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As burial costs rise, Britons are struggling in funeral poverty – here’s what support is available

The loss of a loved one is difficult, but should the loss have an impact on your finances? The fees associated with a funeral are rising drastically, pushing people to find other ways to avoid debts associated with funeral costs.

An average funeral costs £3,757, and part of this cost is the increasing price in cremation and burial fees. Cremation fees, on average, cost £792 – an increase of 4.9% from 2017. Burial fees have increased by 6.1% to £1,960. This has risen higher than inflation – and these fees are before you start considering the costs of a service, flowers or even a coffin.

Now a new Children’s Funeral Fund has launched, offering a package of support that means bereaved parents will get some financial support for their child’s funeral, regardless of their income.

It comes after the government’s recent announcement that applications to the Funeral Expenses Payment, designed to help bereaved families with the cost of funerals, will be processed quicker. The date of a funeral will no longer need to be set before funds will be processed, and an estimated date for the funeral service will be enough.

To receive a Funeral Expenses Payment you need to be in receipt of a means-tested benefit, for example Universal Credit, Income Support, Pension Credit or Housing Benefit. Entitlement is not built around benefits alone. The claimant needs to have a qualifying relationship with the deceased such as a spouse or close family member, and it needs to be “reasonable” in the eyes of the government that you would be responsible for funeral costs.

The payment provides help to cover transport, burial or cremation fees and medical fees. It also allows for other funeral expenses such as a coffin, minister’s fees or flowers – but this is limited to £700.

So while changes to the speed of processing applications will help people identify whether they can get state support, it will only help those who are entitled and doesn’t go far enough with the elements of a funeral that make it personal.

There is a second way the government helps with funeral costs – called the Social Fund Budgeting Loan. This advance – which ranges in size for single people or couples – is available to those who meet strict eligibility criteria, built around entitlement of selected benefits. The money is then recovered via deductions to those benefits.

State support for funeral costs doesn’t go very far. Koldunov/Shutterstock

Limited support

These schemes provide some financial support but the design excludes those who are not entitled to benefits. It also creates financial hardship for those on benefits who may find their payments reduced in the longer term as they pay loans back. As a result of the rising fees related to funerals, it often means there is a substantial and sudden debt, creating funeral poverty.

And even for those who are entitled for support, the government’s wider financial support package does not cover the whole cost of a funeral. Within the Funeral Expenses Payment, the fees for cremation or burial are met. But the maximum award for other costs beyond these fees is £700, a figure that the government hasn’t increased for 16 years and doesn’t rise with inflation. The average spend on a coffin alone is just under £1,000, meaning that the £700 really doesn’t go very far.

Often, the people responsible for the costs of celebrating a loved one’s life take on additional credit or borrow from friends and family. In some circumstances, this can create additional financial pressure for people who are already struggling financially.

Other ways to pay

To meet these costs, there’s been an increase in crowdfunding for funerals. Sites such as GoFundMe and JustGiving have seen an increase in people relying on the kindness of strangers to help with funeral costs.

People also seek out advice from organisations such as Down to Earth, which helps people to source charitable funds and explores options to help deal with funeral debt.

Another option is to hold a public health funeral, also known as a “paupers funeral”. This is a no-frills service, that doesn’t include flowers, viewings or transport for family members. You cannot choose a time, or a date and the burials may take place in an unmarked grave that may be shared with other people. But a growing number of people are choosing this option. A freedom of information request by the insurance company Royal London revealed there were 3,835 public health funerals in the year to April 2018, costing local authorities £5.4m. Of these, 30% were due to the bereaved being unable to afford the cost of the funeral.

The support from the state is not extended to those on a low income, and for those who are not entitled to benefits, the government support is not available. They are left with the full cost of increasing fees and trying to find alternative ways of funding a funeral, relying more on the kindness of strangers than the support of the state.