Paupers' funerals 'set to rise'

27 June 2012
The number of so-called 'paupers' funerals' is set to rise in the UK as the disparity between the rising cost of funerals and the state contribution puts increasing pressure on an already stretched system, warns a new study.

The study, carried out by Sun Life Direct and Bath University, contends that the Funeral Payment scheme, intended to contribute to the cost of funerals for the most vulnerable in society, is failing to meet mounting demand. The situation is set to get worse as the cost of funerals increases against a backdrop of economic austerity and a burgeoning older population, the report's authors warn. 

The study also found that families are suffering emotional and financial distress when applying to the welfare state for support with funeral payments. Many Funeral Payment applicants are forced into debt by having to commit to expensive funeral costs before they are told whether or not they will receive financial assistance from the state. Almost half of the 69,000 applications were rejected last year. Survey respondents were often left feeling confused, frustrated and with a sense of social shame when applying for assistance. Furthermore, the process was also felt to exacerbate claimants’ ill health; over half of applicants were seeking help for depression, anxiety and insomnia.

'The Cost of Dying Special Report into the Social Fund Funeral Payments' found that large numbers of people were having to consider alternatives such as a Public Health Funeral - or so-called “pauper's funeral”.  Even for those successful in their application, the typical sum awarded of £1,217 falls far short of today’s average cost of £3,091 for a funeral, leaving many with a significant debt to pay.

The study paints a picture of an outdated support system at odds with the reality of modern day funerals. Examples include the process through which family members are currently assessed, which the report calls 'unclear' and relying too heavily on "traditional notions of the nuclear family", without taking into account the quality of relationships and the inclination to pay towards the deceased’s funeral. 

With the death rate due to rise by 17% each year for the next 15 years, the report warns that the situation is going to get worse.

Eve Richardson, Chief Executive of the Dying Matters Coalition, said: "It is really concerning that the most vulnerable people in society are struggling to meet the costs of funerals, as Sun Life Direct have highlighted in their new report. Recent research for Dying Matters found that over a third of people wouldn’t be able to afford the funeral if someone close to them died tomorrow, so this is clearly an issue which affects many of us. That’s why we need to talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the type of end of life care we would want and for our funerals while we still can, rather than risking not getting our wishes met or leaving a mess behind for those close to us.”

Dr Kate Woodthorpe, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bath and author of the report, said that it was becoming "too expensive for poor people to die".

She commented: "Thousands of the most vulnerable in society are being let down by a system of state support that lacks coherence and is so unclear that some applicants have to resort to alternative means to organise a funeral. One participant in the study decided to undertake a DIY funeral, buying her mother’s coffin from the internet and picking up the body from the hospital in her car. She subsequently sold the car to generate cash to pay for the funeral costs.”

Simon Cox, head of life planning at Sun Life Direct, said: “We have to ask ourselves whether the current infrastructure for end of life support is fit for purpose. Something must be done, and quickly. A good starting point would be to address the issue of timing. More often than not the claimant will need to commit to funeral payment prior to confirmation whether they will receive support. Bereaved people must know what they will receive before they agree to taking on debts, otherwise we will see the most vulnerable caught in a spiral of debt and distress.”


Download the full report

Dying Matters survey 2012: Brits paying the price for refusal to talk about death

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