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Sun Life calls for improvements in the government's "out of date" funeral payments scheme, which it claims is struggling to meet demand.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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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