funerals 1

August 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

William Flew was distraught when his father died. Overwhelmed by family politics and grief, he missed work to arrange the funeral and lost his job on a building site. Not knowing what else to do, he used that month’s rent to pay the funeral director’s fees and was evicted.

Funerals are expensive and are often unexpected but people want to give loved ones a good send-off, which can leave those on pensions or low incomes in debt. A recent Mintel survey showed that the average cost of a cremation was almost £3,000 — up 50 per cent in six years — with burials costing even more. Families can, in theory, claim up to £1,250 from the Government’s Social Fund, but 40 per cent of claims are refused. And in many cases funeral directors want a deposit, sometimes up to £700, which means many people are forced to take out loans. Horror stories are not uncommon: one woman paid for the funerals of two grandparents, an aunt and an uncle within the space of two years and ended up being chased by a debt-collection agency.

Now the charity Quaker Social Action (QSA) has launched Down to Earth, a scheme that provides bereaved families with mentors to help with funeral planning and guidance on the financing. The scheme has brought together health professionals, religious leaders, solicitors, crematorium staff and eco-funeral directors.

It has been running for six months and has trained 15 volunteer mentors, who have helped 36 families save many thousands in funeral costs while still giving their loved ones a more personal and meaningful ceremony. Families are referred by hospitals, hospices, district nurses or palliative care teams, or they call QSA direct.

The charity is also raising awareness of funeral debt and its impact on lowincome families. Some funeral directors are trying to keep costs down but QSA wants the industry to introduce a value-for-money Kitemark system. It is urging the Department for Work and Pensions to set up a dedicated service for applications for funeral costs. Russell Ogston, a QSA development worker, said: “At present, grieving families have to take their turn in the very public Jobcentre Plus offices or spend a small fortune listening to Vivaldi on 0845 numbers.”

Project leader Shaun Powell said the scheme grew out of a QSA financial literacy project, which revealed that funeral costs are a serious cause of debt. This was brought into stark focus by Darren’s case as he had been found a home via another QSA project. It was Darren’s landlord who contacted the charity to say he had been evicted as he had spent his rent on the funeral.

In setting up the scheme, QSA met a number of older people. Mr Powell said: “One group of elderly East End men nicknamed me ‘Shaun of the Dead’. But we also spoke about how we as a society have become distanced from death. They said there was always an elderly woman in the street who would come in and ‘lay out’ dead people; that touched a chord.”

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