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Backwords: In Sickness And In Health

Mike Shaw recalls provident days when folk were terrified of dying without leaving enough “brass” to pay for their funeral.

Backwords by Mike Shaw - It’s a melancholy topic, I know, but there was one thing my parents and others of their generation feared probably more than any other.

They were terrified of dying without leaving enough “brass” to pay for their funeral.

Today we are supposed to be cared for by the state from the cradle to the grave.

But even now the cost of dying is still a genuine worry for many old people, who unselfishly don’t want to land their families with huge bills.

Sixty years or so ago it bothered working class folk more deeply still.

Those were the days of big funerals, boiled ham teas afterwards, black armbands and drawn curtains all along the street.

Next to buying their home and paying for a wedding, funerals were just about the biggest expense families had to face.

My dad, like so many others, made sure he was covered. He joined one of the many funeral societies set up to make sure their members had a decent burial.

The funeral society at Lingards Wood Bottom Sunday School -- not far from our home --went back to 1834.

People could only join if they were under 25 years old. But some were made members by their protective parents almost as soon as they were born.

In the Thirties, when I was a boy, we paid only a few coppers a quarter to quality for a death benefit of up to £8.

It was the society’s proud boast that the benefit paid out was equivalent to at least 60 years’ contribution.

Incredible though it sounds now, the society then had about 1,400 members, some of whom even kept up their payments after moving to another part of the country.

But, after the war, membership dwindled rapidly and the society was wound up in 1955.

The cost of dying wasn’t the only big worry that beset the working classes before there was a welfare state.

Times could be hard for men off work because of illness, when their only source of income was cut off and employers’ sick pay had not been thought of.

So my father insured himself for that as well. With an organisation called the Olive Branch Sick and Dividing Society.

Its headquarters was at the Olive Branch pub -- just a stone’s throw from the Sunday School which ran the funeral society.

I don’t know whether the sick scheme was the landlord’ brainchild or not.

But he certainly picked up a nice little spin-off at the Friday club nights, when members inevitably found time for a quick pint besides paying their weekly subs.

Because my dad was a teetotaller, he opted out of popping down to Th’ Olive to keep his subs up to date.

So my eldest brother had a ready-made excuse for a drop of ale and a game of dominoes every Friday night.

I was too young to be told all the club rules and regulations, but I do know they were very keen on people not dropping behind with their payments.

And there was a strange rule which imposed a curfew on members who were drawing benefit.

Nine o’clock at night, I believe, was the deadline by which they had to be back at home.

It conjures up some wonderful visions of supposedly sick members putting an abrupt end to all sorts of pleasures to escape being struck off.

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