Funeral poverty

The following extracts are taken from Key issues for the new Parliament 2015  .

Funerals and burial space

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.

The average cost of a basic funeral has risen from five weeks’ wages in 2004, to nearly nine weeks’ in 2014 (chart included).

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. 

Social Fund Funeral Payments – Commons Library Briefing Paper 

Arranging and paying for a funeral – Commons Library Briefing Paper 

Further reading

Sun Life, Cost of Dying 2014: The 8th Annual Report, October 2014

Sun Life, Can you afford to die? Cost of dying rises, June 2015

Kate Woodthorpe, Funeral poverty in the UK: issues for policy, University of Bath, January 2014


Sun Life, Cost of Dying 2015, 9 October 2015 

UK Funeral costs rise as rapidly as house prices,” Royal London press release, 5 October 2015 

Royal London, Rising funeral costs: The elephant the room: The Royal London National Funeral Cost Index Report 2015, 5 October 2015

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