Too poor to die

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paupers-funeral.jpg

Buried in the woods. A pauper's grave.

A pauper's grave in the woods

It is common knowledge that the cost of living is going through the roof, but it is only when you are faced with the death of someone close that you bump into another of the scandals of Tory austerity Britain — the cost of dying.

The average cost of a funeral in 2014 was a staggering £7,600. That represents an 80 percent rise over the past decade, and it went up yet again on 1 January. Some of this is the usual profiteering by undertakers — who have a standard mark-up of 200 percent on all coffins — but a large slice of the expense of dying is government and council taxes.

Even if you pare expenses down to the minimum, the Association of Undertakers still estimates that a funeral will cost £3,456. Who can afford this? The answer is fewer and fewer people. In theory the state will help out if you really cannot afford these amounts.

But the government’s Social Funeral Payment, like all benefits in Tory Britain, is hard to get, never enough and always paid late. No wonder Sally Greengrass of the International Longevity Centre was quoted as saying, “With growing funeral costs…growing numbers of people find they cannot afford to die.” Er…thanks for that, Sally, but the fact is that we all die, whether we have money in the bank or not. So what does anyone do?

I spoke to Glen Hill who works for the Co-op Funeral Service in Oxfordshire. Glen told me that it was a problem that was growing by the week. The Daily Mirror reported in December that more and more people are organising Do-It-Yourself funerals, making their own coffins (or using shrouds) and burying the dead in back gardens and woodlands.

This is legal but the state puts all kinds of obstacles in the way — after all it does’t make money out of a DIY job. But as Glen told me, more and more non-rich mourners are doing what our class has always done — cooperating. Glen explained that it is increasingly common for a family to ask their friends to contribute to the cost of the funeral rather than sending flowers.

But what happens if it’s still too much? The answer was a shock, but probably shouldn't have been. Glen explained: “If no one can afford any kind of funeral the bodies are just left in the hospital mortuary, in other words in the big fridge.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the line delivered by Bob Hoskins in the film The Long Good Friday when his mate’s body is refrigerated: “Going out like a raspberry ripple — where’s the dignity in that?” Where indeed?

I tried to get some sense of how many of the poor dead are currently stored like frozen lollies, but no Health Authority would give a figure. From his own insider knowledge Glen said that he knew of “maybe a dozen” in his area alone. I have submitted a request for this information under the Freedom of Information Act, but predictably there has been no official reply yet.

In many ways the coalition government is trying to drive working class living standards back to the 1930s, but this is one area where things were actually better 80 years ago. Then there were “paupers’ funerals” — cheap and miserable burials in which the poor became waste disposal. But even these are long gone.

In an era when we are all suppose to be richer, having a dignified send-off was one thing we could all look forward to after a lifetime of work — even if these funerals were full of the Victorian pomp normally reserved for our betters. The DIY funerals were at one time the life choice of the middle classes; now they have become the only option for many working class people.
The only alternative is that a local undertaker agrees to do the job as an act of charity.

What I find so utterly sick about this callous indifference to the dead is that so many of this lousy government profess to be god-fearing Christians. Yet as ever their Christian values are reserved for their own class. And there’s an even more sickening hypocrisy that hovers over this outrage. In 1979 gravediggers in the north west of England went on strike asking for a 5 percent wage increase.
The strike went on for three weeks and as a result some funerals were postponed.

Cremations (over 70 percent of funerals) went ahead as usual, but there was a shitstorm of anti-union hysteria in the media. How dare these “militants” insult the dead in this way? It was an outrage!
As much as anything else this synthetic indignation created the conditions for the electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher and her attack on trade unions.

Some 35 years on the same Tory media doesn't give a monkeys as hospital mortuaries fill up with ordinary people too poor to be buried.