Undertakers claim council charges for burials and cremations are ‘immoral’
By Bill Heaney
The cost of dying in West Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh and Lomond has increased exponentially over the past eight years.
In Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Clydebank, opening a lair in the cemetery now costs £616, which is an increase of 30 per cent on the £475 it cost in 2010.
In Argyll and Bute, that charge has more than doubled, with an increase of 52 per cent from £430 to £653 for cemeteries such Cardross and Helensburgh.
Now funeral directors have said grieving families are being subjected to a “postcode lottery” because of the variety of fees being levied by councils.
The total cost of a funeral averages out at £3,600 and has plunged thousands of low income families into serious debts they cannot afford to pay off.
Communities Secretary Angela Constance said this week she was taking “decisive action” over what was a “growing issue”.
She said the government have plans to create a new benefit to help people struggling to pay for funeral costs – but not yet.
They hope to launch the new Funeral Expense Assistance benefit by the summer of 2019.
The cost of burials and cremations has been on the rise; new studies have shown.
In 2016, a basic burial, on average, cost more than £1,300, excluding undertakers’ fees, while the average local authority cremation costs £670.
The new benefit strategy is part of a 10-point plan which commits the government to a range of actions over funeral costs.
A range of advice services, including guidance on funeral costs, consumer protection in relation to funeral plans, a Social Innovation Fund to tackle funeral poverty and the pilot of a “funeral bond” to help people save up for their own burial are part of that.
Ms Constance (pictured right) said the government was committed to “supporting those who need it most following a bereavement”.
She said: “The death of a loved one is an incredibly difficult time for anyone. It can be even harder when money is tight. We know funeral costs can push people into poverty – and often it is those already in financial hardship who face increased difficulties.
“That is why we are taking decisive action to tackle this growing issue and have engaged with local authorities, the funeral sector and other support services.
“I am pleased by the willingness to work together to find solutions that support more affordable funerals.”
An investigation by BBC Scotland reporters Lucy Adams and Marc Ellison revealed this week that the basic cost of a burial in Scotland has risen on average by 77% since 2010.
A Citizens Advice Scotland review said of the 55,000 funerals taking place in Scotland each year 10% of families struggle to pay the bill.
Jim Brodie, of the Scottish Association of Independent Funeral Directors, believed council charges for interment and cremations were “immoral”.
Local government body COSLA said fees were based on “need and circumstance”.
The average debt being taken on by next of kin to bury relatives is an estimated £1,680.
What are some of the terms associated with funerals? The excavation of a grave is known as the “interment” or “opening” fee, and the reservation of a plot is typically called the “lair purchase fee”.
New data, wrung out of the authorities through freedom of information legislation, showed the basic cost for an interment varied between £310 in the Western Isles to £1095 in Edinburgh, with the Scottish average being £705 – a rise of 77% in eight years.
As well as the cost of the interment, there are fees for the lair, the service, flowers, music, or higher charges for a weekend burial.
By comparison, the average fee for a cremation across 14 local authorities also increased by 46% to £685 over the same period.
He told the BBC: “Many councils will tell us that they lose money on these fees – however we find it difficult to understand why that is so.
“But when you’re talking how a burial can cost nearly as much as an entire funeral – it seems a little bit strange.
“In my mind, [they charge] as much as they think their community can afford.”
Mr Brodie, who claims his funeral company has not raised service costs since 2015, added: “There are many pressures on the councils, I have no doubts about that, but you have an essential service that is being used to make money, to offset other parts of the council.
“I can’t say it’s wrong – I just think it’s immoral.”
COSLA, the umbrella body for Scotland’s councils, said fees for “any local government service” was a matter for “local determination based on need and circumstance”.
The Communities Secretary Constance said: “Next year we’ll introduce the new funeral expenses payment – that’s us using our new social security powers to widen the eligibility for those who are currently entitled to that benefit.
“We will invest an additional £3m into funeral expenses assistance.”
Greater Glasgow, which includes West Dunbartonshire and South Argyll, has the bodies of six women and 19 men – eight have been identified but have not been buried due to either “family disputes or cost”.
Three of these bodies have been in the mortuary for more than a year – one of them having lain for 671 days.
Health boards told the BBC that bodies are generally considered unclaimed if no funeral director or next of kin has been in touch after three weeks.
Mr Brodie said: “The hospital has a duty to try and find that person – it can take weeks; it can take months. However, because of affordability problems, even after this person has been found, they don’t have to take responsibility.”
There was also an outcry from families of deceased relatives in West Dunbartonshire last month when cutting back on maintenance of the local cemeteries to save money was implemented.