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Funeral poverty in 21st-century Britain – capitalism’s disgrace

In January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the cost of dying in Britain reached a record high, with costs having risen by 6% each year for the last 14 years. In 2013, the “key expenses associated with dying” had gone up by 80% since 2004, meaning that the average cost of a basic funeral was £3,456. By 2020, the UK average cost of a funeral had hit a record high of £4,417.

This data is compiled in the annual Cost of Dying reports from SunLife, showing that even a basic funeral in 2020 cost on average £4,184. 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the UK government’s consumer regulatory body, has released a final report of its market investigation into funeral services. With more than 78% of deceased people now being cremated, and given that 61% of cremations are organised by local authorities (the other 39% are privately owned), the report points out that people using “both private and local authority facilities have been paying too much, with the former overpaying by at least £115 per cremation and potentially as much as £210 on average, while the latter are overpaying by at least £80 per cremation and potentially as much as £170 per cremation on average.”

Funeral industry

Yet while calling for ‘remedies’ that mainly cover increased transparency and disclosure of cost information, the CMA report has relegated fixing price caps to some point in the future, under the pretext of the economic impact of COVID-19 on the funeral industry.

There can be no doubt that the CMA was ever truly going to be on the side of working-class people, against the interests of businesses and profits. According to the report, the Co-operative Group Limited and Dignity plc account for 30% of branches of funeral directors, and “are often significantly more expensive (which we estimate to be by approximately £800 and £1,400 respectively) than many of the small, typically family-owned, businesses that operate the majority of branches in the UK.”

Beyond just statistics or data, however, is the sad reality of funeral poverty for many people today, in one of the richest countries in the world.

Austerity

As years of austerity have pushed millions into poverty, for many there are no options but to take out payday loans for the cost of a funeral for a loved one, pushing them further into the vicious cycle of debt while they are grieving. And the financial help from the DWP, the Funeral Expenses Payment, is inadequate; their website even points out that it will not cover all the costs, and is now capped at £1,000. And the price of cremations carried out by local councils has also risen, giving them a net surplus of £55 million in 2019 from cremations and cemetery burials. Birmingham City Council alone made £3.46 million in surplus from cremations and burials in 2019, charging £875 for a cremation, with another £420 charge for funerals that run over time. But this was not even the most expensive charge; Worthing Council charged £995 per cremation, while Plymouth, Leeds, Dudley, Inverness, and Milton Keynes (to name a few) all charged over £900. The ‘cheapest’ option, according to the data provided, was £535 in south-west Middlesex.

There is the option of a direct cremation, which does not have a service or mourners, yet even these cost on average £482 last year, and these were not even advertised by 19 local authorities. In fact, last year, one-quarter of councils did not even offer direct cremations.

While the heavy costs drive some people to hold ‘DIY funerals’ instead, or bury their loved ones in their back garden, a more common option now is to opt for a public health funeral (known as a “pauper’s funeral”). These were originally designed for those who died with no known relatives or friends, and are a very basic, no-frills funeral carried out by the local authority, typically at a time like 9:00am and with very little done in the way of a ‘service’. 

But no-one should have to settle for such a pared-down option just because they cannot afford the high fees of either private companies motivated by profit, or from councils who also jack up the prices of cremations and burials – whether this is due to government funding cuts or a refusal to spend surplus money.

Given the Covid-19 crisis, and the fact that in Britain over 100,000 people have died, this is an even more urgent question now than in previous years.

The life and death question of capitalism

We say that all privately-operated crematoria and funeral services are immediately requisitioned and brought under public ownership, and not only for the duration of the pandemic. There must be immediate price caps brought in, and full state funding should be given to people on low incomes who cannot afford even a decent ‘proper’ funeral with religious and cultural rights respected.

Furthermore that end-of-life care, funeral homes, and hospices, as well as cemetery maintenance and burial services are all linked to a fully-funded, publicly-owned and run NHS and a National Care Service, completely under democratic workers’ control and management. All workers in private sector funeral services to be brought into the public sector; not a single job lost, and no loss of pay or detriment to conditions. 

No to the profiteering of the death industry! All working-class people have the right to give their loved ones a decent, dignified burial or cremation. There should be full financial support for those who need it, and for all health, care, and end-of-life services to be run on planned, socialist lines. Capitalism offers no dignity in neither life nor death, and this is why we need to fight for socialism. 

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