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

Burial fees climb almost 10 per cent in a year.

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Sun Life calls for improvements in the government's "out of date" funeral payments scheme, which it claims is struggling to meet demand.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."

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

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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