Published: 06:00, 27 January 2021
| Updated: 16:49, 27 January 2021
Poorer families who struggle to afford the costs of funeral services are being taken advantage of by a council "cashing in on Covid", it has been claimed.
Medway Council is understood to be making changes to services run from its crematorium in Robin Hood Lane, Blue Bell Hill.
Currently it charges £710 for a 50-minute service and £482.50 for a 20-minute slot. Both include 10 minutes of preparation time.
However, from March 1 all services will run for a maximum of 30 minutes plus 10 minutes prep, but the charge will remain £710.
On its website the authority says cutting down services to 30-minute slots would allow it to offer more services throughout the day.
But an undertaker in the Towns, who did not wish to named, said they were disgusted at what they claimed to be plans to maintain fees at the crematorium for "half the service".
"I expected the prices to be adjusted pro-rata," they said. "I just feel they are cashing in on Covid as there are a lot of people who need to use the crematorium, and lots are backed up, but that does not negate the fact they are putting the prices up."
They added: "I have got families now that are panicking and want to get in before the price hike."
And although the undertaker welcomed the decision to shorten services to 30 minutes to help clear backlogs they hit out at the decision to charge families more.
The funeral worker explained it was an especially difficult time for grieving relatives, amid the financial fallout of Covid-19 and fears many living in more deprived areas of Medway will struggle to foot the bill.
"We see the stress of the situation so we are trying to help," they said.
"But I just feel the council has seen this as a good way of boosting its own coffers."
Despite this the undertaker said they recognised the authority was operating under budgetary pressures and called on central government to do more.
"The government have got the cheek to do an investigation into funeral homes because of charges," they added.
"Then in the next breath they [the council] want to double the prices."
But its assistant director of frontline services, Ruth Du-Lieu, said: “We have made the difficult decision to temporarily reduce our crematorium service times from March 1.
"The cost and length of service is in line with, and cheaper than, other crematoriums across Kent.
"It is just a temporary measure we're putting in place during the pandemic.
"Due to the number of coronavirus deaths, we have seen an increase in demand for cremations. By temporarily reducing service times, we will be able to offer more services each day so families will not have to wait as long to say goodbye to their loved ones at an already difficult time.”
Medway Labour leader Cllr Vince Maple has also criticised the changes.
He said: "Like most readers, I am pretty disgusted if the council is proposing an increase in crematorium fees during a public health pandemic.
"The proposed fees and charges for services have not been published at this stage so I’m concerned there could be other stealth taxes at a time when so many households are struggling due to issues like furlough.
"I’ve written to senior council officers to seek urgent clarification and if this is accurate I call on the council to not implement this callous increase."
Cllr Maple also said an online petition had been started to protest the charges.