A COMMITTEE of MPs has warned that Britain is heading back to the days of “miserable ‘pauper’s funerals”, as the costs of dying continue to spiral out of control.
The work and pensions select committee has released a report, Support for the Bereaved, which concludes that much of the current help on offer from the state to the bereaved is inadequate in the face of rising funeral costs.
The average funeral cost £3700 in 2015, almost four per cent more than in 2014, despite very low inflation. The main government benefit for those unable to afford to pay for a funeral — the Social Fund Funeral Payment (SFFP) — has been frozen, however, at £700 since 2003, which in most parts of Britain cannot cover even a stripped-back basic funeral.
Frank Field, who chairs the committee, said: “We heard clear evidence of the distressing circumstances and debt this is leading people into, at a time when they are grieving and vulnerable. We do not want a return to the spectre of miserable ‘pauper’s funerals’.”
The MPs’ report urges the Government to negotiate the true cost of a simple funeral with industry bodies, then update the SFFP to reflect this, and allow the amount to rise with inflation.
A C of E funeral, burial in a churchyard, and the erection of a wooden cross over the grave costs £503. In 2011, this would have cost £319, showing that the figure has risen by more than 57 per cent in four years.
As prices for funerals and burials range from as low as £600 to more than £3000 depending on location, the entire industry needs investigation, the report states.
Because grieving families are unlikely to shop around, competition between funeral services is “dampened”, which makes the sector “vulnerable to unfair trading practices”, the Office of Fair Trading says.
Evidence gathered during the committee’s inquiry has been passed on to the Competition and Markets Authority. Mr Field said: “We are concerned by the lack of protection in the market for bereaved customers, particularly those on low incomes. They are vulnerable and may not be inclined to shop around. This is not conducive to effective operation of the market.”
Delays in assessing claimants are also causing problems, MPs found. After negotiating a 23-page form and 12 pages of guidance to apply for the SFFP, it took the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), on average, 17 days to reply.
The average time between a death and a funeral is 13 days, however, meaning that many people are forced into paying for a funeral they may not even be able to afford. This problem is exacerbated for Jewish and Muslim families, whose traditions require very fast burials, often less than 48 hours after death.
The DWP should create an online calculator that would instantly tell claimants if they are eligible for the benefit, and how much they are likely to receive, the report recommends.
A recent rise in local authorities’ carrying out public health funerals, sometimes called pauper’s funerals, is a result of the rising cost of dying plus inadequate government provision, the report concludes.
The DWP minister responsible, Baroness Altmann, assured the committee that public health funerals are not “the awful image that you might think from Dickensian times”. The report recommends, however, that the Government establishes a cross-departmental review of the causes of funeral poverty and inflation to tackle the “systemic causes” of the problem.
Facing up to death: the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has urged Christians to face up to the reality of death, just three months after the death of his wife, Hilary, from cancer.
Speaking in his presidential address to the Church in Wales’s Governing Body in Llandudno, on Wednesday, Dr Morgan said that it was “amazing” that many people would not use the words dying or death, preferring euphemisms such as “gone to sleep” or “passed away”.
“Unless we, as Christians, are willing to face the reality and the finality in one sense of death, who is going to?” he asked. As well as paying tribute to the courage his wife showed in her final months, he said that it was important to allow people to grieve naturally and publicly.
“Weeping in public is often regarded as terribly bad form, and yet we know that Jesus wept openly for his friend Lazarus. Even though one may believe that death is not the end, that does not stop the heartache of missing those whom we love. We shall not see them again in this life.
“Grieving is the cost of commitment, the cost of loving. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is only the grief itself — a slow gradual journey undertaken by those who feel bereft.”