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Is Funeral Payment Scheme fit for purpose, asks report

Is Funeral Payment Scheme fit for purpose, asks report

It’s now “too expensive for poor people to die” according to a new Social Fund Funeral Payments report.

The Cost of Dying special report predicts a rise in both the number of public health or ‘pauper’s’ funerals and in the number of people being forced into debt because they have to commit to funeral costs before finding out if they will receive state support.

The report, commissioned by insurers Sun Life Direct and compiled by the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, says funeral poverty has hit a record £118m mark, with the Funeral Payment (FP) scheme, intended to contribute to funeral costs for the most vulnerable, failing to meet mounting demand.

Almost half of the 69,000 applications for an FP last year were rejected and even the typical sum awarded of £1,217 falls far short of today’s average cost of £3,091 for a funeral (source: Sun Life Direct Cost of Dying Report 2011), leaving many with significant debt.

The report also warns that, as the cost of funerals increases and economic austerity continues, an older population is likely to bring ever-increasing pressure on an already stretched system.

The study paints a picture of an outdated support system at odds with the reality of modern day funerals. For example, the research indicates that the process through which family members are currently assessed is unclear and relies too heavily on traditional notions of the ‘nuclear family’, not taking into account the quality of relationships and the inclination to pay towards the deceased’s funeral.

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 whom were seeking help for depression, anxiety and insomnia.

The study suggests that, compared to other countries, the UK is in a weak position to address the provision of state support for those who cannot afford a funeral. An emphasis on individualism that regards death as a private event, a reliance on a free market economy to regulate funeral costs and a political climate in which those needing help are regarded as welfare dependent rather than entitled make for a perfect storm of disadvantage to confront the underlying issues.

“Quite simply, it is becoming too expensive for poor people to die,” said Dr Kate Woodthorpe, a lecturer at the University of Bath and author of the report. “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."

The UK’s ageing demographic is also set to worsen the problem. Last year alone, the number of applications rejected for an FP increased by 6.9 per cent, and this is likely to jump again as the death rate is forecast to rise by 17% each year for the next 15 years (National Audit Office, 2008).

Simon Cox, head of life planning at Sun Life Direct, said: “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.”


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