Child funerals: Steps taken to ease burden

Baby's feetImage copyright Liudmila_Fadzeyeva

Bailey Kerr was just three days old when he died at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

For his mother Christine Herron, “everything just fell apart” on that day in July 2015.

“It’s hard to describe the grief,” said the County Armagh woman.

“He died in my arms and after that, everything was a blur. I couldn’t function,” she said.

So when a staff member at the hospital enquired about Bailey’s funeral arrangements, she was taken aback.

“It’s something that hadn’t entered my mind. Of course I knew he would be unwell, but I was only ever willing him to survive.

“It’s unnatural for any parent to bury a child and I honestly hadn’t thought about it.”

Image copyright Matt Cardy
Image caption Child burial fees were abolished in Wales last year

Thankfully for Christine, her brothers stepped in to take the pressure off.

“They just took control of the situation and paid for it and I’ll always be grateful for that because I don’t know how I would have done it otherwise.”

Although her brothers did not want to be reimbursed, Christine insisted on paying the money back.

“I gave them the final payment just this month. It was important to me to do that for Bailey.”

Funeral fund

Christine is not alone – in 2016, there were almost 200 stillbirths and infant deaths registered in Northern Ireland.

Like her, many of those parents had not planned for a funeral, not to mention budgeting for one.

In England, the cost of a child’s funeral is waived under a scheme that was introduced in March.

The Prime Minister, Teresa May, intervened to create the Children’s Funeral Fund after being moved by the “dignity and strength” of Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris, who had been at the forefront of a cross-party parliamentary campaign following the death of her eight-year-old son Martin.

Image caption Carolyn Harris MP had to take out a loan to bury her son

It brought England into line with Wales, where Ms Harris’ campaign saw the removal of fees for funerals for those under 18.

In Northern Ireland, no such fund exists.

However, last week, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council voted unanimously in favour of waiving part of the burial fee for grieving parents in the district who have lost a child.

It will now cover the £52 cost of opening a grave at all council-owned cemeteries.

At Belfast City Council on Tuesday, a similar motion was proposed and supported by all councillors.

It has now been referred to the Policy and Resources Committee, which one councillor, speaking to the BBC News NI, described as “a formality”.

“I can’t imagine anyone objecting to this. It’s a small but important gesture that would cost the council relatively little,” he added.

The original proposal was brought by Ulster Unionist Julie Flaherty, who herself lost a child – her two-year-old son Jake – in 2015.

Image copyright Julie Flaherty
Image caption Julie Flaherty with her husband and son Jake before he died in 2015

Although the fee constitutes a relatively minor reduction in the total cost, Mrs Flaherty hopes it is a small step towards much greater financial help for bereaved parents.

“I know from bitter experience of the pain of loss, that any gesture from those in authority, no matter how small, is greatly appreciated,” Mrs Flaherty told the BBC.

Explaining her determination to fight for full costs to be met, she said: “The death of a child is so traumatic, it’s hard to describe the distress you feel as a parent burying your child.

“To then face the added financial pressure of huge funeral costs, it’s grief and trauma compounded by debt.”

Mrs Flaherty’s son Jake battled several medical issues, including a congenital heart defect. The cost his funeral was in the region of £4,000.

Image caption Julie Flaherty, an Ulster Unionist councillor, lost her two-year-old son Jake in 2013

“Like most couples, my husband and I didn’t have that kind of money sitting around,” she said.

“A family member helped us out but to this day, I don’t know who that person was or exactly how much they contributed.

“I just know it was a big weight off our shoulders as I wasn’t capable of dealing with those sort of issues at the time so we were very grateful.

“My husband and I work hard and we never asked for anything when we had Jake. But a bit more support from government would have been very welcome.

“It’s another disparity if this support is being made available to parents in England and Wales but not here in Northern Ireland.”

Ms Flaherty said the unanimous support she received from councillors across the political spectrum had been very encouraging.

“The vote was quite emotional for me,” she said. “As councillors, we’ve disagreed on so many issues, but on this one, all the members were united, which is something I haven’t seen since I entered local politics.”

However, she acknowledged that the absence of a functioning executive will make any move towards a Children’s Funeral Fund in Northern Ireland a slow one.

“I know I won’t be able to achieve this aim in the short term. I’ve written to the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities, Leo O’Reilly, and received assurances that the matter will be raised with a Stormont minister when one is in post.

‘Buried with dignity’

“Obviously, we’ve no idea when that will be, but in the meantime, councils have the option of introducing discretional arrangements to waive their fees.”

Bailey’s mum Christine, a constituent of Ms Flaherty, is very much behind her campaign: “Babies who die deserve to be given a dignified burial and they deserve for that not to cause their parents years of financial pressure,” she said.

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