The rise in paupers’ funerals and their spiralling cost to councils has been branded a ‘stark’ reminder of austerity on Tyneside.
Local authorities forked out 78% more on funerals for families who don’t have the money to bury their loved ones themselves in the two latest financial years, compared to the two years leading up to the 2010 General Election.
One authority faced a 100% increase in how much they paid out to cover funerals, either in full or as a contribution to costs.
Emma Lewell-Buck, the MP for South Shields who is asking the Government to review the national funeral payments system, said:
“Funeral poverty is often overlooked, but at a time when incomes are falling and cruel welfare reforms are hitting hard the added cost of a funeral can have a devastating effect on families.
“It is little wonder families are turning to their Local Authority or getting into debt, it is crucial that the plight of so many is highlighted and a swift resolution brought to this heart-wrenching poverty.”
A complex web of factors are said to behind the current number of council-funded funerals – officially known as public health funerals – and associated costs.
Meanwhile, charities are striving to maintain dignity for families and help people stay out of debt.
Heather Kennedy, funeral poverty officer with Quaker Social Action, said:
“The figures are stark. There is still a perception that a public health funeral amounts to a ‘paupers’ funeral’ but this can get in the way of real grieving processes.
“It can be really hard but some people are just so relieved that they will be able to have some sort of service after all that they are happy with anything.”
Families can apply for part-funding from the council to cover funeral bills, and the council will also meet the full cost when a person dies with no family able to pay when the deceased’s estate does not cover the fees.
South Tyneside Council has gone from spending £500 on two funerals before the General Election, to 11 funerals costing £7,000 in 2013/14.
County Durham has seen its costs double. While the cost of six funerals and contributions was £3,015 in 2008/09, in 2013/14 it was £7,386.
Newcastle City Council has had to pay out £101,490 on 131 funerals in the past six years – although year on year the number of funerals fluctuates.
The figures reveal costs are rising more than the number of funerals, and in 2008/09 and 2009/10 Newcastle, South Tyneside, County Durham and Sunderland City Council spent £44,965.14 on public health funerals.
In 2012/13 and 2013/14 this figure rose to £80,158.38 while the number of burials has only risen by 32% over the same period.
The average funeral in the UK now costs around £3,466 – an 80% rise in the past ten years.
Ms Kennedy added:
“We see a lot of people who are struggling financially and may be claiming benefits but there are also increasingly more people who are in work.
“So because they are in work they can’t apply for a social fund so when suddenly someone in the family dies they can’t afford it.
“People who weren’t necessarily in debt before can really be floored by this.”
Newcastle City Council buried 17 people in 2008/09, which cost £12,995.00, and in the year 2012/13 this rose to 29 people costing £24,400, while last year there were 21 funerals which cost £20,406.00.
In Sunderland the number of funerals has risen year on year to from six in 2008/09, which cost Sunderland City Council £1,124, to 13 in 2013/14 costing the council £6,423.98.
Emma Lewell-Buck, who has spoken in Parliament on the issue of funeral poverty, has said low-income households have been forced to turn to payday loan companies and sell possessions in order to lay their loved ones to rest.
There is also the fear that an ageing population, funeral cost inflation and rising death rates could mean the problem of unaffordability spirals, with more and more people applying to the council for help.
A South Tyneside Council spokesperson, said:
“It is obviously extremely sad that some people die without any known living relatives to celebrate their lives at their passing.
“Our staff in Bereavement Services work hard to trace relatives of the deceased but sometimes are unable to find anyone.
“When this happens we provide a dignified funeral service giving the due respect everyone deserves at the end of their lives.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 30 Dec 2014