A very good friend (you know who you are!) told me the other day that sherry is an old person's drink, which seems appropriate, because there is a lot of chatter about the cost of caring for the elderly at the moment. The government is looking at ways of funding care for an increasingly ageing population, whether it be by taxation, lump sum payments out of retirement gratutities, or some other method. Most old people (those who own property, and can still afford sherry) fear that the home they intended to leave to their nearest and dearest will be sold to fund the cost of their nursing care which, in some cases, seems to run at about a thousand pounds a week. And what happens when the cash runs out? Do they get thrown onto the streets?
None of this is new. The elderly have always had a fear of being alone and destitute. Back in the days before the advent of the nursing or care home, the next stop for a poor old widow or widower was the Parish Workhouse. This doleful place features in the novels of Charles Dickens (especially Oliver Twist), and it is hard for us to understand the abject terror that struck the Victorian elderly at the thought of being uprooted and placed in the workhouse. As a charitable businessman told Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 'Many would rather die' than be subjected to the tender mercies of the Parish.
Going hand in hand with the fear of the workhouse was a great horror of the thought of a pauper's funeral. Victorians excelled in the celebration (if that's the right word) of death, with plumed horses, mutes (professional mourners) swathed in black, and elaborate and expensive coffins. The pauper's funeral was generally marked by a cheap, re-usable coffin, trundled to church on a handcart, mourners in ordinary clothes, and burial in an unmarked grave. And it was these fears that prompted the rise in popularity of so-called Burial Clubs amongst the working classes.
Burial clubs were often operated from public houses by pub landlords. This wasn't an altruistic public service on their part; they knew that money would be spent on beer for the 'wake' when the death benefit was eventually paid out. The working man would toddle off to the pub, pay his dues (often only a few pence) into the club, and his subscription would be marked up in a register. He could contribute for himself, and for his wife and children, if he could afford it. And, when the sad day came (provided it was more than two years after the start of subscriptions) the family would collect the money, which would help to defray the cost of a decent funeral. Having a respectable send-off was so important to the Victorians that, according to historian Audrey Collins, they were prepared to go without in life so as to be well provided for in death.Of course, things didn't always go smoothly. Some collectors embezzled the money, so that there was nothing left when a grieving family member went to collect the benefit. Some companies (echoes of modern day here!) tried to wriggle out of paying the money over - in 1836 the Globe Public House Burial Club in Covent Garden refused to pay Sarah Forrest the £5 she was due, because (they said) her husband had died 24 hours before two years had elapsed. She did eventually get her money, but had to go to law to do so. But, most chillingly, husbands and wives were murdering their spouses and, in some cases, their children, to claim the burial money. In 1854 'a prosperous town' which is not named had a working class infant mortality rate of 56%; this is set against the 18% for children of the better sort in the same town, and was four times higher than the child mortality rate in rural Dorset. And the reason - parents were killing their children for the burial money. A few years earlier, in 1851, Essex girl Sarah Chesham was convicted of murdering her husband, her two children and another unnamed party, and all for the cash from the burial club.
In these more prosperous days, there is less likelihood of any one of us being on the receiving end of a pauper's funeral, and as a result burial clubs have pretty well died the death, if you'll pardon the pun. But not quite. Watch any satellite or cable station for more than ten minutes, and you'll be exhorted by some ageing celebrity to buy 'peace of mind' insurance in exchange for a cheap DVD player or some Marks and Sparks vouchers. For 'peace of mind', read 'save your kids from having to stump up the cost of your funeral.' And speaking of ageing celebrities, I've heard of a couple of bizarre variations on the burial club theme, courtesy of a former colleague. One is the Celebrity Death Club, where you nominate a well-known personality whom you believe to be on his (or her) last legs, and pay a couple of pounds a month into a 'kitty'. When your favoured celebrity finally bites the dust, you claim the money that has accrued since the last fatality. The other involves a group of ageing friends in a Buckinghamshire pub, who place informal bets upon which of their number will be the next to die...
You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I haven't seen fit to buy my own 'peace of mind' insurance yet. I have absolutely no intention of dying, I don't need a DVD player and I've got a full bottle of sherry in the sideboard.