Flickr/Blog Tyrant
Show Hide image

“It itches away the inside of you”: Why are funerals putting so many people in debt?

The UK has reached a funeral poverty record this year, with one in six families arranging a funeral unable to pay.

When Percy Morson walked out of the funeral parlour in north London, he stepped onto the first bus that stopped, without checking its destination, and sat down and wept.

It was the summer of 2014, and he had just discovered that it would cost him nearly £10,000 to bury his younger brother, Clifford, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly. The reason for his death remains undetermined.

“I was going in the opposite direction, but I sat on the bus and the tears just kept rolling down,” he tells me on the phone. “I couldn’t figure out how I was going to do it. How are we going to bury him? How are we going to put him to rest? Where am I going to come up with this money?”

“How are we going to bury him?”

Percy was 46 at the time, and relied on his late brother, who was a year younger, to care for him as a sufferer of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and a tumour on his spine. Because of his illnesses, he couldn’t work. The funeral director wanted £4,000 upfront as a deposit.

“Obviously at his [Clifford’s] age, there were no such arrangements, no thoughts or anything, and he had nothing,” Percy says.

Eighteen months later, his mother died of stomach cancer, which had gone undetected for a while beneath heart problems and high blood pressure.

While trying to cope with his grief, Percy fell into “tens of thousands” of pounds worth of debt attempting to afford two funerals in quick succession. He took out two payday loans, and went to family friends for money – some of which he still owes.

“You now have to rob Peter to pay Paul”

“On a fixed income, you know exactly what is coming in, and you have to reposition yourself because you now have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he says. “You have interest, you have finance charges, and the phone calls are coming in and all of that. It’s like scratching and surviving because every penny you get in is earmarked for something different.”

As he fell behind on bills, his telephone line was cut off – at a time when he needed to communicate the most. It came at a point where he felt “glad that your phone is cut off; the calls are not coming in, enquiring when you are going to take care of x, y, z”, he recalls, grimly.

Percy’s experience is becoming increasingly common. New figures released in the Royal London’s National Funeral Cost Index for 2017 show that the UK has reached a new funeral poverty record of more than £160m worth of debt this year, with one in six families arranging a funeral struggling to afford its cost.

***

If you cannot afford to arrange a funeral with your own money, there is help available from the government’s Social Fund Funeral Payments scheme.

But this is inadequate for two reasons.

First, the eligibility criteria are notoriously complicated. You have to have a certain relation to the deceased and be claiming the required amount of means-tested benefits or tax credits. In Percy's case, he had to first begin claiming Income Support in order to apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for the funeral fund.

Second, the payments are not enough. The state’s funeral fund this year only covers 40 per cent of a basic funeral. The funeral expenses it offers (aside from payments towards burial or cremation) were capped at £700 in 2003 and have not gone up since.

In 2015-16, the average money paid from the funeral fund to each claimant was around £1,400. Yet the average funeral in 2017 costs £3,784, up 3 per cent on last year – rising ahead of the rate of inflation.

“The problem with public health funerals is local authorities are cutting back”

After help finding a cheaper funeral from the charity Down to Earth, which provides advice and practical support for those struggling to arrange a funeral, Percy had a bill of £6,700. He was granted £1,900 from the DWP, which it only paid after the burial. He also had to pay the cost of the burial plot upfront – which meant he had to borrow £3,000 from family friends.

“As soon as I completed paying it back, my mum passed away,” he says. “I was forced right back into the same thing. However, the burial plot now shifted to £3,400. There was a £400 increase.”

Percy is still in debt to friends following this second funeral, despite more DWP help.

It is also possible to arrange a public health funeral, paid for by your local authority. This is used when the next-of-kin of the deceased cannot be found, or is unwilling or unable to pay. These are often arranged through hospitals, and sometimes referred to as “pauper’s funerals”. Such funerals provide a coffin and a funeral director, but not flowers, viewings or transport. Family members have no control over who conducts the funeral, or when it takes place, and burials may take place in an unmarked grave

“When you lose a child, cost doesn’t come into anything”

If someone cannot be given a funeral for whatever reason, it is ultimately the council’s responsibility. But usually relatives unable to afford a funeral are directed to DWP funding and have to try and make up the rest of the cost themselves.

People working in low-paid jobs or on zero-hours contracts struggle to qualify for the DWP’s support (because they are unlikely to be eligible for the required amount of benefits), and are even refused public health funerals when they have nowhere else to turn – meaning debt is the only option.

“The problem with public health funerals is of course local authorities are trying to cut back on their expenditure in the context of government cuts,” says Heather Kennedy, the manager of the Fair Funerals campaign, which is petitioning Philip Hammond to increase the funeral fund to save people from funeral debt. “What that means for bereaved people is that there’s a huge amount of gatekeeping going on for that service.”

***

Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, lost her eight-year-old eldest son Martin in 1989. He was killed when knocked down on the road. She was a dinner lady at the time, and her husband worked on the railway. They couldn’t afford to pay for his funeral.

“It’s a strange feeling when you lose a child because cost doesn’t come into anything,” she tells me. “You don’t stop and think ‘how much is this going to cost?’ I don’t even really remember organising the funeral; I just knew there was some kind of event going to happen in which to commemorate my son.”

Three weeks after she laid him to rest, the bill came. It was £1,750. According to Harris, the cost of a child’s funeral in some local authorities today can be as high as £4,000.

“While it may appear that you can afford a funeral, in reality you haven’t got that ready cash”

“My husband’s friends from the local pub did what we do in Wales when we don’t know what else to do – they had a whip-round,” she says, calling the money “a god-send”. This raised £1,000, and they took out a bank loan for the rest.

“Most people will not have put money aside for a child’s funeral, because you never envisage losing a child,” she says. “Even if you may feel it’s inevitable that there will be a funeral, the cost of having a child in hospital is so extraordinarily high in terms of travelling back and forth, possibly childcare for siblings, maybe you’ve had to take a long time off work. So while it may appear that you are financially able to afford a funeral, in reality you haven’t got that ready cash.”

Harris has been asking the Chancellor to ringfence a fund for children’s funerals since November last year. She is writing to Philip Hammond this week to ask him again to include it in his Budget, which will be delivered in November.

As of its budget this year, the Welsh government has ringfenced £600,000 for children’s funerals. Harris urges Westminster to do the same: “When it comes to children, I honestly do not understand why this government is not setting up a children’s funeral fund like we have in Wales, because it’s the human thing to do.”

“It’s a terrible situation for an undertaker just to say: here’s the bill”

She calculates that a fund of £10m would more than cover it, based on 5,000 funerals a year at the cost of £4,000 each (even though the price in most local authorities is £700-800).

“There seems to be a suggestion [from the government] that there’s nothing wrong with a community taking responsibility, which, to me, is abhorrent, because communities will step in, but we shouldn’t expect communities to step in,” she adds. “It’s a terrible situation for an undertaker just to then say to a parent: here’s the bill.”

***

The campaigner Heather Kennedy accuses the government of “actually saving money on the backs of grieving people on low incomes”, because the fund isn’t rising in line with the cost of funerals.

“Grieving people who haven’t got very much money are left with the trauma and shame of not knowing how they’re going to lay their loved one to rest,” she says. “Significant debt really gets in the way of their ability to grieve; their ability to say goodbye with dignity.”

“You realise you’re not even close to getting over anything”

Percy found that his struggle to pay disrupted his grief. “I never realised that until afterwards,” he recalls. “When the dust had settled, the bodies are laid to rest, you think you have taken care of all of it. As soon as you sit down and start reflecting, then you realise you’re not even close to getting over anything – you haven’t even started the grieving process.

“Then it starts hitting. That’s when you start going to a new low. The finances are one thing, but the absence of your loved ones is another. Then it starts itching away the inside of you.”

If you are struggling to afford to arrange a funeral, contact Down to Earth. Sign the petition here to call on the government to increase its funeral fund, as part of the Fair Funerals #BurytheDebt campaign.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.