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Funeral poverty: we cannot rest content

04/01/2019 09:03

Val Barron proposes that we cannot rest content with the spiralling financial burden that afflicts those who have lost loved ones. Funeral poverty is getting out of control.

On Friday afternoon, four days before Christmas, I receive a call from a local vicar who has visited a young mother whose husband has just died. She can’t afford the funeral and, knowing that her income will be greatly reduced in the new year due to benefit changes, she is anxious about building up more debt. My heart sinks: the chance of finding support this close to the Christmas break is limited. The vicar is pulling in favours, negotiating with local funeral directors, waiving fees wherever possible, and being a conduit for small gifts from the community that may help the family. All alongside the immediate pastoral care.

Over one hundred years ago, William Temple wrote that:

‘We see on the one side a considerable number of people enjoying a great many of the good things of life… and we see on the other side a vast amount of real want and destitution, and also a great amount of vice which is largely due to poverty. This is a state of affairs with which the Christian cannot rest content.’

Funeral poverty is precisely one of these issues.

BBC Radio 4 Moneybox recently dedicated a programme to the rising cost of funerals, which now average between £3,000 and £5,000 (equivalent to 40% of annual expenditure for those on the lowest income). According to the Quaker Fair Funeral campaign, the cost of funerals has risen by more than 112% over the last 13 years, increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation. The Radio 4 programme highlighted the lack of regulation within the industry, as well as practices that are surely unacceptable: for example, Sarah described how she struggled to pay for her mother’s funeral and was unable to take possession of her ashes until the account was settled. Disappointingly, however, the programme did not acknowledge the role of church ministry in supporting families during these difficult times, many of whom, in my local experience, work hard to ensure affordable options are found and provide support beyond the funeral.

At the end of the programme there was a brief mention of Scotland’s first not for profit funeral directors Caledonian Creations, who launched in February 2018 with the aim of tackling funeral poverty. Their business model avoids a tiered pricing structure, thus removing the stigma of having to choose the ‘cheapest option’, and allows them to provide a help line and bereavement counselling.

Meanwhile, as part of my research into the role social enterprise can play in church social action, we held a seven-week training course in Durham Diocese. The approach was built around our passions and talents; what did we feel God was calling us to do and how were we, as the local church, uniquely placed to do good. The ability to provide an appropriate funeral, regardless of income, was not only one of the issues that people cared deeply about but was also one that we had the talents and gifts to respond to.

Perhaps the church is well placed to provide a sustainable and caring solution. What would a local social enterprise that provided an affordable funeral look like and what would be important for us as Christians to include in our business plan? How could we ensure that it was shaped by our communities?  We are so busy reacting to immediate needs that our challenge in 2019 is to provide time and space together to consider new approaches and then to take a few risks, to try something new.

In Doing Good Better Paul Bickley suggests that, ‘what is needed is not more but different—new ideas, new approaches new practices. Many of the great social achievements of religious traditions have not been realised by doing the same thing more, but by pioneering and applying a new approach.’

Prof Chris Grover has recently written that austerity can be understood as a form of structural violence that results in poor mental and physical health, and even death. I cannot help wondering about the long-term implications for individuals, families, and communities who have spent Christmas not knowing how they can afford to bury their loved ones.


More blogs on religion and public life…

Peace on earth and goodwill to all people? by Greg Smith

We have already Brexited ourselves by Chris Baker

Healing Division and Building up Common Life: Community Organising and the Church of England by Jenny Leigh

Sacred Secularity by Stephen Edwards


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