In a recent article for the BBC, here – a Wealden based funeral celebrant Martin Ellis discusses the sad truth behind what is known as a Pauper’s Funeral in the UK.

He comments, “it’s important to mark a person’s life – even where there are no attendees.”

When someone passes away without any next of kin or financial means to cover funeral costs, the responsibility falls to the local authority to ensure the deceased receives a proper burial or cremation. Commonly referred to as a “pauper’s funeral,” this service is officially known as a Public Health Funeral.

The Legal Obligation

Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, local councils are legally required to arrange funerals for individuals who die within their jurisdiction without family or funds. This provision ensures that everyone receives a respectful and dignified farewell, regardless of their financial situation.

Figures obtained by the BBC show that the number of public health funerals carried out by councils in the South East (Sussex, Surrey and Kent) rose by 49% between 2019 and 2023, from 230 to 342.

The Process

Once a death is reported, and it’s determined that the deceased has no family or financial resources, the local council steps in.

The council will first attempt to locate any next of kin or friends who might take responsibility for the funeral arrangements. They also check for any financial assets that could cover the costs.

If no next of kin or funds are found, the council arranges the funeral. This usually involves a basic coffin and a short service, either a burial or cremation, depending on local policies and any known wishes of the deceased.

The ceremony is usually simple and may be attended by council representatives or occasionally members of the community. In many cases, a minister or officiant may be present to conduct a brief service.

Mr Ellis continues, “We might not have many tales about the person’s life, we might not know much about them, but we still… put together a dignified and respectful service,”

Wealden District Council said, “We always try to ‘inform friends and family about the funeral, so they can attend, and a council officer always attends. We consider this to be good practice.”

Following the funeral, the deceased’s possessions, if any, are handled according to legal requirements. Any leftover funds from the deceased’s estate, if discovered later, may be used to reimburse the council.

The Cost and Dignity

A Public Health Funeral is funded by the local council, ensuring that even in death, individuals without means are treated with dignity. The costs are kept to a minimum, but the service aims to be respectful.

Data from 32 out of 35 responsible councils, in the South East, shows the amount they spent on funerals between 2019 and 2023 jumped from about £322,000 to £446,000.

Social and Emotional Impact

The concept of dying alone and cashless can evoke strong emotional responses, raising concerns about social isolation and poverty. These funerals highlight the importance of community and social services in supporting vulnerable individuals during their lives and in their final moments.

While a pauper’s funeral ensures legal and ethical obligations are met, it also serves as a somber reminder of the gaps in social support systems. Community organisations and charities often strive to provide additional support and presence at such funerals to ensure no one is forgotten.

The National Picture

A survey undertaken by the Quaker Social Action ‘Down to Earth’ project in 2021 found a disparity of services across the country, ending in a postcode lottery for those needing a Public Health Funeral. This followed the introduction of a guidance document by the Government in 2020, setting out what should be best practice across the Country. Although a welcome addition it was not a statutory document so Local Authorities have no obligation to follow what is set out.

David Lockwood, Senior Business Relationship Manager for Finders International and a former Council Officer responsible for providing PHA funerals has repeatedly called for an introduction of statutory standards to ensure that practice does not vary across the country and the end of a postcode lottery.

Many professionals feel that the forthcoming review of funeral practices by the law society will allow for change to be introduced and standards improved.

David goes on to add that ‘many professionals provide an outstanding service for their communities but in a time where Council funding is at an all time low the pressure is mounting on them, the time has come to act and stop this lottery and I call upon the Government to introduce change’.