Support for the bereaved Contents

Chapter 1: The cost of a funeral

12.In their 2015 National Funeral Cost Index Report, Royal London estimated that the average cost for a funeral in the UK is £3,702.20 This was 3.9% higher than in 2014, an increase well above the rate of inflation.21 Royal London said that this represented a “continuing trend for high levels of funeral cost inflation” and that since 1980, “annual funeral cost inflation has been significantly higher than overall inflation as measured by the Retail Price Index.”22 Whilst costs have risen, the capped element of an SFFP has been frozen at £700 since 2003 and we consider the effect of this freeze below. In this chapter we also set out the constituent costs of a funeral and consider the cost and availability of simple funerals. We also look at the broader funeral market.

Constituent costs of a funeral

13.Funeral costs comprise disbursements and funeral director charges. Disbursements are third-party fees, such as the cemetery or crematorium fee, which are initially paid by the funeral director and then recovered from the client. Some of the fees in both categories are non-essential and can be avoided. Flowers, a celebrant and newspaper notices are all examples of disbursements that are optional, whilst embalming and limousine hire are examples of funeral director costs that are avoidable.23

14.Figures 2 and 3 give a breakdown of disbursements and funeral director charges. Note that, whilst most funerals will involve a religious service or a secular equivalent, in the case of a direct cremation or burial many of the items which may be widely regarded as part of a standard funeral (such as a Minister’s fee) would not be required.

Figure 2: Disbursements

Cemetery fees

Non-discretionary (burial)

Interment fees

Non-discretionary (burial)

Crematorium fee

Non-discretionary (cremation)

Doctor’s fee for completing the cremation forms

Non-discretionary (cremation)

Church fee

Discretionary

Cremated remains plot or storage space

Discretionary

Celebrant/Minister fee

Discretionary

Organist fee

Discretionary

Newspaper notices

Discretionary

Source: Adapted from C.P.J Field and Co. Ltd (BVB0041)

Figure 3: Funeral director fees

Collection of the deceased person from the place they died

Non-discretionary

Storage of the deceased until the day of the funeral

Non-discretionary

Hearse on the day of the funeral

Non-discretionary

Professional fee for meetings, administration, correspondence, liaison, paying third parties and provision of funeral director and sufficient coffin bearers on the day of the funeral*

Non-discretionary

Provision of a lined and fitted coffin and the deceased person presented in it*

Non-discretionary

Embalming

Discretionary

Memorialisation

Discretionary

Source: Adapted from C.P.J Field and Co. Ltd (BVB0041)

*Some funeral directors allow the person arranging the funeral to provide their own coffin and coffin bearers

Simple funerals: definition and cost

15.The average price of a funeral, as calculated by Royal London and SunLife, incorporates the purchase by some people of high-cost, non-essential items, such as horse-drawn carriages and memorials. We are primarily interested in the cost, availability and suitability of a simple funeral, which will meet the needs of SFFP claimants.

16.The definition of a simple funeral varies and even the label attached to it can cause confusion. The written evidence we received refers to ‘simple’ or ‘basic’ funerals, which sometimes include costs associated with a service (for example Minister’s fees). Other companies however offer direct cremations or burials that do not involve services. The Individual Funeral Company offers a direct funeral option24 and clearly states it does not include:

Baroness Altmann, the Minister responsible for SFFPs, said she would rather refer to basic funerals as an “ordinary funeral”,25 although this would normally be taken to include items ordinarily associated with a funeral, such as a celebrant and a wooden coffin, rather than the most basic direct cremation. We shall refer to them as ‘simple funerals’.

17.When the original Social Fund Maternity and Funeral Expenses (General) Regulations were introduced in 1986, they effectively defined a simple funeral and met the cost of these items for a qualifying claimant. The relevant articles are set out in Figure 4.

Figure 4: 1986 definition of a funeral

(2) Subject to regulation 8 and Part IV of these Regulations, the amount of a funeral payment shall be an amount sufficient to meet any of the following essential expenses which fall to be met by the responsible member:—

(a) the cost of any necessary documentation;

(b) the cost of an ordinary coffin;

(c) the cost of transport for the coffin and bearers and one additional car;

(d) the reasonable cost of flowers from the responsible member;

(e) undertaker’s fees and gratuities, chaplain’s, organist’s and cemetery or crematorium fees for a simple funeral;

(f) the cost of any additional expenses arising from a requirement of the religious faith of the deceased, not in excess of £75;

(g) where the death occurred away from the deceased’s home, the costs of transporting the body within the United Kingdom to that home or to the undertaker’s premises or to a chapel of rest; and

(h) the reasonable travelling costs of one return journey within the United Kingdom by the responsible member in connection with either the arrangement of or attendance at the funeral.

Source: Social Fund Maternity and Funeral Expenses (General) Regulations 1986

Over time both the definition of a simple funeral and the amount awarded to meet the cost, described originally as “essential expenses”, have been gradually stripped back. In 1995 the Regulations were amended and costs were set out in two paragraphs. Paragraph (3) included funeral director’s fees, collection and care of the deceased, a simple coffin, transport for the deceased and an extra vehicle, and staff. The payment for these costs was capped at £500. Paragraph (4) included, amongst other items, the burial or cremation fee, necessary documentation, the fee for a Minister, additional expenses due to religious faith and £25 for a floral tribute. This payment was not capped. In 1997 the Regulations were further amended to remove any mention of items such as ‘a simple coffin’, and instead referred only to “other funeral expenses” and capped the payment for these at £600. The cap was increased to £700 in 2003. It has remained at that level since.

18.These changes fundamentally altered the SFFP from providing a specific facility to being a contribution towards undefined costs. Nigel Lymn Rose, representative of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), told us “It is completely open to be interpreted how the claimant chooses to interpret it”.26

19.The cap on “other necessary costs” has been frozen at £700 since 2003, effectively decreasing the purchasing power of the payment. However, Baroness Altmann told us that the Department had looked at breakdowns of the costs and that £700 would still “allow people to cover more than the cost of a basic funeral”.27 Stakeholders disagreed. The Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management said that, whilst independent companies are able to amend prices and offer cheaper packages, “even with a basic funeral the Social Fund Funeral payment is inadequate to meet these costs.”28 Quaker Social Action said that “over the last 12 years the value of grants has been dramatically eroded in real terms. This leaves a financial shortfall for the applicant, pushing bereaved people on low incomes into unmanageable debt.”29 In its written evidence, the DWP accepted that, in the majority of cases, the funeral costs exceed the amount of the SFFP.30 They said that SFFPs make a “significant contribution”, 31 to the cost of a simple low-cost funeral.

20.We asked Lucy Coulbert, an independent funeral director, to give us a breakdown of costs for the cheapest funeral (with service) she could provide. Lucy’s company, Coulbert Family Funerals, is run as a not-for-profit company, which is dedicated to conducting funerals for people claiming SFFPs. The costs listed in Figure 5 do not include any profit for her funeral company but Lucy said that an additional £300 was a reasonable sum for arranging a simple funeral for an SFFP claimant.32

Figure 5: Cost of a simple cremation funeral

Disbursements

Oxford Crematorium - £943

Doctor’s cremation fee - £164 (only payable if the Coroner is not involved)

Total - £1,107

Professional charges

Coffin - £120

Hearse - £265

Removal and storage of the deceased - £295 (time to collect the deceased, vehicle, staff and storage)

Three bearers to carry the coffin - £90

Minister’s fee - £200

Total - £970

Grand total - £2,077

Source: Supplementary written evidence: Lucy Coulbert (BVB0043)

21.The price of a simple funeral will vary by company and location but the prices listed in Figure 5 are indicative of the cheapest funerals that are available. The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) said that their members offer a simple funeral for families on a low income, which “maintains the high standard of service families would expect but at a reduced cost, typically around £1,200 plus fees.”33 This is approximately the same price as that offered by Lucy Coulbert, including a £300 profit.

22.Some stakeholders have told us that it is right that SFFP claimants are not pushed down the avenue of a simple package funeral.34 Baroness Altmann told us “the £700 is really a discretionary amount that the bereaved person can decide for themselves what they would like to spend the money on. We do not prescribe it.”35 The NAFD said that they believe that “every ceremony is personal, and should be based on both what the bereaved want and what they can afford”. 36 The reality for SFFP claimants, however, is that the devalued SFFP award and the price of funeral director services offers little or no opportunity to customise the funeral. The £700 cap allows for basic requirements, such as the collection and storage of the deceased, to be covered: but these are necessities.

23.The original Funeral Expenses Regulations made provision for a simple funeral service for those otherwise unable to afford one. The removal of any listed items in the Regulations, and the freezing of the £700 cap for the last 13 years, has devalued the SFFP to the point where it does not cover a simple funeral.

24.We recommend the Government negotiate a reasonable cost of, and items required for, a simple funeral with the National Association of Funeral Directors and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors. Those funeral homes that agree to offer such a funeral should be signposted in Government communications and public services for the bereaved. Furthermore, these funeral homes should be accredited as part of a fair funeral scheme.

25.We recommend the Funeral Expenses Regulations be amended to set out the essential items for a simple funeral. This should include items such as the collection and care of the deceased and a coffin. The capped element of the payment should reflect the cost of a simple funeral, as negotiated with industry bodies. The capped element should then be index-linked.

Funeral director industry

26.Defining a simple funeral and increasing the amount of SFFPs will mark an improvement. However, the costs in this category continue to rise significantly above inflation so simply index-linking them may not solve the problem. Moreover it could exacerbate the issue, as paying more may only prompt some funeral directors to charge more. DWP said “it is important that the scheme does not influence or inflate the prices charged by the funeral industry for a simple funeral.”37

27.We did not set out to inquire about the state of the funeral market; however, it has become increasingly clear that funeral directors are key players in any proposed reform to SFFPs, and the way the market operates is crucial. Approximately 60% of funeral homes in the UK are privately owned. There are two large companies in the sector: The Co-operative Group and Dignity Plc. There are also two main trade associations for funeral directors: The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF).

28.In 2015, reports by Royal London and SunLife found that funeral director charges had risen by 4.9% and 1.8% respectively since 2014, at a time when inflation was 0%.38 Simon Cox, a funeral expert at Royal London, explained that the cost of “energy, wages, premises and equipment”39 were all factors that might increase funeral director charges. He added that because death rates had fallen there was less business available and so funeral companies may charge more to cover their costs.40 He also said that bad debt was a major problem for some companies and that funeral directors have to take on a significant risk when they are faced with a SFFP claimant.41 At the time of arranging, or possibly carrying out, the funeral, a funeral director will not know how much a claimant will receive or whether they are even eligible for a payment. This is supported by written evidence we have received.42

29.Furthermore, whilst trade bodies impose standards on their members, we have heard that there is little compulsion to meet those standards and membership of such bodies is not mandatory.43 For example, the NAFD state that

NAFD members are required by the Association’s Code of Practice to provide full and detailed information to clients on prices and the range of options available. It is required that itemised price lists are made available on request and displayed throughout the funeral home.44

However Quaker Social Action told us

Few funeral directors display prices on their websites and many are reluctant to make their full range of prices and money saving options visible. In the mystery shopping we conducted in 2015, of the funeral directors who offer a ‘simple funeral’ around a third failed to mention this option when a caller asked for an over-the-phone quote and disclosed they were concerned about price.

Furthermore, Lucy Coulbert told us that the large companies “aren’t interested in helping those who are applying to the Social Funeral Fund.”45

30.We also heard that very different fees are charged by different companies within the same area offering very similar services.46 Yourfuneralchoice.com47 shows that in Wrexham, Wales, Lucy & Tattum Funeral Services charges £990 whilst R Breeze Funeral Directors (a branch of Dignity) charges £3,012.48 There are also significant regional price differences, possibly driven by a lack of competition in certain areas. In the L13 postcode area of Liverpool, Desmond L Bannon & Sons only charge £695 and there is a choice of 24 other funeral directors. In the HD7 postcode area of Yorkshire however, there is a choice of only five funeral directors and the cheapest listed is £1,254. These differences mean that the shortfall a claimant faces between their SFFP award and their funeral bill depends very much on where they live and which funeral home they walk into; a claimant in the L13 postcode could have their entire funeral bill covered49 whilst in the HD7 area there will be at least a £554 shortfall.

The experience of the bereaved

31.SFFP applicants are in the position of trying to navigate this landscape of drastically differing costs and devalued state support, all whilst suffering a bereavement. Marie Curie told us

funeral purchases are made at a highly emotional and often distressing period. Bereaved people have compared funeral arrangements to ‘distress purchases’ when normal market behaviours, such as shopping around for the best price are absent, leading to increased costs.50

We have also been told that a funeral is the “last thing that a relative or friend can do for their loved one”,51 and so people feel under pressure to spend more than they may be able to afford. People are also under pressure to arrange the funeral quickly. We have been told that families will “raid every pot they can to get a funeral over, due to the shame of knowing their loved one is lying in a mortuary”.52

32.DWP acknowledged that it is “often the case that people simply go into the local [funeral home] that they have seen, rather than shopping around.53 The Office of Fair Trading have said that this unusual consumer behaviour “acts as a dampener on competition”, and that people are “vulnerable to unfair trading practices”.54 The Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management said that people should be encouraged to shop around for the most affordable funeral and not feel guilty about questioning funeral costs.55

33.We are concerned by the lack of protection in the market for bereaved customers, particularly those on low incomes. They are vulnerable and may not be inclined to shop around. This is not conducive to effective operation of the market. We did not set out to evaluate the funeral director market and a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this inquiry. It is clear however, that any improvement to SFFPs must address the combination of factors driving up funeral director fees. We have passed relevant evidence from our inquiry to the Competition and Markets Authority for review. We may return to the issue of funeral director fees in future.



20 Royal London, Rising Funeral Costs: The Elephant in the Room, 2015. SunLife reached a similar estimate of £3,693 in their Annual Cost of Dying Report 2015

21 Essentially, 0%

22 Ibid

23 This may depend on the funeral company and the services it offers.

24 Advertised at £1950 fully inclusive, http://www.theindividualfuneralcompany.co.uk/set-options

25 Q128 (Baroness Altmann)

26 Q14 (Nigel Lymn Rose)

27 Q126 (Baroness Altmann)

28 Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management (BVB0022)

29 Quaker Social Action (BVB0042)

30 Department for Work and Pensions (BVB0039)

31 Ibid

32 Lucy Coulbert (BVB0043)

33 SAIF (BVB0023)

34 St Christopher’s Hospice (BVB0030)

35 Q125 (Baroness Altmann)

36 National Association of Funeral Directors (BVB0037)

37 Department for Work and Pensions (BVB0039)

39 Q105 (Simon Cox)

40 Ibid

41 Q110 (Simon Cox)

42 See, Oxley’s Funeral Services (BVB0044) and The Funeral Funding Service CIC (BVB0020)

43 Ibid

44 National Association of Funeral Directors (BVB0037)

45 The Individual Funeral Company (BVB0001)

46 As listed on yourfuneralchoice.com, i.e. collection and care, funeral service, simple coffin, hearse

47 Yourfuneralchoice.com a comprehensive source of data but does not necessarily capture every funeral home.

48 These are funeral director fees only, not disbursements.

49 If the cost of the burial/cremation is met and the maximum of £700 in the uncapped element is awarded.

50 Marie Curie (BVB0021)

51 Cruse Bereavement Care (BVB0032)

52 Kensington Citizens Advice Bureau (BVB011)

53 Q134 (Baroness Altmann)

55 Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management (BVB0022)




© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 29 March 2016