Jeff Salway: Don’t bury funeral funding report

The cost of burial in Scotland is a poscode lottery
The cost of burial in Scotland is a poscode lottery
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YOU know what they say about death and taxes. Well, you can be fairly certain that someone, somewhere, is making a killing out of your funeral.

The average funeral in Scotland now costs nearly £3,500, according to Royal London, and the International Longevity Centre UK reckons it could be double that by 2020. Yet just 9 per cent of Scots have made any kind of funeral plan, NatSec Social Research found in a 2013 survey.

The problem for many people is that funeral costs add to an already perilous financial predicament. Even if they can scrape together the money they need to cover funeral costs, there’s a good chance it’ll tip them over the edge, with payday lenders and loan sharks waiting to take full advantage.

The particular feature of funeral costs is that people are taking financial decisions when emotions are running high and their judgment is less than clear. This is why the solution lies not just in more funding, but in making the system easier for grieving families to navigate.

Local authority burial fees are typically the main expense, at an average of £1,300. In the Western Isles they’ll set you back less than £700, says Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS). In East Dunbartonshire it’ll be nearly £2,800. Cremation costs vary similarly. On top of that you must factor in charges for funeral directors, florists, public notices, venue hire and catering.

The financial support available is desperately inadequate. The social fund funeral payment can help cover burial/cremation fees and other funeral expenses (including funeral director fees), but the latter element has, since 2003, been frozen at £700. Moreover, nearly half of applications are turned down for the payment. That the distress of bereavement is compounded for so many people by serious difficulties in funding a decent funeral for their loved ones is simply unacceptable.

CAS, in partnership with bereavement care specialist John Birrell, has published a report for the Scottish government that sets out a range of recommendations on dealing with the issue.

One urges the UK government to increase the “other costs” element of the funeral payment and for greater parity in local authority charges. It also proposes a Scottish funeral bond to help more people save for their own funeral and to standardise costs. There’s a nod as well to Sweden’s “cradle to grave” approach, where everyone in the population registry pays a mandatory burial fee through their taxes. But other recommendations focus on more practical issues. It turns out, for instance, that withdrawing cash savings controlled by a lawyer can be far harder than getting them out of a bank. The Law Society of Scotland is urged to look again at the rules around this.

A lot can be done to raise awareness too, which is why the report wants the Scottish Government to support a publicity campaign around funeral costs and to set up a bereavement advice network and online information hub.

That’s just a selection, but all the proposals are realistic and sensible (as well as potentially transformative).

It’s tempting to avoid thinking about death and funerals, but the Scottish government, which deserves credit for commissioning the report, must now take action.