We aimed to compare trends in place of cancer death with the growth of palliative care and nursing home services, and investigate demographic, disease-related and area influences on individual place of death, using registration data for 216404 patients with breast, lung, colorectal and prostate cancer and aggregate data on services in South East England. Between 1985 and 1994 there was a trend away from hospital death (67-44%), to home (17-30%) and hospice death (8-20%). After 1995, this partly reversed. By 2002, hospital death rose to 47%, home death dropped to 23%, hospice death remained stable and nursing home death rose from 3 to 8%. Numbers of palliative care services increased, but trends for hospice and nursing home deaths most clearly followed the beds available. Cancer diagnosis and treatment influenced individual place of death, but between 1998 and 2002, age and area of residence were associated with most variation. Older patients and those living in more deprived areas died more often in hospitals and less often at home. Despite more palliative care services the proportion of people dying at home has not increased. Variation by age, deprivation and area of residence is unlikely to reflect patient preference. More active surveillance and planning must support policies for choice in end of life care.