Funeral poverty: when there is nothing left to say goodbye – by Emma Tomlinson

RoseA few weeks ago my neighbour’s only son died unexpectedly. He was in his 30s, without a job and there was no money to pay for the funeral.  Amidst the shock and grief that followed for her I learned something else; that funeral’s are very expensive, and there is no backup plan for people who can’t afford it.

My neighbour shared with me some of the key frustrations she experienced in this time:

  • The government funeral payment on offer to those on low incomes is set at £700. Whereas the cheapest funeral she could find cost £2500 which left a short fall of £1800.
  • The funeral payment can only be released once a funeral has been booked and deposit paid so the process relies on reimbursing costs paid up front.  Furthermore it is very slow – in fact my neighbour still hasn’t heard if she is eligible for a payment, despite the funeral itself having taken place mid-November.
  • When she tried to organise some of the key details herself, like sourcing an affordable cardboard coffin to cut costs, she discovered that many suppliers will only deal directly with funeral directors.  It further disempowered her in a situation that already felt out of her control.

The cost of dying

Citizen’s Advice Scotland (CAS) report “The Real Deal” claims that the average basic cost of a funeral (including funeral director services, cremation/burial and officiant) is £2610 for a cremation and £3240 for a burial.  These have increased rapidly in recent years. Cremation and Burial fees are set by local councils and there is some suggestion within the report that these rises have been made to protect other front-line services. Further evidence perhaps of the true cost of the cuts.

These costs of course do not include additional expenses such as flowers, notices in a local paper, transport for family, orders of service, hosting a wake and memorial stones, all of which would significantly increase these basic costs.

Of course, in an ideal world everyone would pay into a pre-arranged plan in preparation for their funeral or have sufficient savings to cover funeral costs.  But this is clearly not reality for huge numbers of people, especially in these times of austerity or in the case of unexpected deaths of young people.


My friend’s situation is not unusual, in fact 66,000 people applied for government help with funeral costs in 2012/13. Funerals are unaffordable for many, and the support structures in place are inadequate and out-dated. Indeed the funeral payment has stayed the same for 10 years; whereas the cost of funerals has increased at around 7% a year, well above inflation.

At a point in life where people are in a very vulnerable situation, the funeral payment in its current form is too little, too late and leaves bereaved family members in a sea of uncertainty.

In the end my neighbour was fortunate that a relative offered to supply the funds she needed to go ahead with a cremation for her son.  Also she is very resourceful and led the service and arranged the flowers herself. However many others are left with the only option being to take high interest loans and hope that delayed funeral payments will come through quickly.

The death of a loved one can push people into a spiral of poverty linked to bad debts as they try to do their best in a difficult situation.

What we can do about it

On the 9th December, the Funeral Poverty Bill, calling on the government to review the issues behind funeral poverty, will be put before parliament. Please join me in emailing your MP asking them to support this bill. Church Action on Poverty has created a super easy tool for this, meaning that you can email your MP now and it will only take five minutes by following this link:


Let’s remember what Gandhi said, that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  In these times of increasing divides between rich and poor, lets do all we can to ensure that everyone can say goodbye to their loved ones with dignity and respect.

Emma spends her time between Stirling (where her husband and home are) and Gabon where she is studying for her PhD in African Tropical Forests. She loves getting out and exploring the Scottish crags, hills and islands while trying to live slowly enough to get to know her neighbours. Follow her on twitter @emmieroset

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