Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Cost of Death

The British funeral industry is worth an estimated £2bn, but is dominated by a few big firms, notably Dignity, which made £84.9m operating profit in 2014, and Cooperative Funeralcare, which made £66m. While many people believe they are dealing with a local, community undertaker, large national funeral directors will often buy out local, small firms within months of them operating successfully and then retain their family name for branding. The big firm will then run the business according to targets set by the national business model, which is typically more uncompromising.

Until the 1950s most people died at home, so dead bodies were kept at home until the day of the funeral. By the 1990s, only one in four deaths took place at the deceased’s home, with more than half of deaths taking place in hospitals. This made room for undertakers to play a role in the removal, storage and then transportation of the body in between the death and the funeral, a logistical process that allowed the often nebulous “professional fees” on the final bill to balloon.

One in seven next of kin of the 600,000 people who die every year in the UK struggle to pay for funeral costs, with the average shortfall for each of them over £1,200, according to 2015 Sun Life research. The national figure for funeral poverty shortfall came to £131m, a 50 per cent increase in only five years.

The average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at £3,897, a figure that has gone up by 5.5 per cent in the past year, outstripping inflation, wages and pensions. With huge regional variations, a burial funeral in Kent can cost up to £6,899 while one in the North East can be £2,000. These kinds of prices quoted by funeral directors, unaffordable for huge swathes of the country, require a scrupulous customer to scrutinise every element of the package they’re being offered to gauge what their options are. At the very cheapest end, the removal of the body typically costs £195, while coffins start at £345. A hearse or equivalent transportation on the day of the commemoration is £350.  All this comes before costs for a religious or community service, the wake, catering, the burial or cremation fee, as well as the often elusive “undertaker’s fees” that are not itemised – and the part of the bill where some of the biggest variations lie. Choosing a burial, rather than a cremation, can add up to £5,000 in certain areas (partly due to a shortage of burial plots), while the presence of what is considered a ‘basic’ headstone, flowers and a car procession can easily add hundreds, if not thousands, to a package.

State support comes in the form of a Social Fund that, when established some 30 years ago, aimed to cover the whole cost of a funeral for the poorest. However, as funeral prices have boomed, the fund now only contributes on average £1,225 to the overall funeral cost, around 35 per cent of the average total. The fund is only available to people on certain benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, or if the DWP deems no other relative eligible or able to pay, regardless of estrangement or other mitigating factors. There are seven million Britons in poverty who live in working households, and one in four UK families have less than £95 in savings, around half of the applicants to the Social Fund. For those who want to make use of the fund, the bureaucratic hoop-jumping to receive the support is a more than adequate hurdle at a time when they want a quick resolution to a traumatic episode. Applicants must complete and submit a 25-page form to the DWP, and will only find out if they have received any funds at all up to six weeks after the funeral, when they have already committed themselves to paying thousands for the service.

For those who cannot raise money for a funeral themselves, the local council will conduct a public health funeral, which they are required to do under the Public Health Act. This entails a bare bones service where the bereaved are given no control over the procedure, but simply a date and time when the deceased will be cremated or buried, with the provision of a headstone or other lasting memorial unlikely. Public health funerals are on the rise in recent years, for the first time since the Second World War, as funeral costs continue to grow. In 2015 revealed that the number of public health funerals had risen by 11 per cent in the previous four years. Several councils, such as Monmouthshire County Council in Wales, place the bodies handled by multiple public health funerals into shared graves to combat the land shortage.  

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