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Priests call for more action to combat funeral poverty in Scotland

Families are struggling to afford funerals, priests say as new funds announced, by Peter Diamond and Ryan McDougall

Catholic priests have welcomed a new benefit to tackle funeral poverty for low-income families, but insisted more needs to be done to solve the problem.

Clergy from across the country, in some of the most deprived areas, this week challenged the government to do more to tackle the issue which ‘can plunge people into debt overnight.’

 

Expenses

On Monday the Scottish Government’s social security department announced it is preparing to take control of a benefit which helps families pay funeral expenses.

The new fund, which goes live on September 16, will make payments to low income families who have suffered a bereavement. It will replace the UK Government’s funeral expense payment.

According to the Scottish Government up to 2,000 more applicants will be eligible for the new benefit.

 

Debt

Fr Liam McMahon, parish priest of St Michael’s Church, Parkhead, said he welcomed ‘any government support for the most vulnerable.’ However, he added that the reported allowance ‘hardly compares to the average cost of a funeral in Scotland today.’

“Many people in the lowest income bracket may have little or nothing in the way of savings and as we know death doesn’t come by appointment; such people can be plunged into debt overnight, which can have a profound effect on their lives for years to come, to say nothing of the bereavement itself,” he said.

“This is an area that deserves much more consideration at a government level. There is a knock on effect that such debt can have in every area of people’s lives, especially in times of such intense austerity.”

 

Deprived areas

In 2016 Ferguslie Park in Paisley was named the most deprived area of Scotland.

Fr John Morrison, parish priest of St Fergus’ Church in Ferguslie Park, said: “I think the new fund is a tremendous idea. In Ferguslie, tragically, we tend to see a lot of deaths among young people who, understandably, have no life insurance or any kind of provision for funeral costs.

“Sadly suicide and homicide are not rare in this area. In addition to coping with the emotional pain of bereavement, families have to find monies for funerals which in no way they could foresee.

“Persistent ‘funeral debt’ becomes a major burden on families and it is not uncommon for them to approach unregulated and illegal money lenders for funds which, of course, simply exacerbates the problem. As a Church, we’ll be encouraging members of our community to make use of this fund.”

Applicants of the new benefit must already be on some form of benefits such as universal credit or disability allowance.

It is believed the flat rate will amount to £700 for most applicants but will be dependent on burial and cremation costs in the local authority.

 

Costs

Fr David Borland, parish priest of St Margaret’s Cathedral and St Paul’s Church in Ayr, said: “Anything that helps families bury somebody with a bit of dignity is good, but £700 is utterly inadequate, certainly down here in Ayrshire, where families that are in real poverty can’t afford a funeral. If the DSS are paying for it then it’s 9am at the crematorium without an organist. It’s very sad.

The average cost of a basic funeral in Scotland in 2016 was £3,716.

In 2016 the average Scottish Local Authority burial charge was £1,363, while the average cremation charge was £669. The average funeral director fee for a basic funeral in Scotland is about £2,000.

 

Not enough

Fr Mike Fallon, parish priest of St Catherine’s Church in Gracemount, Edinburgh, said the new funds will still not be enough to help those living in extreme poverty.

“£700 won’t cover much in terms of a funeral these days. My mother died in 1988 and the funeral bill came to less than £900 and she got a good send off. I just don’t know where the increases have came from.

“For a lot of people they are too proud not to give their loved ones a proper send off and they end up just biting the bullet and taking out a loan.”

 

Providing relief

Declan Maguire, managing director of Anderson Maguire Funeral Directors in Glasgow, is a member of the national Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF).

SAIF have worked with the Scottish Government as part of a consultation on the impact of funeral poverty.

Mr Maguire said: “We welcome the introduction of the Funeral Expense Assistance benefit for Scottish families in need.

“The Scottish Government has committed to deliver a simpler, more inclusive and financially appropriate system that we hope will provide some relief to families arranging a funeral on a tight budget.”

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