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"Too poor to die": the rising cost of death in Britain

Burial fees climb almost 10 per cent in a year.

Rest in peace? An English graveyard. Credit: L V Clark/Fox Photos/Getty Images

The death industry is in rude health. Though UK mortality rates have fallen by 48 per cent for men and 39 per cent for women since 1980, a rising population means that the number of deaths each year is expected to climb by almost a fifth over the next two decades. With the average British funeral now costing £3,284 – a 6.2 per cent increase since 2011, far exceeding the rate of inflation – the £2.8bn market seems more or less guaranteed to grow. After all, we might consider buying the new Dylan record, sandwich or train ticket but none of us have a choice about dying and having our body disposed of in a socially acceptable way. (At least, it didn't end well for the Tokyo-based Kato family, who attempted to forgo this latter obligation.)

The latest annual hike in funeral prices was the ninth in a row – the figure has risen 7 per cent each year since 2004, when Sun Life Direct started its Cost of Dying reports. Where the retail price index rose 3.5 per cent on the year, funeral directors upped their fees by 5.3 per cent; cremation costs rose by 6.6 per cent; burial costs climbed 9.6 per cent. About 50 per cent of Britons make financial plans for their own funeral but one in ten now cannot afford to do so: "I am unable to save at the moment, the way the world is," said one 54-year-old respondent to Sun Life's survey. Others felt their families should take care of the bill or that the fees could be deducted from their estate. Across the country, those left behind after a death are becoming increasingly reliant on loans (10 per cent of respondents) and credit cards (20 per cent of respondents).

Sun Life calls for improvements in the government's "out of date" funeral payments scheme, which it claims is struggling to meet demand. Meanwhile, cuts to local services in general have also contributed to the ballooning of cremation and burial fees. Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium management, said: 

Many local authority cemetery services are subsidised, which for some may now be becoming untenable, bearing in mind the cuts that we are seeing to many other local services nationally. The unsustainable nature of cemeteries and shortage of new burial space in some areas has also led to fee increases which is particularly noticeable in our cities. The lack of government action in modernising burial law and the introduction of the reuse of old, abandoned graves will inevitably force higher fees in more areas as available burial space further diminishes.

In his report, Simon Cox of Sun Life Direct writes that further state support for the bereaved beyond the current system is "unlikely". Economic pressures are making life in Britain less and less affordable. It's an indictment of how wrong things have gone that, in Cox's words, "The vulnerable are too poor to die."