Quaker Social Action tackling funeral poverty

The issue of funeral poverty has been highlighted by Quaker Social Action this month as they raised the issue of high funeral costs on BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme, You and Yours.

Speaking on the programme, funeral poverty campaigner Heather Kennedy said: “There’s this Victorian legacy of shame around not being able to give someone that you loved a decent send off so someone’s quoted a certain price and people will move hell and high water to try and come up with the money.”

Almost one in five people struggle to pay for a funeral and costs have risen by 80% over the past 10 years, well above the cost of inflation. At the same time, government support for people who face financial difficulty when paying for a funeral has been eroded.

The problem is not going away. According to the annual Sunlife Direct survey on funeral costs, the cost of dying rose by 7.1% between 2012 and 2013. Quaker Social Action reports seeing a marked year-on-year increase on people coming to them for help as they try to deal with funeral costs.

Since 2011 Quaker Social Action has run a service, Down to Earth, which helps people on low incomes in East London to arrange a meaningful and affordable funeral service. However, recognising that little was being done to tackle the growing problem of funeral poverty, Quaker Social Action is working at every level from grass roots campaigning, collaborating with professional bodies and influencing policy makers and parliament, to raise awareness and seek solutions to end funeral poverty.

You and Yours featured a woman, Kristina, who had suffered debt from paying for her mother’s funeral. When her mother became ill she looked after her and checking the cost of a funeral in advance had not occurred to her. “It’s the last thing on your mind, checking the prices of how much a funeral director was going to cost you.” Although she got some state help, the average Social Fund Funeral payment is around £1,200 so it was only about a quarter of the cost of her mother’s funeral. She saved money by: “Choosing a cheaper coffin, less flowers and little details made a huge difference. It put me in a lot of debt, with funeral costs and a baby coming along. I’m still paying off some of the costs.”

The ingrained association that people have with spending money to show their love and care for someone came through in the programme when the presenter asked Kristina: “What did you do to keep the cost down, without being disrespectful to your mum’s memory and to other members of the family?” The idea remains that you must spend in order to show your respects. However, another woman had emailed into the programme that she was so shocked by the cost of her own mother’s funeral that she went out and picked some wild flowers to help keep the cost down. She said that her mother would have appreciated the gesture as it was done with love.

On the programme Heather Kennedy explained that arranging a funeral always comes at a difficult time: “When people are bereaved they’re on the back foot in terms of making decisions and often people don’t realise that there are huge differences in what funeral directors will charge. So the first thing that we always say to people is to shop around and take a bit of time to think things through.”

Meanwhile, the organisers of the Ideal Funeral Show in Birmingham in September were quoted last month as having chosen Bournville as their venue because of its Quaker links.

“They had a reputation for progressive management and embracing ideas ahead of their time,” said a spokesperson speaking to the Birmingham Mail. “We particularly like the way they put emphasis on making this world better rather than pondering what happens after leaving it. We respect the Quaker commitments to social justice, environmental consciousness and community.”

The You and Yours programme is available for a week after first broadcast to be heard again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b046p07g (the feature on funeral costs starts approximately 27 minutes in).

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