FEATURE-Death and debt: ethical companies find ways to tackle funeral poverty

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By Sarah Shearman

LONDON, Dec 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With average funeral costs edging toward 4,000 pounds ($5,100), dying in Britain has become an expensive proposition - at least for those left behind to pay the bills.

When Laura Cunningham's brother died this year, she was still paying for her mother's funeral from more than two years earlier, and had no idea how she would afford another one.

Cunningham's story is not uncommon. Even a simple service such as her mother's can cost more than 3,000 pounds.

But social enterprises have begun springing up to tackle "funeral poverty", often brought on by upselling of products and services such as flowers and cars that can send grieving families deep into debt.

"We didn't have any savings," Cunningham told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "We just work month to month to pay our bills and live basically. We didn't have any money at all."

Cunningham did not qualify for government support because she works as a cleaner.

But a non-profit funeral director helped Cunningham through with a simple, cut-price for her brother.

Glasgow-based Caledonia is just one social enterprise exploring alternative business models to traditional funeral providers, which are sometimes accused of profiteering.

Similar businesses have sprung up in Canada and Australia, including community-owned businesses and funeral services for the homeless.

POVERTY

With the average cost of a basic funeral at an all-time high of 3,785 pounds, nearly one in eight people in Britain go into debt to bury or cremate loved ones, according to a 2019 study by insurer Royal London.

The average debt is almost 2,000 pounds and pushes many into poverty, the annual study found.

"It's a nightmare scenario ... with a long-lasting impact," said Paul McColgan, who founded Caledonia in 2018 after seeing his sister struggle to pay for her husband's funeral.

"It's not just a normal grieving process of losing a loved one," he said. "You're dealing with all of that and you are dealing with the worry and torment of not knowing how you are going to pay for it."

Caledonia has carried out about 250 direct cremations, which are carried out without a funeral service and with no mourners in attendance.

Story continues

At a flat 995 pounds with no deposit, it offers a safety net for those who cannot afford a more expensive funeral. Still, about half its customers are not struggling financially.

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As a social enterprise, Caledonia will reinvest profits into its mission of preventing funeral poverty, although so far McColgan said it has only just broken even.

The cost of a funeral has risen 6% a year – double the rate of inflation – for more than a decade due to rising crematorium fees, a lack of burial plots and the practice of upselling, and Britain's competition watchdog is investigating the industry.

It has accused some funeral directors of not being transparent about pricing and of taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable, with grieving customers less likely to shop around.

The profit margins of the largest industry players such as Dignity are high by international standards, the watchdog said.

Dignity said that since 2016 it has offered more options and price ranges to meet growing demand for lower-cost funerals, including a direct service.

LAST TABOO

Compounding the difficulties wrought by funeral poverty is a reticence to even speak of its two main components - death and money.

"It's the last great taboo," said Liz Rothschild, co-founder of Westmill Woodland Burial Ground, a natural burial ground in the south of England.

"And they come together really poisonously, when you put when you put death and money together," she added.

Like Caledonia , Westmill is registered as a community interest company, a type of social enterprise that reinvests or donates profits and must demonstrate its service to the community – a detail customers appreciate, Rothschild said.

Westmill suggests ways for its customers to reduce costs, such as carrying and lowering coffins themselves, but Rothschild said that the business has recently had to raise prices as margins were so tight.

Lucy Coulbert, who runs the Individual Funeral Company, said the squeeze was felt across the industry regardless of social enterprise status.

While she says big companies that seek to maximise profits are "industrialising funerals", Coulbert does not believe that the social enterprise model is necessarily the solution,calling instead for more government support.

Currently it takes weeks for the government to assess and award funeral cost benefits, but Coulbert suggested paying before the funeral could be a simple way to prevent people going into debt.

"The market does not need disrupting," she said. "What the market needs is for people to stop thinking that we are here to get money out of people - we're not.

"What we're here to do is support somebody, be as transparent and as ethical as we possibly can and let people make their own decisions." ($1 = 0.7794 pounds) (Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Chris Michaud and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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