation of being expected to find thousands of pounds within a matter of days. To contemplate that – a family who is bereaved and are grief-stricken, in the midst of that thick fog that grief creates which incapacitates us from seeing and thinking clearly, are then expected to find 40% of their annual expenditure in a matter of days or they can’t arrange the funeral.

There is little financial support specifically for people who struggle to meet the costs of a funeral. The Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment, while will cover cremation fees or burial fees the amount that covers the funeral director fees is a small potion of even the cheapest funeral directors costs; that part of the Funeral Expenses payment was capped at £700 in 2003 when funeral directors fees wasn’t too much more than this. While the social fund can help people on certain benefits there a significant amounts of people that it doesn’t assist, such as students and low income households that are not eligible for benefit support.

The pricing practices of some funeral directors almost force people to select the most expensive packages. The names of the packages such as ‘basic’ have the kind of negative connotation that suggest that they aren’t of a high quality and then the terms and conditions to each package differ – the less expensive the least favourable terms there are, such as no visiting the deceased to say goodbye.

People are then thrust into resorting to desperate measures in order to cover funeral costs. Crowdfunding has become so popular that the biggest crowdfunding platform gofundme.com has dedicated section to fundraising for funerals – each individual person’s story isn’t dissimilar.

With the suffering clearly happening for bereaved people who are struggling with funeral costs and the higher the costs rise the wider reaching the suffering. It is not hard now to become scared at the thought of this happening to you. It creates a feeling of panic.

How did we get to this? What happened to make funerals so expensive? And why did we not see this coming?

While most people didn’t see this coming, some did and as far back as 1995. Some at least, had serious concerns about the direction that the funeral industry was going in and one of those, who’s concerns were stronger than others, was Lord Young of Dartington. Michael Young, a Lord, a sociologist, and a social activist aired his concerns in the House of Lords on 30th October of 1995 when he attempted to stop the privatisation of the Local Authority Crematoria. The preceding year had seen some significant buy outs of funeral companies which led to an investigation by The Monopolies & Mergers Commission. They found a few issues, such as buying out local funeral companies and retaining the family name making it hard for consumers shop around. It also raised concerns that the private funeral company was expected to increase prices excessively. The report concluded at the merger in question may operate against the public’s interest with regard to the supply of both funerals and Crematoria services. Within months of that Monopolies and Mergers Commission report and while the funeral company in question was challenging the findings and the Department of Fair Trade and industry’s request for the funeral Company to divest some of its market share – the Environment Department introduced new regulations for crematoriums and then offered local authorities a deal encouraging them to sell the local Crematoria to private companies. Lord Young saw the potential for the harm to the bereaved and while he didn’t get the support that he wanted he made this significant declaration, “The most radical reorganisation of the funeral industry has already taken place and, unless a stop is put to that process, it looks as though it will gather pace in the years to come.” Lord Young was concerned about the commercialisation of the funeral industry by private companies who, without any remedies in place would not operate in the favour of the bereaved.

From the time that discussion took place in the House of Lords to now, the fundamental way that funerals are arranged and how they are carried out hasn’t changed at all – the processes from the moment that a family calls a funeral director to ask them for their service to the funeral is exactly the same. What has changed is the structure of the Funeral Industry and the business types involved in it.

In 1999 the average cost of a funeral was £1347, funeral plans were not popular and funeral poverty was not a term. Today the average cost of a funeral is £4300, people are expected to find 40% of their annual expenditure within days, annual reports from insurance companies map the financial crisis highlighting the issues and helping to heightened the alarm, people have to crowdfund to help them pay for a funeral while bodies lie in hospital mortuaries for months on end while others can’t have a funeral at all and funeral plans are now popular.

With the turnover and profits seen in some sectors of the funeral industry coupled with the consistent cost increases of twice the rate of inflation over the last 14 years – that seriously suggests the problem isn’t out of the control of the industry…. just the bereaved.