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General Synod digest: C of E urged to care for the dead

21 February 2020

Madeleine Davies, Hattie Williams, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in London


Sam Margrave (Coventry)

Sam Margrave (Coventry)

ON WEDNESDAY afternoon, the General Synod debated so-called paupers’ funerals.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) intro­duced his private member’s motion, on how the Church of England could work to end them. If his own father had lived a little longer, his estate would have been spent, and the family would have been forced to rely on what their local authority could offer. “This really could happen to any of us,” he told the Synod.

There had been a 70-per-cent rise in such funerals between 2015 and 2018, and the number was expected to grow. Although paupers’ funerals varied regionally, they often involved families’ being unable to take part, church services’ being prohibited, ashes’ not being returned, no pas­toral care for the bereaved, no head­­­stones, and a common grave.

“This motion is a real test for the Church to show our bias to the poor and to offer moral leadership to society on an issue of national im­­­por­­­tance.”

The Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) noted that one of the “cor­poral works of mercy” was to bury the dead. When society did not care for the dead, it “slipped into sin. . . It is sinful to punish the poor for their poverty.”

The Revd Jacqueline Doyle-Brett (York), criticised the use of the term “paupers’ funerals”, which, she said, sounded Victorian. She told of a single mother who had strug­­­­­­gled to to pay for a funeral for her older son, who had killed himself, aged 21. “We must use whatever means we have to end funeral poverty,” she urged.

The Revd Tiffer Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) sought to re­­place Mr Margrave’s proposal of an inde­pendent task force with the C of E’s Life Events team, asking for a pro­gress report by the end of 2021.

Mr Margrave resisted the amend­ment, arguing that this was both a local and national issue and needed to be explored by an independent group of experts.

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Attwell, had heard that the main cause of debt on a housing estate in Plymouth was funeral ex­­penses. The insurance company Sun Life Direct said that funeral poverty had risen by 125 per cent since 2010. Last year, 93,000 took out a loan to pay for a funeral. When he was first ordained, a C of E funeral had been the “default option”, but it no longer was. Cremations Direct was being mar­keted as a way of keeping down cost of funerals, but “it excludes death, avoids it, squirrels it away; goodness knows the psychological damage that is being done to the population.”

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liver­pool) also observed that ever fewer people were turning to the C of E. Liverpool diocese had wanted to see whether, by going into the market and building good rela­tion­ships, it could start a good funeral company.”

The Robinson amendment was carried.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) was par­ticularly concerned as a district coun­cillor. In her own com­mun­ity, she had helped to crowd­fund two funerals in a year; all councils should pay atten­tion to this issue, she said.

The Revd Chris McQuillen-Wright (Truro) said that funeral fees should be part of this discussion.

The motion was carried by 273 nem. con. with one recorded absten­tion:

That this Synod, noting:

a) the substantial rise in the num­ber of ‘pauper funerals’ in England and the pain and hurt arising from them; and

b) the call of the Gospel to meet people as Jesus does, in their time of need, as well as the duty of Christians to the poor as set out in Proverbs 31.8-9 and Deuteronomy 15.7-8;

call upon the Archbishops’ Coun­cil to direct and resource the Life Events Advisory Group, in consulta­tion with the Churches Funeral Group and the British Council of Funeral Services to:

(i) undertake the formation of plans at national, diocesan and par­ish levels to utilise Church re­­sources (whether in the form of finance, volunteers or buildings) to tackle the issues relating to and, where possible, end ‘pauper funerals’;

(ii) work with other stakeholders to find ways, at an affordable price, to deliver a more compas­sion­ate send off for the departed and to meet the spir­itual and emotional needs of those left behind; and

(iii) report progress made with re­­fer­ence to the above by the end of 2021;

and further call on Her Majesty’s Government to develop with Council leaders a national plan and basic standards for ‘pauper funerals’, which should include allowing a Christian funeral service to take place in Church or at a Crematorium, for fam­ily or others to attend, and the re­­turn of the departed (where per­­mitted) to family members.

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

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