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Funeral costs, affordability and public provision

Research from the University of Bath has shaped policy linked to the affordability and subsequent support available for UK funerals.

Coin being added to piggy bank labelled 'Funeral'
Do the bereaved have access to the right level of support in order to plan and pay for a funeral?

Dr Kate Woodthorpe, Senior Lecturer in our Department for Social & Policy Sciences has conducted several research studies into funeral practices and advised Government on the outcomes. Over the years findings from her research have been disseminated through the media, including numerous appearances on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Breakfast, and features in The Guardian and The Telegraph.

A particular area of interest has been around the cost of funerals in the UK, and whether bereaved people have access to the right level of support in order to plan and pay for a funeral for the deceased. Between 2011 and 2014, with backing from AXA Sun Life Insurance, Dr Woodthorpe undertook a series of studies on funeral costs in order to understand how the process of claiming state support impacted those requiring funeral services. Financial provision available for those who could not afford a funeral was explored, and the Department for Work and Pensions Funeral Payment (now renamed the Funeral Expenses Payment) evaluated. As part of the Social Fund, this benefit is intended to provide financial support for meeting funeral costs.

Understanding the process for making a claim

In the original project, the project team led by Dr Woodthorpe interviewed 30 individuals who had submitted a claim for a Funeral Expenses Payment within the last two years, along with 34 funeral directors and representatives of funeral sector trade organisations. It became clear that the claim process for the payment lacked coherence, and many bereaved people were uncertain as to their eligibility and what the benefit could and would cover.

The study found that claimants were required to incur and commit to funeral costs before submitting their claim and knowing the outcome. In several cases, those who were granted payment fell into debt throughout the process. What is more, the system ignored the diversity of family relationships and obligations which often affected where the burden of funeral costs would fall.

The research provided clear evidence that the way in which claims were being administered was flawed. It highlighted scope for improved clarity and efficiency in public provision of support for funerals.

In order to further support the findings and recommendations for policy changes regarding UK funerals, Dr Woodthorpe led a research team that conducted a comparative analysis of state support for funerals across 18 countries. Results from this analysis provided additional context to the recommendations she would go on to make to the UK Government.

Making recommendations based on findings

Whilst working with AXA in 2012, Dr Woodthorpe produced a report based on her research to date. She made several recommendations with the aim of improving the process and individual access to funeral payments. These included:

  • a rapid system to assess eligibility of potential applicants (prior to the funeral being organised)
  • simplified guidance on the scope and remit of payments
  • acknowledgement of the strength of relationships within the family of the deceased

In addition, Dr Woodthorpe recommended the need for negotiation between the Department for Work and Pensions and the funeral industry regarding the definition, and realistic price, of a basic funeral. In order to put these recommendations into place, she suggested the creation of a working group.

Through this AXA report, and policy briefs written for Bath’s Institute for Policy Research, the research was picked up by a range of policy actors including the Select Committee Special Enquiry in 2016 and the Scottish Governments Policy review in 2017.

Influencing UK Policy

In order to drive change, Dr Woodthorpe took her research to the UK Parliament and Government, through engaging critical stakeholders, and with the aim of influencing UK Policy. There were numerous key events spanning a five-year period where her research was debated. These included advising Local MPs and industry leaders, as well as providing recommendations which were later adopted by Government.

The recommendations outlined in Dr Woodthorpe’s original AXA Report culminated in the Department for Work and Pensions Special Inquiry Select Committee into bereavement benefits in 2016, on which Dr Woodthorpe was special advisor. From 2017 onwards, the recommendations from the Select Committee were addressed, and in many cases, actioned in Government reforms. A key success came in 2017, when Ministers accepted more could be done to publicisie the support available under the Funeral Expenses Payment when people are bereaved. Further changes were introduced later in 2017, which allowed additional time for submitting claims and so that bereaved claimants were not penalised for money gifted towards the funeral costs.

Following Dr Woodthorpe’s earlier recommendation for a full-scale sector review, in 2018 an investigation of the funeral sector by the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) was instigated. As part of the review, a hearing took place in July 2019 to determine whether a funeral was a ‘distress purchase’ that exposed individuals to unfair pressure. Dr Woodthorpe gave evidence at this hearing, supported by findings gathered throughout her research.

Alongside her input into UK Parliament and Government Policies, Dr Woodthorpe also contributed to Scottish Government Policy. Following invitations to the Social Security Roundtable on funeral poverty welfare reform and the National Conference on Funeral Poverty, Dr Woodthorpe later contributed to a government wide policy review. The result was the creation of a 10 point plan including commitments to implement the Funeral Expense Assistance benefit by summer 2019. This has now been implemented and re-labelled the Funeral Support Payment.

For the funeral industry, and the public

Within the funeral industry and beyond, this research has also been significant. The process of claiming has been improved, and the Competition and Markets Authority investigation has recognised the complexity of funeral purchasing for bereaved consumers. Within national Government, funeral policy has become a recognised area requiring policymaker attention, and AXA, which supported the original research, has used findings to evidence its own compassion for the poor, and thereby expand its market share.

Dr Woodthorpe's media appearances from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to coverage in several broadsheet newspapers and online have all aided public understanding around the issues uncovered by her research. Dr Woodthorpe is also the only academic invited to join the Dying Matters Advisory Group, a national campaign aiming to change public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards dying, death and bereavement.

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Centre for Death & Society

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CDAS is an internationally recognised research centre focusing on the interdisciplinary social aspects of death, dying and bereavement.