The cost of dying

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With the average cost of a funeral in the UK now £3,757, and the average debt taken on by families to pay for a funeral reaching £1,744, the funeral poverty crisis is worsening every year. Funeral costs have risen steeply (up to 30%), as simultaneously the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the government’s crushing ‘Austerity’ policy have tightened the screws on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It’s a bitter irony that up to 200,000 deaths may be linked to ‘Austerity’, with a combination of food and fuel poverty, cutbacks to health, social and mental health care services, and suicide all contributing to this estimate. So many of us are now too poor to live, and also too poor to die!

Today it was announced that the cost of a death certificate has risen from £4 to £11. It may seem a small amount, until you consider that up to ten death certificates may needed to release the body, arrange the funeral, and access the estate. It’s yet another pressure on grieving family members already struggling to provide a funeral that reflects their love and celebrates the deceased’s life.

While it’s possible to apply for a Funeral Expenses Payment from the DWP if you are claiming certain benefits, the payment will only cover an average of a third of the costs, can take weeks to arrive, and if another family member is in work, or considered next of kin and is ineligible (e.g. if the next of kin is a child), the claim will be rejected. Desperate people on zero-hours contracts, living hand-to-mouth with no savings and no spare money for life insurance or pre-paid funeral plans, will not be eligible. Up to half of all applications are rejected.

So what’s the alternative? There’s been a steep rise in crowdfunding for funerals; in the first nine months of 2016, 2007 crowdfunding pages for funerals were launched, raising an average of £1,300 each. In the same year it was calculated that 1.2 million people in the UK had borrowed £576 million from payday loan companies to pay funeral expenses, landing themselves in a serious cycle of debt. More people are choosing ‘garden burials’ – literally burying their deceased loved ones in their own back gardens, which eliminates the costs of buying a plot, conducting a funeral service and digging the grave. While this has always been an option chosen by those with large estates, or those who want to keep their dead family members close, it’s still not an option for the poorest – you will need to own your own home and the land you intend to use as a grave site and fulfill certain environmental health conditions.

So, as usual, already hard-pressed and underfunded local authorities are being relied upon to provide thousands of Public Health Funerals in the UK every year. There are sad echoes of the ‘Pauper’s Funeral’ of the Victorian era here: burials (costing an average of £700) can be in shared plots with no headstones, these may be re-opened to inter further corpses at a later date; after council cremations (costing an average of £1000), ashes are often scatted in the crematorium’s garden of remembrance, and it may or may not be possible for the family of the deceased to take possession of the ashes. It’s not the send-off that most of us would wish for for those we love, adding guilt and shame to grief. Although councils can attempt to recover some of the costs from the estate of the deceased, in 2015 some local authorities were paying up £250,000 for Public Health Funerals, and these costs can only have been rising since.

Finally, hospitals may be having to cope with storing bodies indefinitely, if the family is caught in the bind where the body cannot be released without a fee (£1000+), but the social fund will not pay out until the funeral is underway.

It’s an emotive issue that most people don’t want to think about. It’s hard enough dealing with bureaucracy and arranging a funeral while you are shocked and grieving, without adding a lifetime of financial pressure (and a reminder of bereavement with every loan repayment) and the guilt of only being able to provide a ‘Pauper’s Funeral’. Those who incur debt to pay for a funeral will likely be unable to pay for their own funeral, either, meaning that this crisis will worsen in the future. If you are facing this issue, there is help and advice available online, or at your Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

‘Austerity’ is not over, it was never about reducing the deficit. It will never be over because it’s an ideology, not a fiscal recovery policy. Reducing our dignity, our sense of social security, and performing a sneaky and despicable holocaust of the poor, sick and vulnerable is what it’s about. If we cannot perform as tax payers/consumers then we are expendable. The ‘Victorian Values’ that Thatcher asked us to return to have indeed returned and it’s horrifying.

http://fairfuneralscampaign.org.uk/content/funeral-poverty-alliance

https://quakersocialaction.org.uk/we-can-help/helping-funerals/down-earth/how-it-works

https://www.royallondon.com/media/press-releases/2018/september/buried-in-debt-mourners-borrow-1700-to-pay-for-loved-ones-funerals/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34943805

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A poem with no name

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The people come with their stories front and centre

They wear them like shields, like badges of honour

This is why you find me in this state!

This horror, this lack of care, this tragedy

Has brought me here. Oh, I could tell a tale or two!’

 

And so I sit, and roll up fags for us, and listen

Sitting on the pavement, on damp walls, or on the ground

We smoke and I listen and the terrible tales pour out

Until they have been heard and felt, until

The shields are lowered, the armour loosened

 

And then the people let me glimpse amazing lives

Of courage and adventure, and the honesty or

The grit that means they can’t become

A cog in the machine; a spirit shines through to me

A will that keeps them striving through adversity

 

How many weary miles they’ve travelled, battling demons, sore of heart!

The revolutions fought, the stallions tamed, the families left behind

The starry nights with drink and fire and good companions

The mountains of bureaucracy they’ve scaled

And wild capricious seas of prejudice and kindness, life and death

 

Pushed the to edges, the margins, these people

They have the best, most unexpected stories

And I feel privileged and also strengthened

Because I too, am an outsider, a piece of grit

And my mechanism don’t always run smooth

 

And when I sit, and roll up fags, and listen

That’s when I feel that I fit into something

We don’t run smooth, but we run side-by-side

That’s where I become my best self – sat in the margins

Hearing epic tales from heroes much braver than me

One Year Happy

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Today marks the anniversary of the day I woke up to sunshine. The marvelous, wondrous, tentative day that I woke up, and by a miracle, my depression had lifted. I wrote this post about the experience. Now it’s one year on, and, although I’ve had ups and downs, moments of feeling hopeless, sad, angry or lonely, they pass. They are no longer the boss of me. And it’s still wondrous. Now I have the added bonus of not worrying that it will come back again any time soon; I feel strong, I feel happy to be alive.

More than everything, I feel lucky. I’ve felt the love of so many friends old and new, I’ve had the steadfast support of both my biological and my ‘chosen’ family. I’ve met people that blew my mind, and seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Well, some pretty lovely things, anyway. I was healthy enough when I started the journey to recovery that it was easy to get back into shape (I only had to walk hundreds of miles up and down hills, really, no biggie..). And I have all the advantages I’ve built up over a lifetime: I have done a lot of therapy, met a lot of people, learned a lot of things, I have a loving support network, I am a white, middle-class (or can pass for middle class if required), well-educated and articulate person. Yes, my struggle to want to live was real. It terrified me. But I was so lucky from the start; I had all the advantages to help me get well again. Most of them only required me to begin to be honest and to reach out to my friends and accept their help and love.

I didn’t have to struggle with mental health issues while worrying about how I could afford to eat, heat the house, get to my appointment at the Job Centre or face being sanctioned. I was ‘homeless’ but only ever slept rough by choice, in beautiful places. My citizenship was never in question, I was never a stateless refugee, forced to contemplate jumping onto a moving lorry or taking to the sea in an inflatable boat to save my life and the lives of my children. I don’t face discrimination due to my body, race, sexuality, health or appearance. I don’t have any life-threatening illness or chronic condition to sap the strength a person needs to fight depression.

Be kind, as much as you can. Let people know that you love them and that you have their back if they need you. Several of my closest friends and family have been through some pretty dark and scary times in the past two years as well. A very powerful part of my healing process has been the mutual support we’ve shown each other, and the inspiration we’ve drawn from each other’s courage, spirit and determination to heal and have better lives. To be able to help and support another person – what can be more life-affirming, uplifting and self-esteem boosting than that?

In this year, I have cried a lot, laughed a lot, shouted to the heavens in fury and pain, and danced around in joy and gratitude. I am alive. And I relish the challenges to come and am excited about the way that we will navigate them, together.

Reflect

I am like the Moon

Change is my constant

From bright and full

To secretive and dark

Sometimes you won’t

See me at all

Rising to rhythms

Not diurnal

I push you away

I pull you to me

Little creatures

Of the night

Creep out to smile with me

At the silence

The Stone Dance

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The Stone Dance
Follows the tides
Follows the Moon
For nineteen years
The Pipers piped
The spheres sang out

The music freed the Maidens
From the stones
They flowed like grass
Following the tin
Following the Moon

For nineteen years
The Stone Dance lasted
The Maiden’s movements
Rounded and wind-blown
Flowing like grass

Until the Moon’s Medusa face
Turned around in the sky
Turned them back
Into stone

He Died Twice (Chapter 2)

diedtwiceSOCIAL

Brockenhurst, Hampshire 50°48’55.5″N 1°34’32.8″W March 23rd 20.22 hrs

Kate turned into the street where she lived. She’d arrived here on auto-pilot, without intention. There was no sign of a police presence. No unfamiliar cars on the street. She pulled up to the driveway and waited for a minute. Nothing moved. Silence. She would risk going into the house. But she locked both doors with deadbolts and drew the security chain across. Inside the house it was very very quiet.

Kate dumped her hat, coat and bags onto the sofa. Her handbag was littered with tiny glass cubes. She just went and ran a bath. She was shivering, freezing, and her mind was blank. In the bath she did not cry, but shuddering dry sobs racked her from time to time. She could not relax. The hot water seemed to make no difference to her body temperature and it stung her scrapes and bruises, but it washed off the blood. She was crazy! Anyone else would have gone to the police! What the fuck had she done, letting her fears take hold of her, imagining all sorts of dark plots like she was in some kind of a thriller? Unlikely. What had actually happened was that she’d tampered with evidence at the scene of a double murder, and made no effort to cover her tracks. There would be footprints, fingerprints … Fuck. Great big bloody footprints. Stupid cow! Eventually the water was cold so she pulled the plug, stood up and showered in clean hot water.

No. Something was very, very wrong here. Bobby was involved in something she’d known nothing about. Something to do with Russians, relationships with people she’d never heard of, guns, and murder. Wrong. Her initial instincts were correct, she felt it. Knew it. Now she needed to be smart. To ignore Bobby’s dressing gown with his smell that twisted her heart and be smart.

The first thing to do was put her bloody clothes into the washing machine with a lot of bleach. She didn’t know if it would get rid of the blood completely, but it might make it harder to prove that she’d been at the Everton house. Then take the batteries out of the phones, her own and Bobby’s. The stranger’s phone was a cheap simple model, brand new by the look of it. She took the risk of switching it on. There was nothing on the phone. No contacts, no saved or sent messages, no call history. She took the battery out.

Now for the two men’s wallets. Bobby’s she knew – she’d bought it for him, and there was a picture of the two of them tucked inside that she’d put there herself. She took out the cash, just over forty pounds, and pulled out the credit cards and other contents. There was a partly-stamped loyalty card from a coffee shop, a couple of business cards that seemed to be legitimate contacts for the sporting events business, driving licence, nothing out of the ordinary. She looked at the other wallet. It was a worn brown leather bill-fold of good quality with no branding on it. Inside it was one thousand pounds in crisp notes and nothing else at all. Nothing? No clues to his identity. Kate sat back on the sofa, rubbing her head as if to massage some understanding, some comprehension into her brain. She was trying not to get carried away, but it seemed to her that the man was deliberately ‘clean’, like an agent about to go into the field. No identifying material whatsoever. Burner phone. Think about it later. Got to keep moving.

Online, she transferred all her money and all her available overdraft from her current account to her savings account. She made a written note of all the most important email addresses, then deleted them and her browsing history. She threw folders of her personal paperwork into a bag. Her passport, driving licence and registration documents she left to one side. From up in the loft Kate lowered two suitcases and all the camping gear she could find. Tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, cooking stuff, torch, clothes line, penknife. That reminded her of the flick-knife in Bobby’s pocket. She hadn’t ever seen that before… Stay focussed. Axe, saw, mallet, staple gun. Heaven only knew what she was preparing for, but, by hell, she’d be prepared!

Kate pulled out the storage drawers from under her bed and gathered three wigs and a set of fake dreadlocks she’d once had fastened into her hair, Bobby’s hair clippers and any hair dyes she could find. She packed all her underwear. Clothes: as many different things as possible. Kate had always dressed eclectically; she had many different guises if need be. Her huge and unwieldy wardrobe would now prove its worth. She took her warmest things, a lot of T-shirts, and walking boots. Books – only the essentials: Ray Mear’s Bushcraft and Tom Brown Jr’s The Science and Art of Tracking, The SAS Survival Guide, Food For Free by Richard Mabey. ‘Essentials’ for Kate meant that she needed at least one work of fiction. Scanning the shelves, her eye fell upon her Len Deightons. Nine books in the Bernard Sampson series. Too many to take? They’d been gleaned over the course of years from charity shops – they were many-times-read, tattered old friends. Goodbye, Bernard and Fiona Sampson, spies extraordinaires! And just when she most needed their skills. Bollocks, she would take them.

She thought, in a distracted way: Is someone coming here right now to shoot me? She shook her head as if to dispel those thoughts and re-settle her brains. They said ‘him’; they don’t know about me. Keep doing, stay focussed. Photo albums. Maps.

Out to the garage; it was still and quiet on the street, chilly and damp. Kate drove a sky-blue 1968 Triumph Herald 13/60 that she was still fixing up; she set the battery to charge. She readied it for a journey, inflating a tyre that must have a slow puncture and checking the lights and the oil, water and fuel levels. Into the boot she put in all the spares and random bits and pieces she’d accumulated for it.

Now it was nearly midnight.

Now, with basic preparations made, she thought again about Bobby’s secret life. Kate hesitated outside the door to Bobby’s office to gather resolve. Inside, it felt like he might be back any minute. There was the usual chaos of bike bits and frames, sports wear, magazines and random bolts and things strewn about. A 3-D model of Bobby’s exhibition stand at the London Triathlon Show took pride of place on a shelf that had many race numbers tacked to it. But Bobby’s filing system was well-organised. The box files and folders contained information about the sporting events company that Bobby ran: receipts, bank accounts, proposals, letters; all relating to his business. If she found nothing at all, she would have to call the police and confess everything. She would feel like the most stupid person the world had ever known, and probably be suspected or charged, but she’d have to. The thought of Bobby still lying in that room, cold and bloody and dead, hit her suddenly. She pressed her fist against her mouth and cried. She was the worst wife, the worst friend. A stupid, self-deluding, scared fantasist. Perhaps she was mad.

In the back of the bottom desk drawer, she found another phone and another cash box. A second phone? The cash box was locked. She shook it. Something metal inside. Kate decided to look at Bobby’s secret second phone and powered it up. From ‘Jerry’: Meet as per, Brisleigh Close, 18.00. That was the meeting Bobby had gone to tonight. So the man was called ‘Jerry’. There were messages from ‘Jim’ – maybe the ‘Jim’ Bobby had spoken of in the conversation she’d overheard? – but there were only those three messages in the in-box. Nothing in ‘Sent’. No other notes or information or apps on the phone, only some numbers attached to names she didn’t recognise or that were mythical: ‘Daniel’, ‘Martha’, ‘Sheela-na-gig’ and ‘Odin’. The messages from ‘Jim’ seemed mundane: Fancy a coffee?; Can we meet up today?; Taking Susan and the kids away for a few days. Kate turned the phone off and put it into her pocket.

She searched the desk for a key to the locked box, then checked Bobby’s key ring. No. She went out to the workshop and looked for a key there. She pulled out drawers of nuts and bolts, brake pads and Allen keys. No key. Then, in a tool box, she found some bullets. Ten of them. She collapsed backwards against the work bench. Bullets? What the fuck does a sporting events organiser need bullets in his toolbox for? She knew nothing at all about bullets, but they looked real enough. She was not going to call the police now. Grabbing a penknife, she struggled with the lock on the cash box. She managed to nick her finger, but no luck opening it. So she tried a piece of wire, then an Allen key. Wire and Allen key together. She fiddled around in the lock, and suddenly it turned.

Inside, a small key and an envelope. She examined the key, which was engraved with ‘Bauer, Zurich’, and the number 23346, and put it in her pocket. She opened the envelope. Inside were two printed paying-in slips from a Bournemouth bank with a German name. Just under £8,800 pounds in cash had been paid in with each transaction. An odd figure. She left the workshop and locked it behind her. In that other reality, the moon was visible between the clouds and owls hooted to each other from the trees. So far, no-one seemed to have driven into her street since she’d gotten out of the bath, and the phone had not rung. The police had not arrived on the doorstep.

It was now 2 am. She loaded the rest of the things she’d collected into the car. Back in the house she made tea and a cheese sandwich because she knew she should. Shock had worn off, leaving her feeling sharp. Let’s see what’s in the backpack. Aside from the gun, the laptop, and Bobby’s sweaty running gear, there was a folder with a proposal for a triathlon in the Peak District next March. Sweet wrappers and loose change rattled around in the bottom with Biros and old receipts. She upended the bag and turned it out onto the coffee table, unfolded all the receipts and looked through them. Coffee, magazine, sandwich, mini-statement of current account: £1354.73, Tesco’s shopping, mini statement printed out in Bournemouth a week ago for another account with £149,347.12 in it. Stop. What? Kate pulled the envelope out of her pocket and compared the statement with the slips she’d found in the locked box. The same bank. A hundred and fifty grand?! There was no way Bobby had that kind of money. They lived a comfortable life, but not a wealthy one. If he had, she would have known about it, wouldn’t she? They’d have used it to do things with, or at least to be able to take holidays, buy better cars? Either the money wasn’t his – but then how did he get the mini-statement? – or else here were more lies. Suddenly, she felt very far away from Bobby, further away than she had when she had realised he was dead, on the floor in that awful room. Reality and fiction, life and nightmare, seemed to be switching places.

Hard thinking was what she needed to do now, but she was exhausted and incapable of any kind of thinking, and very cold again. Oh, let the police or the Mafia whoever come and beat the door down and drag me away in the night if they want to! There was nothing she could do right now to stop them; she felt a bone-tired weariness and sickness, such that she just didn’t care. Kate took her oldest and most trusted friend, her teddy bear, from his shelf and wandered sadly into the bedroom. No cuddling up to Bobby tonight. No cuddling up to him ever again. She fell asleep crying.

When the alarm went off, she hoped it had all been a dream. She felt something next to her face, and settled into it. Bobby. All a terrible dream. But the thing was too furry and too small. Not Bobby. Not a dream. Tears welled up again, and she felt tired and helpless, unable to do anything but lay face down and weep. Then she sighed and dragged herself up. Bringing her bear with her, cradled in one arm, Kate went into the kitchen to make tea. The cold light of day and the cold of the quarry-tiled floor hit her simultaneously, waking her fully. “Oh, Ted!” she said, and buried her face into his worn furry head. But she knew what she was going to do.

Kate emptied all the useful food from the fridge and cupboards into bags and went and got dressed, putting on careful make-up to hide her pallor and puffy eyes. She chose a wig and put it into her handbag. Firing up the computer, she looked up the makers’ name on the key to find out what kind of lock it might open. Then she shut the computer down and put the hard drive, the food and faithful old Ted into the car. The car started first time, with its customary racket. Kate reversed out of the garage and onto the driveway and said goodbye to her home in the rear-view mirror.