Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Poor people 'cannot afford to die'

The average cost of a funeral rose by 80% between 2004 and 2013
The average cost of a funeral rose by 80% between 2004 and 2013

The poorest people in society cannot afford to die because of the rising cost of funerals, a report has revealed.

Researchers said the average cost of dying - including funeral, burial or cremation and state administration - stands at £7,622, having risen by 7.1% in the past year.

They estimate that over 100,000 people will struggle to pay for a funeral this year alone.

The authors of the study at the University of Bath's Institute for Policy Research have called on the Government to review the current system of state support for funeral costs.

In spite of the lowest-ever recorded mortality rates for England and Wales, the cost of dying has steadily increased over recent years.

The average cost of a funeral in fact rose by 80% between 2004 and 2013 and the costs of dying are expected to continue to increase over the next five years.

On average, the price of a typical funeral, including non-discretionary fees and a burial or cremation, is £3,456.

The average amount spent on extras such as a memorial, flowers and catering is £2,006 and discretionary estate administration costs have increased significantly to £2,160.

For families on low incomes, the Social Fund Funeral Payment, first introduced in 1988, is intended to support those who struggle to find the money to pay for a funeral.

However, the report challenges the effectiveness and availability of this provision. By highlighting an average shortfall of £1,277 that many face, the report suggests that 'funeral poverty' today is some 50% higher than three years ago.

The report had challenged the Government to rethink the Department for Work and Pensions-administered payment, which is highlighted as 'outdated', 'overly complex' and 'insufficient' at meeting the needs of the poorest in society.

It also found that local authorities have experienced a small but notable increase in demand for public health funerals, on the grounds that individuals are not prepared to organise or pay for the funeral of a family member.

Through interviews with claimants and key stakeholders, the researchers identified flaws with the current system, including how eligible claimants are obliged to commit to funeral costs before submitting their claim for funeral payment.

By doing this they are making poorly informed financial decisions which risks debt for close family members.

Dr Kate Woodthorpe, from the university's Centre for Death and Society, said: "Medical advancement has made significant improvements to death rates.

"As a result people are living longer, which requires larger incomes and pension pots to ensure these extra years can be afforded. Whether or not these will stretch to cover funeral costs is unclear.

"At the same time, the younger generations have less ready cash to call on, so they cannot necessarily be relied on to pick up the bill either.

"We know that the long-term decline in death rates is about to reverse, with a projected rise in the number of deaths around 15 to 20% in the next two decades.

"We also know that right now, with some of the lowest death rates ever recorded, the safety nets provided by the state via the Social Fund Funeral Payment and local authority public health funerals are under pressure.

"Their sustainability into the future is debatable."

The report, Funeral poverty in the UK: issues for policy, was co-organised and hosted by the International Longevity Centre-UK and launched at an event in Westminster.

Baroness Sally Greengross, chief executive of the International Longevity Centre - UK, said: "Modern medicine and advances in public health have led to falls in the number of deaths over many decades.

"But the pattern of falling death numbers is about to turn around and start to increase.

"With growing funeral costs, quite simply, growing numbers of people might find they can't afford to die.

"Government must act now before the current issue of funeral poverty becomes an even more significant future crisis.

"As a society we don't talk enough about dying. But nor do public policy makers. We must find a way to open a debate about dying early and ensure that we and our families are as prepared as we possibly can be."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "The Funeral Payment scheme continues to cover the necessary costs of burial or cremation in full, because we know that these costs may vary widely across the country.

"A significant contribution is also made towards the fee levied by funeral directors which is currently set at £700.

"Other costs are also met in full, for example the cost of any doctors' certificates and certain travel expenses.

"To put this into context, the average social fund funeral payment last year was £1,225.

"In addition to the Funeral Payment scheme, Social Fund Budgeting Loans have been extended to cover costs relating to funeral expenses."

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