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16 January 2023

The cost of dying: “pauper’s funerals” have doubled since 2019

Exclusive figures reveal how more people are turning to public health funerals in poor parts of Britain.

By Katharine Swindells

As the country grapples with the cost-of-living crisis, its effects are beginning to be felt beyond life itself. Across the country more people are dying without the means to pay for their own funeral.

In some of the poorest parts of the country the New Statesman finds the number of people requiring a public health funeral – sometimes known as a “pauper’s funeral” – has doubled compared with the pre-pandemic level.

A public health funerals is funded and provided by the council if someone dies with no next-of-kin, or their family and friends are unable to pay for it. The council arranges the burial or cremation, but there are no flowers, headstone nor memorial service. Data obtained by the New Statesman using freedom of information requests and public records reveals a sharp rise in such funerals in some of the poorest parts of the country.

In Blackpool, which has among the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, eight people required a public health funeral in October 2022, twice as many as in October 2019. Between April and October 2022 there were 26 public health funerals compared with just 12 in the whole of 2019.

In Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest London boroughs, between April and September 2022 there were 12 deaths that required a public health funeral, 50 per cent higher than the same period in 2019.

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The number of funerals supported by the Muslim Burial Fund, a UK charity that gives people support to follow Islamic burial practices, has almost doubled since before the pandemic, from around 28 in 2018 to 50 in 2022.

Separate research has shown that the average “cost of dying” in the UK rose to £9,200 in 2022, a 4 per cent increase on the previous year and almost 30 per cent higher than what it was ten years ago. This was largely driven largely by rising prices for probate, memorials, and catering and venue hire, according to the report by SunLife, a financial services company.

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The average price of a burial or cremation is now £4,800 and £3,700 respectively. There has been a small decline in the cost of the most basic funeral over the past two years, in part thanks to a ruling by the Competition Market Authority in 2021 requiring funeral directors to publicly list prices.

[See also: Britain has never faced decline like this before]

It is mainly in the additional services and ceremonial arrangements such as transport, catering, venue and flowers where prices have risen in the past year. “Funeral directors are facing the same market forces as everyone else,” said Deborah Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Funeral Directors.

While inflation is affecting the costs of food and staffing, Brexit has impacted the price of imported goods such as coffins or flowers, noted Smith. The average price of funeral floral arrangements has gone up 38 per cent since 2016, reveals SunLife’s data.

Even the most basic funeral with none of the extras still costs thousands of pounds: a crushing financial burden for many. There will be many families struggling to meet the costs of funerals themselves without turning to a public health funeral, said Lindesay Mace, co-manager of Down to Earth, a helpline for advice on funeral costs run by the charity Quaker Social Action. Although Down to Earth discusses public health funerals with anyone who might qualify, the vast majority of callers “desperately” want to arrange the funeral themselves.

“Carrying out funeral rituals is incredibly important to people, and not being able to do so can have a huge impact on their grief and their mental health,” said Mace. “People will get into terrible debt, borrow from friends or even loan sharks, and go to any lengths to do it themselves.”

More than ever people calling the Down to Earth helpline are mentioning energy and food costs. While government support is available to those on certain benefits, it barely covers half the cost of a basic funeral, let alone the full send-off. In recent years it’s become more common for people to try to raise money for funeral expenses, yet Mace noted that now helpline callers say their families and friends cannot afford to contribute.

Research conducted at the end of last year by Farewill, a probate and cremation provider, found that more than four in ten people who had contributed to the funeral of a relative or friend in the past two years had gone into debt to do so. Close to half had resorted to selling a sentimental item, such as jewellery, while two-thirds felt unable to mourn properly due to the mental burden of funeral expenses.

“I don’t think we’ve begun to see the impact yet,” warned Dan Garrett, chief executive of Farewill. “I really think it’s going to get a lot worse.”

[See also: The long and futile history of British anti-strike law]