|We all are familiar
with the term ‘poverty’ and what it implies. The US Census 2013 reported
that 14.5% of Americans live below the poverty line or poverty threshold.
The poverty threshold is defined as a household income of $15,730 for a
family of 2. This, however, does not take into account the thousands
of households on low-income but earning over the poverty threshold (which
increases to $23,850 for a family of 4).
The threshold for low-income
is set at roughly $45,000 for a family of 4 and according to a CBS report
in 2011, 48% of Americans fell into the bracket of low-income or poverty.
Quite staggering isn’t it? So almost half of the nation could be
classified as in dire financial circumstances. At the end of last
year (2013) CNN reported that 76% of Americans were living paycheck to
With the considerable population
we have on low-income, and families that are struggling to make ends meet
month to month, it comes as no surprise that we are entering an era of
what is being termed “funeral poverty”. That is there are more and
more families simply unable to meet funeral costs when a family member
How does funeral poverty affect
||A traditional funeral costs
$7,045 (NFDA 2012), an amount which does not take into account cemetery
costs, meaning the full cost of a burial is more likely to reach nearer
to $10,000 in many cases. How can a family on low-income find $10,000
in a short space of time to cover funeral costs? What about life
insurance or a burial fund you may ask? Well, there was a time when
people did carefully put aside a few dollars per month into an appropriate
policy or fund, but unfortunately this acknowledgement and provision for
immortality, no longer features so strongly in our culture.
A funeral director is (very
politely) quoted as saying
“When I started
40 years ago people were more aware of their own mortality. People had
their own policies, people had insurance or they put money aside. They
understood that they were going to die. I don’t know if we are wrapped
up in immortality, but people don’t think about it now.”
This statement certainly reflects
the cultural shift and our death taboo. Over the last few decades
the subject of death has become little discussed. Perhaps this can
be attributed to the ‘glory’ years following the World Wars and the Great
Depression, an era when death has not tainted so many families and the
average life expectancy has increased?
There are movements today
seeking to encourage us to talk openly about our mortality and death.
Death Cafes have sprung up around the globe, along with websites inviting
us to have “the conversation”. Yet death and planning for our end
of life, is still something that most of us prefer NOT to do. Culturally
it remains somewhat ‘distasteful’. I suspect it is even more difficult
to openly discuss end of life when there are concerns about finances.
How has this funeral poverty
crisis crept up on us?
Funeral poverty is an unexpectedly
potent indicator of the combined impact of recession, austerity, low wages
and an insecure job market. This situation has been creeping upon
us slowly as more families have fallen upon hardship, or are struggling
just to put food on the table. Many families have already maxed out
all possible credit opportunities, and the reality is that lending for
a funeral (or funeral finance) is not so easy to get. The lack of
open discussion about death and end of life planning, the poor economy
and the breakdown of nuclear families and communities are all contributing
factors in why we now face a funeral poverty crisis. As families
have become extended, and transient, the responsibility for who should
pay for a family member’s funeral can come under contention.
I also believe that there
has been a denial of this rising problem. As death is not given
much mainstream attention, the rising issues have fallen under the radar.
The funeral industry (a $6 billion industry) has not been keen to acknowledge
change, a shift away from traditional funerals and a demand for lower cost
and simpler funeral alternatives.
How is this funeral poverty
crisis affecting the funeral industry?
The funeral poverty issue in
the United States needs to be acknowledged by the funeral industry, and
the industry (as a whole) needs to re-align itself. Many families
simply cannot afford a $7,000 outlay for a funeral these days and they
are demanding lower cost options. As a result, we have witnessed
a huge shift to cremation, as a much lower cost disposition alternative.
A simple cremation can be performed for under $1,000 in many areas of the
The funeral industry are
already beginning to see declining profits as the cost of the average funeral
case decreases, and more families choose cremation. But this is but
the tip of the iceberg! The funeral industry as a whole maintains
a position where they are now accepting that cremation is here to stay,
but see their role as one to ‘educate’ the funeral consumer in how to befittingly
create a cremation memorial. There is a belief that incremental
sales (up-selling as it is known in the industry) can still help them to
add revenue to a basic cremation case.
|The reality that we see,
and hear about, is that more families are seeking out an alternative that
does not involve funeral home services. Natural, or green, burials
have experienced something of a revival as families explore the alternative
of a simple burial without a casket, burial vault or embalming. There
is an increased interest DIY Funerals, where the family makes all the cremation
or burial arrangements themselves, file the paperwork and transport the
deceased to the crematory or cemetery in their own vehicle. However,
the most common way that families are dealing with funeral poverty is to
opt for the most basic cremation option – a direct cremation. A direct
cremation can be conducted in many cities for less than $800.
This is a huge reduction
in case value to a funeral home, when a family opts for a low cost direct
cremation and no additional services. There are some funeral businesses
that recognized what was happening and altered their business plan to meet
this demand. You will find a low cost cremation provider in most
cites, and these are the guys that (quietly) understand what is happening
in their industry. These are going to be the businesses that ride
out the funeral poverty storm!
Funeral homes have always
tried to work with their client families regarding paying for a funeral.
In the good old days a funeral could go ahead before the family had paid
in full, but this rarely happens these days. Today more funeral homes
find themselves in the position of having to negotiate payment terms with
a family who has requested the funeral home’s services before realizing
the implications of the cost. Bad debt has always been an issue for
funeral businesses, and some funeral homes have been willing to take on
charitable cases for the goodwill and community recognition it gains.
But this growing funeral poverty issue is causing funeral businesses to
re-work their policies on bad debt and funeral contracts. Even state
and county authorities are re-writing policy on indigent burials, as more
families seek out public assistance to meet the cost of a funeral.
Some states have axed financial assistance, whilst others have reduced
it significantly, dealing with all their indigent deaths by direct cremation.
Funeral poverty is already an
issue, but it is going to become a crisis if we do not try and avert it.
How can we tackle it? We need to ensure affordable options ARE available,
and that those families that need them KNOW they are available. There
has been some coverage in the media of late of this pending crisis in death
care in the U.S. and exposure of the ‘high costs of dying’, but we need
to address this in a much bigger way to get the message across to millions
of struggling Americans.
||An indigent burial program
used to cater to those poor individuals who had no family, or had been
in state care. Today authorities are finding that even those with family
can be left for the state to dispose of when family walk away without the
means to attend to a funeral and the costs associated.
How can we tackle the problem
of funeral poverty?
People need to know there
are cheaper ways of arranging a funeral. They need re-assurances
that it is not undignified or disrespectful to arrange something simple
and inexpensive. Families need to be empowered to understand that
they CAN reclaim the death care ritual, arranging services themselves,
without needing the cost of paying a funeral director.
Should there be a better
provision to help those that cannot afford to pay for a funeral?
Financial assistance is so patchy and inconsistent across the nation.
Would it not help to have a national funeral assistance program that provided
a fixed amount that would cover a direct cremation? The UK
has a fixed funeral payment of £700 ($1,126) and a cremation rate
of over 75%, although a low cost direct cremation in the UK costs £995
($1,600), so this still leaves many families needing to contribute to the
cost to arrange a very basic disposition. In the U.S. many counties
contract with a local funeral home to conduct their indigent dispositions
at a cost of around $350 per cremation. This means a provision can
be put in place for a relatively low cost.
Considering that we have
so much green space in the U.S., there should be scope to extend provision
for simple, natural burial at a very low cost. If each state could
operate a not-for-profit green cemetery and offer those families struggling
financially the option of a free (or minimal cost) burial, this may help
avert the funeral poverty crisis. This would require families to
change their attitude to death care, and take a more active role in the
death care process, rather than handing it off to a funeral home.
It is fair to say attitudes
are changing, and we are less sentimental about death, but the financial
implications of the masses of Americans without the real means to cover
funeral costs and a rising death rate means that we are a long yet from
a coherent plan to address funeral poverty in the U.S.
||Expert Author: Sara
Sara is the Editor in Chief
for US Funerals Online and has been researching and writing about the death
care industry in the US for the last 5 years.
Published: October 29th 2014
CBS News: ‘Census
data: Half of U.S. poor or low income
National Funeral Directors
The Guardian: The
Return of the Pauper’s Funeral to Austerity Britain