Death Insurance Throughout the Ages

by M-Gillies

During Roman times, cities like this one in Volterra, Italy, buried their dead outside the city walls to eliminate disease. These Roman cities were also the first to initiate a burial club that helped the less fortunate with funeral expenses.

Historical scholars have often held the once thriving civilization of Ancient Rome in high regard for its advanced military and political skills, and scholarly studies, however, with such an advanced understanding of the fundamentals of logic, the Romans also had a vast understanding of death and disease.

Realizing the importance of protecting themselves, cemeteries were placed outside the city walls to prevent the spread of disease from decaying corpses. With war and famine so prevalent, alongside limited health facilities, death was an everyday occurrence which would see designated people assigned the task of carrying out the correct methods of body disposal.

While these individuals were paid for their duties, widows and orphans were in no position to pay for funeral services, therefore, The Fratres was initiated. Known as a burial club, these clubs were set up by the poor, for the poor, and would see members pool together money to pay for funeral costs for any members who died, while further encouraging aid to surviving family members and creating the rudimentary foundations of life insurance.

As the years went on, the Middle Ages saw the formation of guilds, crafts organizations and fraternal groups, which would collect funds in advance from members as a means of paying for the final expenses of a member’s funeral ceremony. With a growing importance of planning for the expense of a funeral, and during a period of soaring death rates, the mid-19th century saw, particularly in London, England, over 200 burial societies.

Though many of these were exclusive clubs with low selectivity, high rates and weekly premiums, there was fear among the poor working-class families who worried that they would be unable to pay for a decent funeral for their loved one. Having only the local Poor Union to provide a pauper’s funeral, which saw people buried in a common pauper’s grave without a headstone, local churches, trade unions and other associations formed benefit societies.

It was through these benefit societies, named Burial Clubs, that weekly payments to the club would be made to ensure the funeral expenses of the burial would be paid for, regardless of how long a person had been a member. Weekly dues were set by the type of funeral desired and the age of the person to be covered.

However, the system eventually failed after controversies began to arise about abuse of the services the Burial Clubs offered. On numerous occasions reports of members registering to multiple clubs, and even the suspicion of burial club murders soon surfaced. While the societies could contain as many as 5000 people, financial mismanagement and theft ultimately led to the abolition of the clubs.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some clergy banded together for a similar purpose, founding what was known as “death insurance” which soon became known as life insurance.

For many years, most funeral directors felt their profession shouldn’t be involved in the pre-collection of funds and did not sponsor these plans, however, after World War I, some funeral directors in parts of the United States started offering “burial insurance”.

Following the implementation of burial insurance other plans soon appeared from funeral certificate plans, funeral debentures, funeral trusts, funeral savings accounts and legal reserve funeral insurance. To date, many funeral directors, cemeteries and other funeral service providers have developed and marketed their own pre-need plans to assist people in planning for the unforeseeable.

With the ideology of a job for life no longer as feasible as it once was, the risk taking of the modern adrenalin junky and thrill seekers, and the increase in health ailments and disease, life insurance has been considered by many as a safety net, which gives them a sense of security in knowing that funeral expenses do not fall onto their loved ones at such a difficult time.

While, some people may not opt to purchase life insurance, it has always been encouraged that pre-planning and ensuring your final wishes for funeral services are known among friends and family.

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