'We hadn’t even grieved for my mum properly': Families feel impact of spiralling funeral costs

24 May 2024, 22:12 | Updated: 25 May 2024, 08:02

When Susan Bradley lost two loved ones in less than a year, there was no time to grieve.

She and her siblings first had to find the £3,500 for their mother's funeral cost.

And when Susan's younger sister died just 10 months later, that same funeral plan was now £1,000 more expensive, and the family were already in debt.

Ms Bradley said: "We hadn't even grieved for my mum properly. And then it's like having to grieve for my sister as well, but you don't get to do that, because you're worrying about how you're going to pay for the funeral.

"You feel like you've been cheated in a way because the focus has been on the cost of the funeral and not where it should be, actually on your loved ones. And it's like almost even now, playing catch up because of that grieving process."

Eventually Susan, 51, an unpaid carer for her elderly father, managed to get some help from a charity, but is still paying off debts.

Her story is not uncommon. A basic funeral in the UK costs £4,141, up 4.7% on last year, which one in five families struggle to pay, according to the Sun Life Cost of Dying report 2024.

A government-funded funeral expenses payment is available to those on certain benefits, but it doesn't usually cover all of the costs of the funeral.

Figures obtained by Sky News through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests reveal a 23% rise in so-called "pauper's", or public health funerals between 2018 and 2023, in nearly two-thirds of councils in England.

These are provided by local authorities to those whose families can't, or aren't willing to pay for a funeral, or who die alone in poverty.

In parts of the country the rise is even sharper.

FOI data shows a 387% increase in public health funerals in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council, and a 250% rise in the London borough of Enfield, in the same five-year period.

The provisions are basic.

Some local authorities don't allow family and friends to attend. In most cases there is no service, no flowers, and no headstone if it's a burial, though many councils opt for a cremation.

But even these no-frills send-offs can be hard to secure.

Research by charity Quaker Social Action, to be published next month and shared exclusively with Sky News, found that more than half of councils in England and Wales are likely not following guidelines on public health funerals.

Lindesay Mace, co-manager of Down to Earth, a service run by the Social Quake Action charity, said: "It can be really challenging to actually get in touch with the right department at the council."

She said the service, which supports those struggling with funeral costs, is now busier with requests for help than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The departments that deal with public health funerals, council funerals, are wide ranging - it can be the financial affairs department, environmental health.

"We have had great difficulties as professionals who understand this system, let alone bereaved people."

Ms Mace said the guidelines themselves need updating, calling for "minimum statutory standards for full council funerals, public health funerals [because] people get different things across the country and people shouldn't be subjected to a postcode lottery".

"We want that to include a requirement to hold an attended funeral, because unfortunately, the legislation doesn't require the funeral to be attended.

"Research has shown that the denial of those kind of funeral rituals can really have a significant impact on people's mental health, and their ability to grieve."

A Local Government Association spokesperson said: "When arranging these funerals, councils will seek to ensure the religious beliefs or wishes of the deceased are respected and they are provided with a dignified funeral, while keeping the costs to local taxpayers to a minimum.

"In many cases the deceased has no family to arrange their funeral, so there is no-one to attend a service if one is held or to collect the ashes.

"Where there is family, councils will often liaise with those family members to organise a funeral service."

But pastor Mick Fleming, who runs the Church On The Street charity in Burnley, said he witnessed the devastating effects a bare-bones council funeral can have on grieving relatives.

Mr Fleming said: "You don't get an adequate service, you don't get the music, you don't get a proper funeral really. It makes people's mental health worse. You can't lay your loved ones to rest, you feel worthless, you feel a failure."

Read more:
Paula Vennells faces sub-postmasters' questions
20m hit the road as thunderstorms threaten Bank Holiday
Orange cloud appears after 'industrial incident'

Pastor Fleming's charity tries to help families avoid that fate by paying for as many funerals it can for the neediest in his community. He doesn't charge to hold a service.

He said: "I'd say there must be, this is a guess, but there must be a 50-fold increase in the last two years, for us, of people coming to us who can't afford the funeral, and it's really, really sad.

"When you have a service, it's a personal tribute to the person. it's about giving hope at a point of great suffering. Without it people seem to be lost, seem to carry this anxiety that never really goes. You don't get the closure."