Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
—Rudyard Kipling

Nice sentiment, but in Birmingham, England, if next-of-kin have to clutch extra handfuls of earth to bury an especially corpulent corpse, they'll have to pay extra pounds for the flesh. For five years Birmingham's City Council has collected a tax of £7.50 ($12) for every inch that a coffin, including handles, exceeds 23 inches in width.

That's not all. Last month the Council also decided to tax those who can't get to the churchyard on time. Now an extra £10 ($16) is added if a funeral party and corpse arrive 15 minutes after the appointed time. This late fee is meant to compensate the cemetery workers kept waiting. Obviously one of the worst things in the world to be is a dead, fat, tardy "Brummy."

Of the 3,500 people buried annually in the city's nine cemeteries (another 7,500 corpses are cremated), some 10 percent get the stout-stiff's charge. David Browning, Birmingham's Cemeteries and Crematoria Officer, says the avoirdupois fee covers costs for extra digging time. Also, the larger holes needed to bury fat people are dangerous, the city feels. "The width of the earth wall between graves is narrowed," Browning explains, "and this makes it more likely to collapse unexpectedly and injure mourners and workers alike." Such cave-ins have yet to happen, he concedes, but the law has successfully encouraged funeral directors to order standard excavations for all but the most jumbo-size cases. "Since we introduced the fee, we do not have to dig so many large graves," he says.

Local funeral directors take grave issue with the fees. Geoffrey White, a spokesman for the Birmingham Funeral Directors' Guild, points out, "It's indelicate, it's penny-pinching, it's petty and antisocial to bury people by the inch. The whole thing is barmy."

In truth the issue cannot be said to weigh heavily on the minds of the Birmingham citizenry. Rose Evans, who admits to 175 lbs., expresses the feelings of many. "I don't care," she says. "I'll be dead, won't I?"