Increasing numbers of people are dying alone in the UK, often without any known next of kin. Public health funerals, traditionally known as ‘paupers’ burials’, are making a big and expensive comeback.
Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, councils pay for a funeral if someone dies somewhere other than a hospital and there is no one available to immediately foot the bill. A local authority can attempt to reclaim the costs from the deceased’s family later on; however, finding the relatives can be very time-consuming.
In 2011, a CIEH survey of 348 environmental health chiefs in England and Wales showed that 51 per cent of authorities had observed an increase in family or friends unwilling or unable to contribute to the costs of a funeral. A 2011 study by social policy experts at the University of Bath identified that the ‘stigma’ of being unable or unwilling to contribute has disappeared.
In part, this is a demographic issue — people are living longer and the money they thought would see them through their lives expires before they do. Just over three-quarters of public health funerals conducted in 2010/11 were for men. More than half were for those aged over 65. Overall, the northwest of England has the greatest number of public health funerals, followed by London.
The cost of public health funerals also varies widely, but is rarely shared. Freedom of Information Act data from 28 of 32 London borough councils this year shows some boroughs spend as much as 14 times more than others. The boroughs use different providers, but this discrepancy in cost is often down to whether or not the council is able to recover costs from the deceased’s estate.
The council that spent the most on public health funerals was Lewisham — it spent £175,034 on 243 public health funerals between 2013-2016 (an average of £720 per funeral). The council that spent the least was Hillingdon, spending only £12,099 (an average of £216 per funeral).
Barking and Dagenham had the fewest number of public health funerals, at an average of just over three per year for the same period, but these cost £17,757 in total — an average cost per funeral significantly higher than Camden’s £1,480 per funeral.
Finders International, the well-known heir-hunting company that I founded, has launched a fund to help pay for public health funerals. Local authorities can apply to this Finders International Funeral Fund (FIFF) for a subsidy towards the cost of public health funerals in any case where there genuinely is no surviving next of kin, rather than next of kin refusing to pay. Finders International will carry out its own research for free to confirm this. We will also advise the deceased’s neighbours and friends about the funeral in advance in case they wish to attend.
Our innovative Funeral Fund is intended to save the local authorities and NHS trusts involved a lot of time, as well as to provide access to an effective professional tracing resource. To find out more, please contact us:
Tel: 0800 085 8796 or 020 7490 4935
This article has been first published in EHN