The funeral industry is preying on grieving people. This must stop | Claire Brandon | Opinion

Price increases at double the rate of inflation for 14 years, certain unscrupulous funeral directors targeting bereaved customers’ vulnerability, people left unable to afford to bury loved ones due to vicious benefits cuts. No wonder the Competition and Markets Authority has announced it will launch an in-depth market investigation into the funerals sector. Frankly, it’s dystopian.

At Down to Earth, the only UK-wide advice service for people in financial need arranging a funeral, I get a unique insight into the effect. “I’ve called around five funeral directors in the area and none of them want to know, as soon as I tell them I have no money,” a caller told me recently. “I can’t sleep, I don’t know what to do. I can’t stand the thought of him lying in that morgue for months”. Lorraine (not her real name) had been advised that without at least a deposit of £4,000, the funeral wouldn’t go ahead. “Where am I supposed to get that?” she said.

Lorraine had wanted to do the right thing by Gary, her partner of 30 years, who wished for a traditional burial. The deposit of £4,000 was just the grave fee. Burials in London are extraordinarily expensive. Gary had been paying into a pre-paid pension plan. He became too ill to work and eventually Lorraine also stopped work to care for him. They used up their savings and cashed in Gary’s funeral plan to continue paying their mortgage.

When Gary died, Lorraine’s benefits were reassessed; she had to apply for universal credit and was advised of the five-week wait. She applied for a universal credit advance, which she intended to use towards funeral costs but then needed to use it for bills instead. She called the Department for Work and Pensions to claim a funeral payment and was told she couldn’t claim without a funeral director or a date. They wouldn’t tell her how much she might get, nor how long the decision would take.

“How can I make a claim?” she asked me. “All the funeral directors want deposits and won’t book a funeral until I pay, but the DWP want the date before they pay!”

I helped Lorraine consider her options and she decided to cremate Gary. “I hope he’ll forgive me,” she said “but he wouldn’t have wanted me to get in debt.” We got some new quotes. The most expensive quote for a simple funeral was £3,800. Another required up-front payment in full. Lorraine found a funeral director who quoted £2,800 and would take a deposit of £900. He explained they couldn’t go ahead for less or they would be out of pocket, which as a small business they couldn’t afford. “We’ve had to write off some debts,” he said “so we might need to ask for it all in future.” He gave Lorraine a provisional funeral date two weeks later while we applied for help from a benevolent fund.

Gary’s body lay in the morgue. The funeral director felt it too financially risky to move him into their care until they received the deposit. After two weeks the hospital called Lorraine with “polite reminders” to get funeral arrangements sorted. With more people having to delay funerals, hospital morgues are becoming jam-packed. Four weeks later the benevolent fund gave a generous grant of £900, but the original funeral date had to be put back. By the time Gary was moved to the funeral director’s care his body had deteriorated and Lorraine was advised not to view him: “I couldn’t really say goodbye.”

Lorraine’s funeral payment came through two weeks later. It didn’t fully cover the remaining amount and Lorraine is paying the last £300 at £30 per month. “I feel so guilty the funeral director hasn’t got all his money yet… I can’t truly grieve Gary until it’s paid.”

This is the reality for thousands of struggling people in Britain. The death of a loved one is hard enough without having to worry about how you’ll pay for their funeral. It is long overdue that government brought some humanity into the equation, so that everyone can have the send-off they deserve.

Claire Brandon is manager of Down to Earth, a project of Quaker Social Action

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