Tuesday 28th April 2015
Mac Voice, the magazine for Macmillan professionals: Spring 2015
Funeral expenses have become an increasing problem for people affected by cancer, writes Kevin Moore
‘Fuel poverty’ and ‘food poverty’ are terms that have become synonymous with austerity packages and welfare reform in our current economic climate. However, the financial burdens faced in the UK are not restricted solely to daily living. The cost of dying has also increased substantially.
Many people are now struggling to afford the costs of a basic cremation or burial for their loved ones. People address this shortfall by using savings, credit cards, pay-day lenders, paying in instalments and borrowing from friends and family.
This shortfall or ‘funeral poverty’ can lead to families being left with considerable debt, and their emotional distress being compounded by financial worries. It also perpetuates a cycle of deprivation which can affect people’s physical and mental well-being.
Funeral poverty and cancer
In my role as the Macmillan Social Welfare Officer based in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire, I have long been aware of the problems that the bereaved face when paying for a funeral. People with cancer can face long periods of illness and treatment, and often find their incomes fall while their outgoings increase.
Family members and carers can become dependent on social security benefits and savings are depleted. In other cases, a sudden terminal diagnosis can mean that there is little time for any provisional funeral planning, and the family are unprepared for the high funeral charges. Couple this with a societal expectation that loved ones should be given a ‘good send-off’ and the social taboo of a ‘pauper’s funeral’, then financial decisions are often swayed by emotion rather than reason.
Sometimes there is an expectation that the state will meet these costs, but the reality is that while a Funeral Payment may be available from the Social Fund, it will not cover the full costs of a funeral. Even then, it will only be available if the person taking charge of the funeral is receiving an income-related benefit.
How I work with local services
I work closely with independent funeral directors in the Grimsby area to offer a funeral package to the bereaved that keeps costs down. On many occasions the Grimsby Port Missionary has offered to conduct the funeral at no cost, while the cemetery has certain early morning slots that can accommodate the simple funeral. I help people access and complete the applications for a Funeral Payment and ensure that families receive the correct benefits. In certain circumstances, I have sourced grants and financial support from local and national charities to help cut the shortfall.
How you can help
Anyone struggling with funeral costs should get immediate support from a Macmillan benefits adviser, either in person or by calling the Macmillan Support Line. They should seek different quotes and be aware that there is a choice of options in terms of what a funeral includes. A simple, basic funeral, without extras, can still offer dignity and respect without breaking the bank. Early planning and financial provision for funerals should be discussed and encouraged by all Macmillan professionals.
What we know about funeral poverty
Nicola Cunningham outlines the evidence
Research focusing on funeral poverty reveals the average funeral now costs around £3,500.[1, 2] This is a rise of 80% since 2004 and around 7% from 2012–2013. The average costs are predicted to rise to £4,300 by 2018. This is not including expenses such as probate or headstones, which substantially add to the cost. People receiving particular benefits can submit a claim for a Funeral Payment from the Department for Work and Pensions. But the system also lacks coherence, is confusing and time-consuming.
- Nearly 50% of cases are rejected by the Social Fund.
- People are required to commit to funeral costs before applying.
- There is a lack of awareness that the payment is a contribution. Shortfalls currently average £1,250 for one in five claimants.
- Cautious of bad debt, funeral directors are put in a position where they may have to turn those with financial constraints away.
- There is a small but noticeable increase in demand for public health funerals (where the council has a duty to arrange burial if no one else can).
We need to continue to raise the profile of this issue. To that aim, organisations and charities are coming together. The government is being lobbied to acknowledge the problem and to raise the Funeral Payment, which has remained at the same level since 2003. I am keen to continue exploring the effects of funeral poverty on people affected by cancer in my academic work.
1. University of Bath. Funeral Poverty in the UK: issues for policy. 2014.
2. ILC-UK. I can’t afford to die: addressing funeral poverty. 2014.
Email Kevin Moore Macmillan Social Welfare Officer St Andrews Hospice, Grimsby or Nicola Cunningham Macmillan Lecturer, The University of Stirling