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 crowdfunder.co.uk 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.”