Heartache of losing infant son prompts councillor's bid to waive burial fees for others
A councillor who lost her only son is pressing to see part of the burial fee waived for other grieving parents.
Ulster Unionist councillor Julie Flaherty (40) made the proposal at a meeting of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council (ABC) Environmental Services committee on Thursday night, and was delighted to receive unanimous support from her colleagues across the political spectrum.
The Portadown woman told the Belfast Telegraph she was driven by the experience of having lost her two-year-old son Jake.
The full funeral and burial costs can run into thousands of pounds. Ms Flaherty's proposal is to cover the £52 cost of opening a grave.
She said she would like to see the Children's Funeral Fund for England, under which parents will no longer have to meet the costs of burials or cremations, extended to Northern Ireland.
However, she said that without the funding stream that exists for it in England, she wanted to make a realistic proposal that could be built upon.
She hopes it will be passed at the next full meeting of the council at the end of April, and that other councils across Northern Ireland could follow suit.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Theresa May intervened to create the Children's Funeral Fund for England after being moved by the "dignity and strength" of Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris who had been at the forefront of the cross-party Parliamentary campaign following the death of her eight-year-old son Martin.
It brought England into line with Wales where Ms Harris' campaign saw the removal of fees for funerals for those under the age of 18.
Ms Flaherty said the full scheme cannot currently be implemented in Northern Ireland.
"I am realistic enough to know that," she said.
"But that would be the ultimate aim, to have that same structure in place with a pot of money that would encompass the whole issue.
"With no Executive here, I felt ABC Council, as the second biggest council in Northern Ireland, could put our mark on things for the future. We had, thankfully, only 12 children under 18 buried in the ABC council area last year.
"What I want to see waived is the £52 grave-opening fee. We are not talking about something that is going to rock the budgetary vote, but it is a start."
Ms Flaherty lost her only son, Jake, in May 2015.
He had been born with Down's Syndrome and also battled other medical issues, including a congenital heart defect. "We are very lucky we had him for two years, in the end he was tired," she said. "He was a great wee character."
She sold her private practice as a podiatrist to care for Jake, and, after becoming involved in campaigning for her son, took the decision to become involved in politics.
Ms Flaherty said the cost of Jake's funeral was around £4,000, and when she saw media coverage of Ms May's Children's Funeral Fund for England, she was determined to see some help for other bereaved parents in Northern Ireland.
Ms Flaherty has also urged the council to write to the Department for Communities, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling, and Mrs May, for more support for bereaved parents here.
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council will vote on Ms Flaherty's proposal when it meets on Monday, April 30. A spokeswoman for the council said: "A proposal for officers to bring a report back to committee in relation to the The Children's Funeral Fund scheme was brought to the Environmental Services Committee and was widely supported.
"It was agreed that council officers would look into the scheme and return a full report to committee at a future date."
A spokesperson for the Department of Communities said: "While help with funeral expenses is available to some people on low incomes through the Social Fund, there is no separate Children's Funeral Fund currently in place in Northern Ireland. This would be a matter for consideration by incoming Ministers. In the meantime, council fees for burial or cremation costs is a matter for individual councils."