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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 18 April, 2014

Column: Funerals are tough – and costs escalate quickly

One of the more perplexing cuts outlined in this year’s budget is the axing of the Bereavement Grant. People feel that they’re not safe from austerity, even in death, writes Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Geraldine Fitzgerald

THE BUDGET STUNG, as it always does.

As usual, its set the talk radio phone lines alight, and people who tend not to comment online are pecking out posts of outrage on keyboards across the nation.

One of the more perplexing cuts outlined in this year’s budget is the axing of the Bereavement Grant. People feel that they’re not safe from austerity, even in death; with one commenter quipping “Now there’ll be two removals-the first one of the €850, and the second of the body”.

The standard Bereavement Grant was a once-off payment of €850 that was made available, without means testing, to those who had paid PRSI at some point in their working lives.

The Bereavement Grant was actually put in place before the nation’s systems were computerised to ensure that the pension of the deceased person didn’t keep getting paid out. The amount rose over the past 20 years from €400 in the nineties, to €600 in the ‘noughties’, and during the boom times the grant went up to €850.

Now that grant is to be axed on January 1st 2014. This will affect everybody who had hoped to rely on the grant to defray part of the costs of laying a loved one to rest.

Funeral costs

Average funeral costs escalate quickly, although it’s the family who ultimately decide what they wish to spend and how elaborate the funeral becomes. An average cost of a funeral in Ireland is between €4,000-€7,000- and often far more- depending on location and what’s involved. This isn’t as pricey as Scandinavian countries or the US, but the bottom line can increase rapidly.

Funeral costs are broken down into two segments: those charged by the Funeral Director include the cost of the coffin selected, transportation costs, preparation of deceased, administration and professional services.

Then there are the costs of payments made to third parties, such as cemeteries, crematoria, newspapers, church, and florists on your behalf.

If you already have a family grave, the cemetery will charge you for opening it. If you need to buy a new one, you’ll have to pay upfront, so graves account for a considerable part of the expense. Headstones or the engraving thereof, will also cost you extra.

Death notices in the papers, hosting and feeding people – all this puts pressure on the financial resources of the bereaved (although Funeral Directors only act directly on the wishes of the family, and you should obviously agree on a budget and stay within those parameters).

However, for those concerned about how to manage funeral costs, there are now far more choices open to people, as this normally tradition-led country has seen the proliferation of low-cost funeral options in recent years.

“People come to us knowing that their loved one will receive a dignified, loving send-off at a rate that they could afford without too much hardship”, John Kennedy of Legacy.ie said. “But I feel sorry for the people who are going to be affected by this. Families who were opting for a €890 funeral could afford it when they had the Bereavement Grant available to them – it covered 95.5 per cent of the cost. That’s a lot of money for those people to try to come up with now.”

Red tape at a black time

The government say that those in need of financial assistance for a funeral can apply to their local Community Welfare Officer, which now comes under the Department of Social Protection, for an Exceptional Needs Payment, available under the Supplementary Welfare Allowance Scheme.

It’s an awful lot of red tape at a time when people are vulnerable.

The axing of the Bereavement Grant has prompted many variations of “Just put me in a bin bag and save the money.” But, obviously, you can’t do that.

Even if you take advantage of a new law (active June 1st 2013) that allows people to be buried in a shroud rather than a coffin, you still need to buy a coffin to be transported in, and many cemeteries simply won’t do it.

Technically, you can be buried in your back garden – but it has to be at least 9ft down, not interfere with the water table, be approved by a plethora of authorities… and what happens if your family moves house?

Funerals are tough. From the decisions that need to be made, to the grief of loss, coupled in some instances with difficult family dynamics. Add financial woes to this and it’s unsurprising people are peeved about the whisking away of the bereavement grant.

Some used the Bereavement Grant of €850 to pay for a headstone, or a lovely coffin, or a gathering to raise a glass in memory of the deceased, and they’ll miss it.

But families who genuinely needed that money to have a simple funeral without the intricacies of applying for an Exceptional Needs Payment will now have to face another round of paperwork, at the worst possible time.

Benjamin Franklin said there was nothing certain in this world, except death and taxes. We know all about taxes, and thanks to Budget 2014, death has gone up too.

Geraldine Fitzgerald is a journalist and broadcaster. John Kennedy is the Manging Director of Legacy.ie. For information on what to do when someone dies see www.citizensinformation.ie

Read: Funeral directors will seek u-turn on Bereavement Grant cut

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