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The cost of dying: Threat of ‘funeral poverty’ stressful for whānau

'Leave it to us’: Evans Funeral Services managing director David Parker and office manager Joy Baty. Mr Parker says applying for a funeral grant can be complex so he usually advises clients to “leave it to us”. He also advises people to pre-arrange funerals to ease the financial strain. Picture by Liam Clayton

Families are suffering psychological and financial trauma because of their inability to farewell loved ones with appropriate “dignity and respect” due to growing costs, funeral directors say.

Evans Funeral Services is asking the community to start looking at pre-arranging funerals for their whānau to prevent going into debt as a result of “funeral poverty”.

Office manager Joy Baty said when she talked to whānau of a deceased loved one she could see the stress in their eyes.

“When you tell them about the Work and Income (funeral) grant, tell them how much the funeral will cost, you can see them go into a re-budgeting mode.

“They divide it among themselves because the balance between what a funeral could cost and the Work and Income grant, if you qualify for it, is significant.”

Many whānau depend on the funeral grant for cemetery fees, Mrs Baty said.

“The current maximum grant is $2280.72 and our cemetery fee is $2200, so a big chunk of the grant goes into the cemetery fee for the burial itself.

“It is hard for whānau to strike a balance and make it work. They are forced to negotiate a low budget send-off instead of giving their loved one a nice farewell.

“Putting the grant up to $4000 to $5000 will definitely ease this pressure.”

Evans managing director David Parker says the service had to fill out complex forms for whānau to access the grant and often people did not know the complexity of the eligibility criteria.

“We just tell them to leave it to us. The issue is not everyone has this knowledge or insurance cover. There are people having to live day-to-day out there.

“The first thing I would advise everyone to start is the pre-arrangement because when the family are sitting here they are not too sure about whether they are making right decisions on the deceased’s behalf.

“Pre-arrangement is a good way to take the psychological and financial burden off of your whānau.

“A lot of people are already doing it these days. The whānau come in and choose what they want. This way they know the costs beforehand and are prepared for what’s going to come.”

The Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) has called on the Government to increase the Work and Income Funeral Grant in the 2022 Budget so that eligible low-income families are able to farewell loved ones with dignity and respect.

Chief executive Gillian Boyes says the maximum grant of $2280 is “woefully inadequate”.

“This amount covers just 37 percent of the cost of a simple funeral cremation and only 29 percent of a funeral and burial — well short of the essential funeral costs that the grant was designed to cover.

“Everybody’s talking about the cost of living but what about the cost of dying?

“Apart from CPI (Consumer Price Index) adjustments, the funeral grant was last increased nearly 20 years ago so changes are long overdue. With the average cost of a burial plot alone being $3523, it’s clear the grant is removing all choice for low-income families to farewell their loved ones in a meaningful way.”

Ms Boyes says families are being driven to make difficult decisions.

“Our members often see families choose a cremation when a burial might be more appropriate for cultural or religious reasons.

“We also know some families can only afford to choose direct cremation options with no funeral at all. It’s frankly outrageous that these families have to make this choice when they are meant to have access to something called a funeral grant.”

The FDANZ has proposed an immediate increase of the maximum amount payable under the funeral grant to $6300 “which would cover 80 percent of the cost of a simple funeral with a burial, and brings it into line with ACC’s funeral provision for those who die by accident”.

“Given this is an asset and income-tested grant, the estimated fiscal impact would be limited to a maximum of an additional $14 million based on the numbers of claimants who meet the current eligibility criteria,” Ms Boyes said.

“Compared to the other asks and investments that will be made during this year’s Budget, we don’t think this is asking for much for some of society’s most vulnerable.

“There are also downstream savings. We know not being able to farewell someone can contribute to poorer mental health outcomes, which might later be a cost to the Government.”

The FDANZ has asked the Ministry of Social Development to provide clear guidance on what is classed as essential under the grant to ensure consistency and equity of access to the full entitlement for those who are eligible for the grant.

“Looking ahead to other ways this support could be improved, we would love to see a simpler process for applying so that vulnerable New Zealanders at what may be an extremely difficult time do not face unnecessary barriers to accessing this grant if they are eligible.

“Currently, claimants must complete a 12-page form setting out huge details of their incomes and assets, with supporting documentation.”

The FDANZ has also called for MSD to commit to reviewing the allowable income and assets of claimants before next year’s Budget to ensure asset tests were reasonable, especially in the context of the cost of living outstripping increases in wages and benefits over time.

Ms Boyes said the FDANZ was advocating for these changes because its members were on the front-line and too often saw “the devastating impact on vulnerable families if they are not able to farewell their loved ones with appropriate dignity and respect”.

  1. Manu Caddie says:

    It’s a little fresh, to say the least, for advice on saving costs to come from Evans Funeral Services. When a family member passed away a few years back we just needed a coffin and were happy to do the rest ourselves – but while Evans had coffins available, they wouldn’t sell one to us if we didn’t also use the rest of their services.

    So I’m glad we now have the Coffin Club and alternatives to coffins for carrying loved ones while we grieve and lay them to rest. Hopefully their policy has changed as these kinds of controls are what makes death unaffordable for many local families, especially if we think there are no alternatives.

    The website diyfuneral.co.nz provides very helpful guidance for anyone interested in not relying on a commercial funeral director.

    1. Gordon Webb says:

      So why not let the Government pay for the cost of funerals & burials? Come to think of it let the nanny state pay for all our expenses, food, accommodation etc and we become totally dependent with nothing but stifled imaginations.

      1. Manu Caddie says:

        The Government does contribute to the cost of funerals and burials for those receiving a pension or benefit – as it also helps with the cost of living for those who can’t afford the basics, particularly the elderly. What’s your gripe exactly Gordon? As pointed out, I don’t think funerals and burial need to cost much, especially for Māori who are buried in their own urupa that have no fees and a community that digs the hole, provides a funeral home and caters for the mourners – Europeans did likewise until dying got commercialised.

        1. Gordon Webb says:

          I’d have thought a 37% subsidy towards funeral and cremation costs was a generous state contribution. Apart from certain basic health requirements for body disposal there seems to be no reason why it can’t be “do it yourself”.

          1. Manu Caddie says:

            I agree.

    2. Nic Carroll says:

      As part of this DIY movement for funerals, I know that you can organise to take a deceased loved one to Hastings and have them cremated in their crematorium for around $800 if you provide the casket. All the information is on the Hastings District Council website
      https://www.hastingsdc.govt.nz/services/hastings-cemeteries/plots-cremation-and-memorials/

  2. Margret, Wairoa says:

    We don’t need an increase in the funeral grant ..we need the funeral service industry here opened up to competition, which has been fought hard against for years.

    1. Paula Ward-Allen says:

      Exactly! Evans has worked very hard to hold the people of Tairawhiti hostage and not let anyone else get the chance to operate in Gisborne for many, many years. Just because they have been here forever shouldn’t mean they remain the one and only. A little competition in the market is only right and fair. According to the GDC’s website, for a Monday to Friday burial at Taruheru Lawn Cemetery the cost is $1718 including permits for headstone placement. So not sure where the $2200 that Evans quotes comes from. Obviously some hidden fees somewhere.

  3. Sharyn Collins, NSW says:

    We have all attended many funerals and as I look on I ask myself, “who is this really for?” Maybe that is a question we should ask when planning our own funeral.