Pauper's funerals soar as government refuses to pay

Funeral dress researsal

As the country gears up for a lavish funeral for Margaret Thatcher, it must be a particularly difficult sight for the thousands of people who have had to bury their relatives in a pauper's funeral. The number of pauper's funerals has increased dramatically, as the government refuses half of all requests to fund a proper funeral.

So why won't the government pay?

Cost of dying

Funerals are astonishingly expensive. According Sun Life Direct's annual Cost of Dying survey, they cost an average of £3,091. That is up an astonishing 71% since it first started assessing costs nine years ago. Burial costs alone are up 10% in the last year.

For many people, this sort of bill - sometimes completely out of the blue - is overwhelming, and they have no way to pay for the costs of a funeral. The shortfall, according to a report by Sun Life Direct and the University of Bath, is £118 million.

State support

If you cannot afford to pay for a funeral, the typical approach is to apply for state payment through the Government Funeral Payment system. However, the report has revealed that this is being overwhelmed with requests, and as a result is having to turn half of them down. In 2011, there were 69,000 requests through the scheme - half of which were rejected.

All those in receipt of certain benefits are allowed to apply, but the system, will assess a number of things before deciding whether or not to pay out. The authors of the report found a number of weaknesses in the way the system works. So, for example, it will assess the assets of the immediate family of the deceased - regardless of whether or not they are estranged, or willing to contribute to the cost.

Even those who receive payouts are getting around £1,217 - which falls well short of the average cost.

These figures are not going to get any better either, as the death rate is expected to rise 17% a year for the next 15 years.


Those who are rejected by the system are left with some very difficult choices. Many are forced to endure the humiliation of a pauper's funeral (which are officially known as Public Health Funerals). Some 20% put the cost on a credit card, 10% take out a loan, and 9% sell at least some of their belongings.

Dr Kate Woodthorpe, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bath and author of the report, comments: "Quite simply, it is becoming too expensive for poor people to die. Thousands of the most vulnerable in society are being let down by a system of state support that lacks coherence and is so unclear that some applicants have to resort to alternative means to organise a funeral."

And while this is worrying enough, it's only part of the picture, because Sun Life Direct says that the average cost of dying - including death-related costs such as probate, headstones and funeral flowers is far higher - an astonishing £7,114.

So what do you think? Could you afford to die?
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