Grief and poverty; a dangerous cocktail

Consider two facts. In the UK, 1,640 people die every day – more than half a million every year (Office for National Statistics). In the UK, one in five people – 22% of the population – officially live in poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation). That’s 328 people on the breadline dying every day.

Logic suggests that if a person is living in poverty, their next of kin probably are too. So, every day in the UK more than 300 people without any savings and an income inadequate to live on are faced with a funeral bill of, on average, £4,267 for a burial or £3,247 for a cremation. Often it is much more.

A third fact; people who are grieving suffer tremendous emotional pain.

Grieving is always difficult because it involves many intense feelings. One common consequence of grief is a feeling of unreality, of being out of touch. Another is feeling in the grip of mental instability. People can find themselves forgetting things and not being able to finish what they started. Add to this the practical problem of finding a large sum of money in a short period of time, without savings and the lowest possible credit rating, and the result can be panic.

Consider the advice commonly given to those who are grieving: take time, don’t let others rush you into making major decisions. That’s not good advice when faced with a huge bill.

And so such people arrive in the office of a funeral director. What does the company do? Make the arrangements, encouraging the person to be modest in their plans, but insist at least a major part of the bill is paid in advance? Tell the person to ask the Citizen’s Advice Bureau for help raising the money? Or regard this as a duty their company should themselves take on?

Rowland Brothers, a fourth generation family firm of funeral directors founded in 1873, based in Croydon with nine branches carrying out 1,150 funerals a year, is one of the latter. Their solution is to have a member of staff dedicated to the role.

Sometimes help is available fairly easily. If the person responsible for paying the bill is receiving at least one qualifying benefit they may be eligible for a Funeral Payment from the Department for Work and Pensions.

This won’t cover the whole funeral bill. The applicant may still have to pay up to a third of the cost, but it can pay for death certificates; cremation fees, including the cost of the doctor’s certificate; travel to arrange or attend the funeral; the cost of moving the body within the UK, if it’s being moved more than 50 miles; burial fees and up to £700 for other expenses, including funeral director’s fees, flowers or the coffin.

There are also other bereavement benefits available, such as bereavement allowance. Advice is readily available online, but grief can make coping with this difficult for some people, especially an elderly person used to relying on their spouse. Here, the assistance of the funeral company is invaluable.

However, it is sadly all too frequent that someone with no money, and a small income, doesn’t qualify for government finance. Here a skilled member of the funeral director’s team is worth their weight in gold. Maybe they are aware of charities or local trusts which might come up with some of the money needed, or they might – in suitable cases – link them up with a trusted finance provider who will accept the person’s poor or non-existent credit rating and offer a loan at a reasonable rate. Or perhaps the funeral director will be able to accept payment in instalments.

But before that stage there are things funeral directors with a social conscience, and wise business acumen, can do. A range of funeral packages can be offered at different prices. Although the scope to do this has narrowed in recent years – the funeral director’s disbursements once formed only 15% of the final bill, now they are 70%, restricting the possibility of providing a less expensive funeral – there are still alternatives to be offered, such as direct cremations.

So, the solution to the potentially disastrous cocktail of grief and poverty? Sympathetic understanding, professional counselling and practical help. The funeral director needs to be a one-stop shop.

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