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Why people are crowdfunding their funerals

With the costs soaring and government aid falling short, people are turning to crowdfunding to bury their loved ones. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It increasingly seems that it also takes a whole community to lay a relative or friend to rest – or at least to pay for it.

The cost of death is rising. The price of the average funeral has gone up 92 per cent since 2004 to £8,126 – according to the 2015 Cost of Dying report from insurers Sunlife, while a “basic” funeral (with no flowers, memorial or catering at the wake) now costs £3,693.

By far the biggest expense is the funeral director’s fee which includes the coffin, hearse and collection of the deceased, which will now set you back £2,204 on average.

After the funeral director’s fee, the second largest cost is the cremation (£688) or burial fee (£1,822).

According to the report, the main reasons given by funeral directors for the rise in cremation and burial fees is “cuts to local authority budgets”; in order to make up for some of the austerity measures placed on them, many local authorities have removed subsidies for burial and increased crematoria fees.

Optional extras add up too, catering the wake costs £354 on average and flowers come in at £155.

Against this background of soaring prices, people are finding themselves unable to meet the even the basic expenses of burying their dead. Increasing numbers of bereaved people are turning to internet crowdfunding sites like Crowdfunder, Justgiving and Youcaring to help raise the money needed to pay for their loved ones funerals.

Charles Wells of Justgiving tells me he has noticed a rise in numbers: “Thinking about the costs of a funeral is the last thing a grieving family wants to do but with the cost of funerals rising JustGiving has seen increasing numbers of people turning to crowdfunding to help say farewell to their loved ones.”

About 500 people have crowdfunded on JustGiving in the last 12 months to help pay funeral costs, with an average funeral page there raising £1,332 and a quick search for “funeral” on yields 3,800 hits.

“Aaron is my friend, he has been my friend for 10 years, it was incredibly ridiculous and unexpected when he fell ill.” Joy Boal tells me as she talks about the crowdfunding campaign she set up to help Aaron’s shattered family pay for his funeral after he died in February.

“Aaron was young, he didn't have a funeral plan. He was 36 when he died and all of his savings were used up in his last years of life as he suffered through the hell that is cancer and the treatments for it.”

Neither of Aaron’s parents could afford the funeral – his mother had to stop working to care for him in his last months and she didn’t have the savings to pay. Joy helped Aaron’s father, who is retired, and receives housing benefit to apply for a grant from the government’s Social Fund.

The Social Fund Funeral Payment (SFFP) offers some help to people on low incomes to bear the costs of a funeral but the application process is hard to negotiate alongside juggling quotes from funeral directors and coping with loss. Joy describes it to me as “a wiggly messed-up system that is impossible to navigate, especially whilst in a shroud of grief”.

The government seem to agree with Joy’s analysis. A report published last week by the Work and Pensions select committee called state bereavement support "opaque and outdated" (which is government speak for messed up and wiggly) and warned that “the funeral industry may not be operating in a way that serves bereaved, vulnerable people well”. 

The committee pointed out that the maximum award for other funeral costs has been fixed at £700 since 2003 while funeral director fees have risen well above the rate of inflation, saying that the award now “does not cover the cost of a simple funeral”.

“If the fundraising hadn't taken place I'm not sure what they would have done,” says Joy, “the fact Aaron’s mum has a job meant that even if his Dad got some money from the government the full amount wouldn't be likely”.

Joy encountered other problems while trying to help Aaron’s dad apply for the SFFP. “He was eligible to apply for some financial help towards the funeral costs, and I helped him to do so,” recalls Joy. “The problem with the financial help is that it is not granted or rejected until after the funeral has taken place, until weeks after. And you don't know how much you will receive if you are granted some help.”

Again the select committee backs up Joy’s experience, criticising a system where the bereaved must commit to the expense before having any clear idea of what if any state aid they will be entitled to. Some funeral directors refuse to proceed without payment because of the uncertainty in the process and people often have to wait for long periods to have their relatives buried. One disturbing piece of evidence heard by the committee relates to a mother who was forced to freeze her son’s body for months while she saved enough to pay for a funeral.

The chair of the committee Frank Field warned of “a return to the spectre of miserable ‘pauper’s funerals’” and urged the government to conduct a review of burials, cremations and funerals to address the factors driving up funeral director fees and curb “funeral inflation” and reduce funeral poverty.

While an “opaque and outdated” aid system and the effects of “funeral inflation” are putting even the simple dignity of a burial beyond the reach of many, more bereaved people are turning to internet crowdfunding to ask friends and family to fill the gap left by the state. Joy’s crowdfunding campaign eventually raised over £2,000 to help Aaron’s family cover the costs of the funeral and give her friend a proper send off.

“We kept the entire service simple,” says Joy, “a cardboard coffin, a small chapel, a part of a pub for the wake. It doesn't matter how simple you keep things the expense of funerals adds up. I knew that Aaron has so many friends, all across the globe and I also knew that many of them wouldn't be able to make it to his funeral – crowdfunding was a simple way of allowing people to help him with his last journey, to support his family, to show they cared.”

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear