Funeral support: MPs call for overhaul of 'outdated' system
The cost of even the most basic funeral can drive families into debt, MPs have said as they urged an overhaul of the support system in England and Wales.
The means-tested benefit had been frozen at £700 since 2003, but even "simple" funerals cost over £1,200, the Work and Pensions Committee said.
One mother had to freeze her son's body for months while she saved to pay for his funeral, the committee heard.
The government said it was modernising the bereavement benefit system.
The average funeral in the UK now costs about £3,700, with funeral directors' fees rising well above the rate of inflation in recent years, the committee's report said.
The government provides uncapped help with "necessary costs" - such as burial plot or cremation costs - but the £700 social fund funeral payment (SFFP) for other funeral expenses has been "dramatically eroded", MPs heard.
For that price, some companies offered only "direct cremations or burials", without a service, celebrant, mourners, choice of coffin or flowers, the report said.
Families 'denied ashes'
Furthermore, the system was "fundamentally flawed" and leading claimants into unforeseen debt, it said.
Applicants are required to provide a final bill from the funeral director, meaning the bereaved must commit to the expense before having any clear idea whether they are eligible for help, MPs found.
'I was told my baby would go in the communal grave'
Charlene Green, 28, from Birmingham, lost her baby Mikael in the final stages of pregnancy in December. She told BBC News of her struggle to cover the costs of his burial.
"After doctors told me my baby had died, I still had to give birth. I had lost the most precious thing in the world to me, but I couldn't begin to grieve because of the stress of thinking, 'I have to bury my child, and how am I going to financially do that?'
"It feels like, straight away, everybody is a vulture, wanting bills paid. Before I was even able to have my son's funeral, I had to pay a £1,000 deposit. I'm on income support, and there was no way I could get a loan. I had to go through so many people to get the information I needed about government help. You begin to feel like just a number.
"At one point I was told we weren't entitled to any help because my son was a baby, and he would have to go into a communal grave with 12 other babies. And I would have to wait until the grave was full. You don't want to leave your baby in a morgue, and you want to do right by your child - that's the last thing you can ever do for them.
"The total cost of the funeral was about £1,200. The government gave us the maximum help of £700, but we had to borrow money from my Nan, who's a pensioner, and the Child Funeral Charity helped us. The minister also waived his fee. My partner and I were lucky that we were able to bury our son the way we wanted in the end, but I feel so sorry for other people who don't manage to."
The cross-party committee heard of "distressing circumstances", including families who were denied their loved one's ashes because of a shortfall in the final payment.
Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the committee, said the "opaque and outdated" system was hitting vulnerable people on low incomes.
"Funeral payments for those who can prove they are entitled - and that is a very uncertain and onerous process - now fall far short of covering even a basic funeral," he said.
"We do not want a return to the spectre of miserable 'pauper's funerals'."
The National Association of Funeral Directors has been campaigning for a review of the SFFP and said the MPs' recommendations were long overdue.
However, it took issue with a suggestion in the report that firms were not acting in the interests of the bereaved, saying a stringent code of practice is in place to ensure relatives are well cared for.
"Local council burial and cremation charges are the single fastest rising cost of a funeral," it added. "These lie outside of funeral directors' control and have not been addressed in this report."
UK funeral costs in 2015
The committee urged the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to negotiate with the representatives of funeral directors to agree a reasonable cost for a simple "fair funeral" and then set the maximum SFFP accordingly.
Moreover, the bereavement benefit system was "particularly outdated" and should be extended to cover co-habiting couples who were not married or in a civil partnership, the committee said.
About 21% of couples with dependent children in the UK were co-habiting in 2015, the Office for National Statistics estimated.
The DWP said it was "modernising bereavement benefits, introducing a simpler and fairer scheme that will better assist people in what can be an extremely difficult time".
"The planned new bereavement support payment will provide a higher lump sum payment than currently is offered and more people will be able to claim this full support now we have removed the lower age limit," a spokesman said.
The DWP estimates it pays SFFP "in around 7% of deaths in Great Britain".