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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”