From Cradle to the Grave? The decline of UK funeral policy provision

The Conservative Government will face considerable challenges as people are unable to meet rising funeral costs

Liam FosterWhile much is known about the ritual components of a funeral, very little is known about how individuals and families determine and plan for the financial costs associated with a funeral, and how they afford them. While funeral costs can be a potential source for tension within families, the few comprehensive studies, to date, of funeral costs and state provision have highlighted considerable issues with the way the state administers its funds in this area.

What happens when someone cannot afford to pay for a funeral was entrenched at the inception of the welfare state through the Universal Death Grant. Seven decades later, how the state provides for funerals has changed considerably. No longer available as a universal benefit, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Social Fund Funeral Payment is a conditional benefit, with eligibility claims assessed on the resources of the deceased and the finances of family members. The DWP’s system is supplemented by the Public Health Funeral system, administered by local authorities, which is intended to ensure there will be a funeral and body disposal for those without family members, or have no means to pay. However, there are concerns about how the Social Fund currently operates and whether it is sufficient.

The average cost of a standard UK funeral, including doctor’s fees and burial/cremation fees is estimated to be around £3,500. Yet, the average Funeral Payment award is approximately £1,200 and the gap between the Funeral Payment and the average funeral cost has grown year on year. Even if the claimant navigates the 23-page form and is successful in their claim, they are still likely to face a substantial shortfall.

Furthermore, nearly half of all Funeral Payment claims are unsuccessful. There is considerable misinformation and outdated understanding of eligibility amongst claimants, as well as debate about who should provide information about the Funeral Payment. While the local Jobcentre is currently the official information source, complemented by DirectGov.uk, often it is funeral directors who provide information and assistance to the bereaved about funding options. This is potentially problematic for a number of reasons, not least because of the dual role of the funeral director as both an advocate for bereaved people and a commercial enterprise.

Another concern is the time taken to process Funeral Payment claims, particularly given the high level of failed applications. The DWP’s average assessment for claims is 16 working days, yet the average time between death and the funeral is 5-10 working days – and much less in some religions. Claims require a completed invoice from the funeral director as evidence of funeral costs. This means the newly bereaved, under pressure to make quick decisions, are often obliged to commit to funeral costs before they can make a claim. This means people must decide whether to wait up to three weeks to hold a funeral, or go ahead before knowing what, if any, contribution they may receive from the state.

Arguably, the current system for supporting people on low incomes to afford funerals is not working efficiently, and the considerable concerns regarding eligibility and funding require urgent attention by the Government. However, it is important that this doesn’t lead to further erosion of Funeral Payments, especially, as for those in receipt of benefits the scheme may be their only source of financial assistance.

The need to dispose of a body after someone has died has to be financed in some way and so it is important to consider possible alternatives. One option would be to re-introduce a Universal Death Grant, such as the one introduced in 1949, provided at a level sufficient to cover the average funeral cost. A Universal Death Grant would eradicate the current challenges presented by Funeral Payments and public health funerals. In particular, it would remove stigma associated with making a claim for financial support, and the invasive procedures that means-testing often entails. While comprehensive coverage would undoubtedly be expensive it would be consistent with the cradle to grave ideology integral to Beveridge’s welfare state. It would be free at the point of need, paid for through general taxation, and available to all as a right. Alternatively, given the popularity of friendly societies and burial clubs in the late 1800s before they were commercialised, it is perhaps timely to consider whether community-based resource pooling deserves wider consideration and promotion.

Funeral costs are estimated to rise to between £4,500- £5,000 by 2018-2019. Given this projected increase, and the predicted rise in the death rate, it is likely that more people will be faced with finding a significant sum of money at short notice. Although the Social Fund Funeral Payment system represents a relatively small part of total funeral expenditure, and of the Social Fund, questions need to be asked and debated openly by the public and politicians about the sustainability of current state support, and the extent to which an individual or family has the duty to fund a funeral. These debates must address how a more coherent, consistent and fair system can be put in place, at a time where welfare provision is being ‘squeezed’ and death rates increasing.