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Funeral poverty up as costs rise again

The average cost of a funeral in the UK has risen again. The Royal London National Funeral Cost Index 2017, published in partnership with The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), puts the average at £3,784, up 3%, while SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying report says funeral costs have risen 4.7% in the year to £4,078, up by more than 70% in a decade.

Both reports agree that funeral poverty is now a significant problem for many. 

Royal London reveals funeral poverty has reached an all-time high of £160m, with one in six struggling to pay funeral costs and people taking on an average debt of £1,680.

SunLife says a third of those who have recently organised a funeral said that the cost was more or ‘a lot more’ than they expected and almost half have actively cut back on certain aspects of the funeral to keep costs down. 

One in ten admit there were items or wishes they were either unable to pay for or had to change because they couldn’t afford it.

Among those who Royal London identified as having struggled to pay, a quarter said they borrowed money from family and friends and a further quarter went into debt with a loan or overdraft. 

A record number of people sold possessions to repay funeral debt, with 10% of those struggling with funeral payments taking this approach. 

The Royal London index shows that funeral prices vary widely across the country, with average costs ranging from £3,036 in Belfast to £6,516 in Kensal Green in London.

No frills direct cremations continue to be popular, with 10% of all cremation funerals not including a service. The amount spent on discretionary funeral items such as catering and venue hire by those who did opt for a ceremony rose however. 

Royal London’s funeral cost expert, Louise Eaton-Terry, said: “With thousands of bereaved people struggling to pay funeral costs and taking on nearly £1,700 in debt to ensure their loved one has a decent send-off, it is clear that Government action to tackle funeral poverty is long overdue.

“The Scottish Government is leading the way with its commitment to providing help and guidance on funeral costs for consumers. We want Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead and do more to address the issue of rising funeral debt.”

ICCM chief executive Tim Morris, said: “Increases in funeral costs are evident by the increases in local authority-arranged public health funerals, the number of new breed funeral directors providing a direct option and crowd-funding appeals on social media.

“The Scottish Government's Ten Point Plan designed to alleviate funeral poverty, the Department of Work & Pensions consultation on reform of the Social Fund and the introduction of an Inspector of Funeral Directors in Scotland indicate that a crisis has been identified.

“Unfortunately only the Scottish Government has acted in respect of the shortage of burial space crisis that affects circa 25% of the population. This additional driver of funeral poverty requires urgent attention in England & Wales.”

Royal London suggest policymakers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should follow Scotland’s lead and do away with doctors’ certification fees. 

It also says the Department for Work and Pensions needs to widen its review of the Social Fund Funeral Payment to include the inadequate level of the payment and the length of time it takes to process claims.

It is also calling on the funeral sector to respond to the latent demand from consumers for simpler and cheaper funeral options, by providing more access to direct cremation type services.

The funeral associations welcomed the report highlighting the hard work and crucial role funeral directors play in providing help to the bereaved.

SAIF chief executive Terry Tennens and NAFD chief executive Mandie Lavin both pointed out that the rise was largely due to significant increases in cremation and burial costs and ministers’ fees, with funeral directors keeping their price rises below the rate of inflation at to an average increase of 2.1%. 

They called upon local and national government to do their share too. “We know of many funeral directors who have found themselves trying to minimise their own costs to offset the impact of high price rises by other parties. Surely supporting hard-pressed families faced with the funeral of a loved one should not be solely the responsibility of the private sector?” said Mandie.

Terry said the report showed more than 60% of people received support from a funeral director, far higher than for any other source of advice, and this approach extended to ensuring all clients were fully aware of the range of funeral options, 

He added a note of caution to Royal London’s call for funeral directors to encourage direct cremations however.

“In our experience, many families prefer a more traditional approach,” he said. 

“A direct cremation means there is no opportunity for friends and family to pay their respects and say a final farewell, which is often an important part of the grieving process.”

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