Corpses Pile Up Amid Britain's Financial Crisis

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Richard T. Nowitz / Corbis

Highgate Cemetery in London.

The flip side of "You can't take it with you" is the notion that our money problems end with death. But amid Britain's deepening financial woes, that may no longer be true: The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) has warned that unburied bodies of the deceased are piling up as a result of the credit crisis.

Currently in the U.K., families of deceased welfare recipients receive a government grant to help cover the cost of cremation or burial. The process of securing such aid usually takes two weeks, although it can last up to two months if there are problems with the application. The country's undertakers have in the past been willing to proceed with burials and cremations on the assumption that they will be paid later — receiving up to $1,200 for funerals that usually cost around $1,700. But according to the NAFD, a convergence of financial pressures has forced a growing number of undertakers to delay proceedings until the payment clears, leaving the corpses of some of Britain's most destitute citizens in earthly limbo for weeks at a time.

As with so many other businesses in the current credit crunch, the undertakers face a liquidity problem. And it's not only among the state-assisted burials for the destitute that earnings are down: Many middle-class families pay for funeral services with profits from the sale of the deceased's property; with the British property market in free fall, the NAFD says families are opting for less opulent burial services. The reduction of earnings leads to cash shortages among undertakers, which means that many of them require loans to cover the expenses of welfare funerals as they wait for the government payment to come through. With credit dried up, the terms for these loans are becoming increasingly punitive, if they can be found at all.

"Many of us are being forced to sideline our compassion and demand that payments for all expenses be paid up front," says Dominic Maguire, spokesman for the NAFD and a funeral director in Glasgow. "It's simple: if [welfare payments] are delayed, you will see a growing number of bodies waiting weeks, if not months to be buried."

Daniel Kawczynski, the member of parliament who has raised the issue in the House of Commons after being contacted by funeral directors in his constituency, says the problem could be solved if the government department responsible for welfare payments, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), met its target by providing the funeral payments within 16 days of application. But, he claims, the country's financial woes have left that Department understaffed. The DWP has seen its budget cut by 5.6% over three years in real terms, and recently announced thousands of layoffs. (The DWP, for its part, blames the delays on erroneously completed application forms).

Clive Pugh, a funeral director in Shrewsbury, western England who contacted Kawczynski on the matter, says he has a cremation service scheduled for Oct. 17 for a 77-year-old welfare recipient who died on 13 August. The man's body has been kept, since the summer, in the freezer of a private mortuary while his daughter waited for the DWP payment to go through.

"Families become very agitated in such situations and we get blamed for the delay," he says. "But what can we do? We aren't a bank, we are not in the business of giving loans."

Pugh says some of the difficulty of retrieving funeral costs from families comes from their sense of closure following burial. "After funerals emotions change so much; people put the death behind them, move on, and it can be difficult to get them to address anything to do with the funeral, including the money. Who pays for it becomes irrelevant [to them]."

The specter of uninterred corpses has powerful evocations in Britain, where a strike by gravediggers in the 1978 "Winter of Discontent" left mortuaries struggling to cope. As the current delays only affect a percentage of welfare recipients, it is unlikely that this year will see a problem anywhere close to the scale of the 1978 crisis (which forced health officials to consider mass burials at sea). But Britain's undertakers have offered a corporeal reminder of how financial crises can infringe in intimate ways. "We are the forth richest country in the world," MP Kawczynski says. "The idea that you would have to wait two months to bury someone close to you is despicable."