(Facts culled from articles in ‘The Independent’ & ‘The Guardian’)
At 9.30am, seven family members gather in the south chapel at the City of London crematorium to celebrate the life of a mother and grandmother who has died at the age of 77. The minister reads through The Lord’s My Shepherd and a granddaughter struggles through tears to make a speech recalling a shared love of bingo. The minister remarks that this was a woman who was extremely honest and plain-speaking. “Sometimes her honesty was refreshing and sometimes it wasn’t welcome, but you knew where you stood,” he tells the family. Outside, there is the noise of vehicles reversing as the hearse draws away for its next appointment.
There is nothing remarkable about the service, except the time. The 9.30am slot is when public health or environmental funerals are held – once known as pauper’s funerals. These are services paid for by the local authority when someone has died without relatives or money, or when their relatives have been unable to fund the service.
Funeral poverty is an unexpectedly potent indicator of the combined impact of recession, austerity, low wages and the insecure job market. The insurance company Sun Life Direct says funeral poverty has risen by 125% since 2010 – a figure it calculates by assessing the shortfall between the cost of funerals and people’s ability to pay. Around one in seven people struggle to pay funeral costs – with the average cost of a basic funeral around £3,590, according to the company’s research.
Funeral charities and crematorium staff report a rise in demand for the state-funded funeral, and note that while it was designed for those who died alone, increasingly it is being used to bury people whose families are unable to meet the cost of arranging a ceremony. Meanwhile there has been a parallel rise in DIY funerals (where families buy the coffin online, and transport the body themselves to the crematorium in a van or an estate car) because of the rising cost of a high street funeral and the fall in the value of support offered by the state to those struggling to meet the costs.