"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Sun Life calls for improvements in the government's "out of date" funeral payments scheme, which it claims is struggling to meet demand.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 work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.