Funerals and burial space: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

The costs of a basic funeral have nearly doubled over the past ten years. Meanwhile, space for burials is becoming increasingly scarce. Can people afford the cost of dying, and even if they can, will there be space for a burial if this is what they choose?

The cost of dying

Sun Life’s annual report on the cost of dying calculated that the average cost of a funeral in 2014 was £3,950, nearly twice what it was in 2004. This cost covered only the basic elements of a funeral: the funeral director’s costs, doctor’s fees, the costs of a religious or secular service, and burial or cremation fees.

Many pay considerably more than this on extras such as flowers, order sheets and a wake. 14% of those surveyed struggled to pay for funeral costs, of whom half used credit cards, or loans from banks and family members, to meet the shortfall.

Chart: The average cost of a basic funeral

The average cost of a basic funeral has risen from five weeks' wages in 2004, to nearly nine weeks' in 2014. Average cost of a basic funeral as a multiple of the median gross weekly wage, 2004-14

Average cost of a basic funeral in wages

Government assistance

Payments from the Social Fund can be made to claimants of means-tested benefits and tax credits to help meet funeral costs. There are complex eligibility criteria including whether the person has accepted responsibility for meeting the funeral costs, their relationship to the deceased, and whether there are others equally or more closely related who are not on benefits.

The Funeral Payment covers in full certain funeral expenses, including burial or cremation. Other expenses – such as funeral directors’ fees, the cost of a coffin, church fees and flowers – may be covered, but only up to a maximum of £700, a figure unchanged since 2003.

Successive Governments have maintained that the scheme provides a “contribution towards the cost of a simple, low cost respectful funeral,” but the adequacy of payments in relation to actual funeral costs has long been a source of complaint.

The average total award in 2013-14 was £1,347, around a third of the average cost of a basic funeral, although a (repayable) Budgeting Loan may also help with upfront costs.

The Funeral Payments scheme has also been criticised for creating confusion, frustration, and further emotional distress. There were 59,000 applications in 2013-14, of which just 58% were successful; but with DWP requiring an invoice to process a claim, applicants must commit to meeting funeral costs without knowing how much, if anything, they will receive.

Public health funerals

Where no-one else is able or willing to arrange and pay for a funeral, the local authority (or sometimes the NHS) must arrange a basic “public health funeral” (once known as a “pauper’s funeral”). Around one in two-hundred deaths are paid for by the state in this way. 

A report published by the University of Bath in 2014 found a small but notable increase in demand for this type of funeral. It commented that, in the light of ongoing issues with the Funeral Payments scheme, there is concern that local authorities may be required to provide more public health funerals as the number of deaths per year rises.

Space for burials

Apart from the issue of cost, there is also concern that space for burial is becoming increasingly scarce, particularly in urban areas. Although rates of cremation are rising, and cremation now accounts for three-quarters of funerals, many people, including some faith groups for whom burial is a religious requirement, do not wish to consider this option.

The reuse of graves has been under consideration for some time as a means of addressing the shortage of space for burials. The method suggested (“lift and deepen”) involves the exhumation of remains in an existing grave, digging the grave to a greater depth, re-interring the remains and using the rest of the grave for fresh burials. At present, London burial authorities have limited powers to reuse graves in this way.

In 2007, the Labour Government said that it would introduce measures allowing local authorities to reuse graves in their cemeteries; but these were not, in the end, taken forward across England and Wales, and the situation has since been kept “under review”.

There have been mixed public reactions to the idea of reusing graves. Will the shortage of space for burial force this onto the agenda for the new Government?

680,000 – projected number of burials during 2015-20
(based on ONS projections and cremation rates staying at current levels of 75%)

 

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