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Don’t worry about dying – you can’t afford it.

A recent investigation by ITV News revealed that there has been a 70% rise in what are often termed ‘pauper’s funerals’, more correctly named Public Health Funerals. These are the funerals of ordinary people who have no money and cannot afford the cost of dying. Just as thought-provoking was the revelation that the bodies responsible for public health funerals are local councils, some of whom, in order to save money, are actively preventing loved ones from attending.

Pauper’s funerals might be more associated with Victorian times but in today’s UK, they are on the rise. Which begs an immediate question; why?

One obvious answer is the growth in population. As it continues to do so, simple logic will tell you that with more people around and birth rates going up, greater numbers will, at some point, pass on to whatever awaits us in the next world. Allied to that, given that the value of money means less and less in the always-rising cost of everything, the price of a coffin and the final farewell is also going up. So more people are drawn into the unenviable position of not being able to pay for one when the time comes. With nobody able to pay, councils thus have a duty to provide a pauper’s funeral and the increasing cost of the personally-funded version, combined with lower levels of household savings, has pushed more families and individuals living alone, towards a subsidised one.

The ITV report found that the cost to councils across the UK came to over £4million in the last financial year. That doesn’t sound like much in the great scheme of council expenditure but what it does mean is the kind of funeral one might be offered can vary from area to area (a point that applies to most services provided by one’s local authority) and, again in a cost-saving move, could mean no headstone and two bodies in the same grave. ITV’s research highlighted how very basic many public health funerals have now become - there were 15,000 last year, but some councils aren't allowing relatives to attend cremations and others don't let the bereaved have ashes or even choose words and music. All in the name of saving money.

Rather unsurprisingly, this is something that was not mentioned – and probably never even thought of – by Chancellor Philip Hammond in his Budget speech. It doesn’t seem beyond reason to suggest that perhaps if less was spent on things that make good headlines, vanity projects and other things that are either unnecessary to start with, or could be put back to another time, our government could do more to put minds at rest by taking a good, long hard look at the cost of death. That of course, needs to include something that Mr Hammond did do, which was to bring more ordinary people into the net of the cost of probate, or dealing with the affairs of family members who die. Hammond’s move has been referred to as the ‘death tax’.

It is of course, easy to say, ‘Put something aside for your future needs’ as all governments do, but this isn’t easy (and impossible for some) when the cost of being alive has gone beyond the reach of many. For example, the freeze on benefit payments by George Osborne while he was Chancellor is still in place Osborne became Chancellor under David Cameron when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010. Yet that was eight years ago and in that time, the price of everything we need for our daily lives has continued to rise. Including the cost of the inevitable departure and the benefit recipient is unlikely to be able to afford a reasonable send-off. To their credit, some Tory MPs are now saying the freeze should be lifted, including the oft-maligned (unfairly in my humble view) Iain Duncan Smith. Would it be any different under Labour? The answer to that is no, it would not.

Not one of the major or minor political parties want (or has ever wanted) to talk about death. It is, perhaps understandably, something of a taboo subject - yes we know it happens, but its not something we chat about over dinner, or for that matter around the Cabinet table either. Why not? It is time we confronted the fact that we all, at some point, will die. And when we do, there are an increasing number of people who will need help to deal with it.

Ah – yes. Jeremy Corbyn used that same phrase when, during the last election campaign, he was asked about Tuition Fees and student debt. “I will deal with it,” he said firmly. The question of how was persistently met with the same firm response: “I will deal with it.”

Corbyn’s reply was, as we all know, aimed at the young, those either going to or at University. They however, are not concerned with what happens at the other end of their existence and neither it would seem, are today’s politicians, few of whom by the way, will have to worry about the cost of their own passing. They don't want to deal with it.

There is, almost inevitably, another aspect to our impending departures from this life; most people lean towards the idea that they will have a grave, with a headstone bearing their name and other details, showing that they existed, they were here, they did something, and even made a contribution to the lives of others, as well as living a decent life themselves. There is just one problem; the space for cemeteries is a little limited, just as it is for everything else (including all those houses we want to spread all over the countryside). This is why cremations happen; a small box with the ashes of the deceased inside doesn’t take up much space if the wish is for subsequent burial. It helps when the departed ask for their ashes to be scattered somewhere - my father had a love affair with the French capital Paris, and although he made no such request for it, I suspect he would have been quite happy to have been blown by the wind from the top of the Eiffel Tower (assuming Parisian permission would be forthcoming, that is). Personally I prefer the idea of a proper grave, where he and my Mother can lay side by side and one day I will join them. The cost of that unfortunately, is beyond me and the pressure of space means that it is one wish that I am unlikely to have granted.

So we need to deal with it; we need to deal with death. We, as a society, need to address the question of how we pay for a fond farewell, where we put our remains and we need a government, regardless of its politics, to do something to make the passage from one world to the other easier for those who need help.

© Kevan James 2018.

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