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Sun Life calls for improvements in the government's "out of date" funeral payments scheme, which it claims is struggling to meet demand.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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.