Tuesday, 14 July 2009

If you like a lot of brassware on your coffin, Join Our Club!

Today was a momentous day at Hale Villas (albeit the sign next to the door reads, rather more appropriately, Wits End). I had the nod from Andy the builder that the work on the front of the house is now complete and the scaffolding can come down. Within a day or so, I shall take tea on my newly-refurbished balcony, but for now I contented myself with a small sherry by way of celebration.

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.






18 comments:

Comedy Goddess said...

My earthly remains shall lie in state. In a glass coffin. With Tibetan Monks chanting the Tibetan Book of the Dead. That shouldn't cost too much?

chris hale said...

CG - Monks are inexpensive; it's the air fares that cost. Probably cheaper to lie in a paper bag whilst a neighbour reads extracts from Readers Digest.

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

Thought I'd pop in for a sherry, if there's any going? I suppose there's merit in not taking up June Whitfield's or Sir Parky's offers on the insurance front, if only in the hope of keeping your loving relatives away from a blunt instrument?!

BTW, I only mentioned Kevin & Molly because YOU said it first. Anyway, I'm too worried about Clare at the moment!

SandyCalico said...

We had one of those sweepstakes at work once. Princess Margaret won.
I mourned. Of course I did, I had Prince Philip!

punk in writing said...

Interesting as always. :)

I'm not sure what should be done with earthly remains, but I like the idea of a huge tombstone with angels, candles and anything else that the Victorians went crazy over.

Madame DeFarge said...

(Irritatingly, your posts don't update on my dashboard, hence commenting late, sorry)

I loathe sherry, which means that I can't grow old properly. I feel somewhat put out by this. I may need to acquire the taste for it.

chris hale said...

Derrick - please do have a sherry! What's that? Can't find the bottle? It's behind that pile of blunt instruments...

Sandy - You just can't rely on these Royals, can you?

Punky - Sounds great! Do you think we could persuade IKEA to go into the tombstone business?

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I've never had sherry - we have an interesting drink here made from fermented sprouts and spinach.

A balcony sounds fun! Do you have a sea view?

mo.stoneskin said...

They may say sherry is for the oldies, but I've never heard them say that about port. Why is that?

chris hale said...

MDF - Greetings! Are you sure I can't tempt you to a small glass of sherry? It's Croft Old Particular...

Raph - Can you tell me whre I can order a bottle of that? Oh, and yes, we do have a distant view of the sea!

Mo - Probably because sherry has never (for some reason) had the snobby cachet that port sems to have acquired. Or perhaps it doesn't go as well with stilton...

JamaGenie said...

I want to be cremated and then my cremains let loose in Highgate Cem on a windy day. A win-win for all. I get the pleasure of making future generations nuts looking for the grave; Highgate (and London as well) get the tourism bucks that would've been wasted on my funeral.

(I thought IKEA already was in the coffin business, judging by some of their multi-use furniture...)

JamaGenie said...

Chris, this article is such a giggle! I hope you won't mind that I featured it in this week's Tombstone Tuesday at Saturday's Child.

Camilla Jessop said...

Since my dear Grandad introduced me to the Marquis de Romero in Jerez, shortly after the Gibraltar Grand Prix, I have known that truly sophisticated women of all ages like to accompany a delicate morsel of dark bitter chocolate with a glass of finest Pedro Ximenez - the Alvear Solera 1927 is rather good. Suxh excellence is recognised by the use of PX casks in the maturing of the ecellent Lagavulin Malt Whisky. All far too good for old people......

chris hale said...

JG - Thank you for your kind words re the blog, and I'm flattered that you wish to feature it in your own! Methinks you have visited England; you must have to know of Highgate Cemetery. The 'old' bit is very atmospheric! Please do call again!

Camilla - Alvear Solera 1927, eh? I do hope you checked the 'best before' label as I'm awfully afraid you might find it's gone off! But I'm sure the Scotch is OK. How old is too old, by the way?

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LondonGirl said...

What a wonderful post! There were also the significant burial insurance schemes, I think, even in the 1940s and 1950s, where the man from the Pru collected a few pennies weekly.

I loathe sherry - it tastes like alcoholic cough medicine to me.

chris hale said...

LondonGirl - You're right about the Man from the Pru. I can remember his visits as a child.

However, I must disagree re the sherry...I love the stuff! Perhaps I'm a closet Victorian or something.

LondonGirl said...

My grandfather was the man from the Pru just after the war, it's what he did for a living (-: