Category Archives: Pauper funerals


Wednesday, 3 December 2014




I bet you’ve never seen a banner outside your local registrar’s office with those words on it.

Because the free (aka public health) funeral is, if not a well-kept secret, not something councils bang on about. Its minimalist aesthetic might make it irresistibly attractive to the middle classes.

Seriously, the public health funeral enables us to absolve ourselves of the task of disposing of the body of kinsperson for whom, for whatever reason, we feel no responsibility, whether or not they did or didn’t, could or couldn’t, put aside enough money to pay for their funeral.

The public health funeral also enables those of us of limited means to say: I haven’t got the dough and I don’t want to get into debt over this; you do it. In these days of ‘funeral poverty’ the public health funeral offers a lifeline for an increasing number of people. Here at the GFG we always invite people of limited means to consider it — so much better than falling prey to a loan shark. The overall number of people who opt for it remains strikingly low, however. It doesn’t yet present a fiscal threat to austerity-stricken councils… but it could if more people knew about it. So it has to be in the interest of a local authority to dissuade people from availing themselves of a public health funeral. More anon. Stick with it.

The legal responsibility on a local authority to dispose of its dead is contained in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 PIII S21. It states:

It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.

You notice that the Act only uses the word ‘duty’ in respect of the local authority. What about the duty incumbent on the next-of-kin? Is there such a thing?

Well, yes and no.

There is a common law ‘duty to bury’. Because it’s common law it’s not written down and its origins lie somewhere in the mists of time. In 1840 Chief Justice Denman passed this this judgement:

“We have no doubt … that the common law casts on someone the duty of carrying to the grave, decently covered, the dead body of any person dying in such a state of indigence as to leave no funds for that purpose.”

Oh right, m’lud, and who might that someone be?

“It would seem that the individual under whose roof a poor person dies is bound to carry the body decently covered to the place of burial.” 

It’s the householder’s responsibility, that’s whose. And it is as a householder within the meaning of the law, believe it or not, that a hospital accepts responsibility for disposing of paupers who expire on its premises. Does this mean that if you invite a broken-down gentleman of the road into your house and he expires in your kitchen as the kettle boils, you will be expected to fund his funeral? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

Not if you’re Brent council, it doesn’t. Brent council (Labour) has no wish to fund more public health funerals than it has to.  In its Framework in respect of the responsibility owed by the local authority to provide financial assistance and / or arrangement of Funerals (2013) it points to “the duty at common law to arrange for a proper disposal of a dead body.” This duty, it says, “falls primarily upon the executors of the deceased.”

Interesting idea. We’ll come back to that.

There’s no doubting the right of a council to reclaim funeral expenses from the estate of the deceased, if there’s anything in it. But from a living person?

Brent thinks so. It thinks it can go after people other than the executor, too. In the event of its having to arrange a public health funeral:

“the Council should notify the next of kin or anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) of the debt and refer this immediately to legal services so that consideration can be given to initiating civil debt recovery proceedings either against the estate or an executor personally if appropriate.”

The council does not intend to pursue householders, you notice, though it correctly assigns responsibility to a hospital to arrange disposal: “where the death occurs in a hospital, the hospital authority is liable, as the person on whose premises the body is situated, to arrange for the burial or cremation of the deceased patient.”

So what about those acting with Power of Attorney or as deputies? Memo to Brent: they are absolved of all responsibility as soon as the person they represent dies (doh). Makes sense, doesn’t it? No, Brent, there’s no coming after them. Nor the financial representative because that is not a meaningful term.

What about executors? Bit of a moving target, I fear. Nominated executors, sadly, cannot be held to their duty and forced to assume the legal status of executor. On the contrary, executors may resign at any time — eg, when the letter from Brent council flops through the letterbox.

Next-of-kin? I have searched high and low for any instance where any nok was ever brought to trial for refusing to accept their ‘duty to bury’. I have searched in vain. I think we can accept that as duties go it is redundant. After all, it’s not so long ago that the estate of Robert Lenkiewecz was allowed by a court of law to retain ownership of the unburied corpse of Diogenes.

Nope, the ‘duty to bury’ is obsolete and has no teeth. Prove me wrong, Brent.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems to me that the Brent has no right to pursue a claim against an executor personally, nor next of kin, nor anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) nor any other living, breathing person, not even you.

I put this to Brent council. I wrote: “An interpretation of the Framework is that it could intimidate anyone who, for whatever reason, declines to undertake the disposal of a dead person.” That was on 9 Oct. I got an automated reply: “Your request has been received and a  member of our team will respond to you within 5 working days.” On 14 Oct I was flattered by a human response: “Your enquiry has been forwarded to the Registration and Nationality Service. They will aim to respond to you directly within 10 working days.”

On 25 Nov I wrote to remind them. They replied: “We confirm that your message has reached our service today and you should receive a response within five working days.”

Did I heck as like. I’ll keep trying, though.


No mandate to deny bereaved choice

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Plymouth Hoe


Guest post by Wendy Coulton of
I was grateful for  the opportunity to present evidence to the Plymouth City Council ‘scrutiny review’ of its policy and services regarding Public (funded) Funerals in my professional role as a Civil Funeral Celebrant.

In the light of significant budget pressures it is to be expected that council services related to funerals such as crematorium services, cemetery management and bereavement support will be reviewed. However reduction of costs to run these services must not be at the expense of compassion and dignity towards the deceased or the bereaved. There has to be a baseline where councils accept that there is a social responsibility and cost to be borne if we are a caring society. The questions being considered in Plymouth centred mainly around choice. For example, how much consultation and choice should next of kin have if they are unable or unwilling to pay for the funeral and the public purse will be funding it?
The point I made to the review panel of elected councillors was that the council and its officers do not have the legal or moral mandate to deny any one the opportunity to be consulted about when the funeral is to take place and be informed of the funeral service so they may attend. Nor should they deny the choice of burial or cremation if next of kin can be traced and consulted. At the moment the council only provides a burial for public funded funerals in all circumstances. If they do not consult or inform they are discriminating against people because of their financial circumstances which may not be of their choosing or design. And it begs the question why would you deny someone consultation or information?
Their policy should not be cynical and judgmental. Yes there will always be people who walk away from their responsibilities but increasingly economic hardship is genuine in this country and people struggle to pay for a funeral. Not everyone who has to ask for state assistance for funerals wants to and it is a fact that most people make no provision for their funeral costs. Just as there is (finally) realisation that people need to plan for living longer and pensions etc, there should be a government sponsored campaign promoting financial planning for funeral costs. The recommendations of this review will be published in April.

Simple solution

Friday, 13 July 2012


We had an enquiry the other day about simple funerals. Our enquirer had visited the website of a funeral director, surveyed the components of their simple funeral (as prescribed by the NAFD at 11.4), and reckoned it would do nicely. The cost was £1640.

All our enquirer wanted on top was a limousine. He gave the funeral director his order: one simple funeral, please, and a limousine. So logical and straightforward did the request seem to him that he was astounded when the funeral director replied, “Thank you, sir, that’ll be £3670.”

Two grand for a limousine (fair price, £200 tops). Where the heck did that come from?

Students of the Dismal Trade will not be nearly as astounded as was our enquirer. Most funeral directors hate people buying their simple funeral, so they build in deterrents. The example above is just one. Anything outside the package shunts you up to an altogether more elevated price scale. Add a lim and you pay for a bespoke funeral. Another trick is to bundle a coffin of more than passing hideousness and make you feel like a toerag. The coffin in our enquirer’s simple bundle has no handles. Yes, really. Flagrant to those who read this blog, perhaps, but not, interestingly, something that our enquirer seems to have noticed or cared about.

A great many funeral directors do not advertise their simple funeral. Why does this funeral director advertise his? Is it a gambit to get people through the door – a loss leader that no one ever actually gets to buy? You tell me.

This sort of marketing sleight of hand comes from the Tommy Cooper school of conjuring. Clumsy. When you do something that’s bound to be found out, that’s stupid.
Intelligent, ethical funeral directors can teach their dim or devious fellows a trick here. Start with your professional fee. Calculate how much you need to charge to cover your time, expenses and overheads, then add a bit of profit. Be settled in your mind that what you take home will not be so little as to make you resentful. Once you’ve done that, you can add merchandise and services at a normal retail markup or even at cost. If a client turns up with their own coffin, you won’t mind a bit. The important thing is that there will be no imperative to upsell.

Exploitation of the bereaved is under threat, not from consumers, but from new entrants to the industry who are pricing their services fairly and transparently. The days of the dark arts are, we must hope, coming to an end.

Not yet awhile. Down in London, Barbie Leets was compelled to permit her mother to have a public health or council funeral when she failed to get together the five thousand pounds she needed to bury her. She is angry with the funeral directors in her locality. Why? In the words of the BBC report:

Barbie Leets ‘says that she was never told about the simple funeral that every funeral director is supposed to offer for nearly half the price she was quoted. “I feel very let down, very disappointed. I feel they took advantage of my situation at the time.”’

Watch the video clip here. Enjoy the response from NAFD spokesperson Dominic Maguire.

If you have a view about this, please add a comment. I am conscious that what I have written may not say it all. Examples of ethical simple funerals welcome, too.

Pauper funeral

Friday, 18 November 2011


From the Toronto Globe and Mail:

I was standing in the parlour of a Toronto funeral home, waiting for the friends of the homeless man we were about to bury. The funeral director was supposed to be retired, but he had stayed on to see the business through the transition to a new owner. Together, we looked through the stately front window toward the strip club across the street offering “the finest in adult entertainment.”

In Toronto, the city pays funeral costs for those without assets. But the stipend for clergy is so paltry that the funeral director had trouble finding a minister who would agree to perform the service.

I had said yes, but on one condition: I wanted to meet the family of the deceased. I was not willing to perform a cold and impersonal service for a man I knew nothing about.

The only contacts he had were other homeless men and women. I arranged to meet some of them at a coffee shop to discuss their friend. Our conversation was rich and heartfelt, and I was honoured to be a part of it. Together, we planned an informal, simple, yet personal service to honour the deceased.

Just as I prepared to begin the service, a woman stood up and said that a medicine man had called. He was coming, but was stuck in traffic. Could I wait?

I could.

Twenty-five minutes later, a first nations healer walked into the room. He performed a sacred smudging ceremony to open the service. The next 30 minutes included readings from Leonard Cohen and Ecclesiastes, several eulogies, a toast to a friend and the rosary.

Then the funeral director stood up and said he would play the CD of Sanctus and Benedictus conducted by Eugene Stewart and the St. Matthew’s Choir, recorded live at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. I still remember his exact words as he pushed the CD into the slot: “It is my firm belief that every person deserves such a sending off.”

Whole article here

Buried along with their names

Monday, 9 May 2011

When the media reports events around death and funerals it customarily seeks to jerk tears or generate fury with stories fuelled by ignorance. Research is boring and in any case truth is far too dull.

Take this piece here from WalesOnline. It begins HUNDREDS of people are being laid to rest in empty funeral parlours – because they have no-one to grieve for them. Daft or what?

The story is a hardy perennial: pauper funerals. The facts are sad: some people die alone and unknown. The truth is boring: they are not tipped into mass graves as once they were. No, they are given a public health funeral which is pretty much the equal of the funeral that anyone else gets. But hey, let’s bandy the pauper word around a bit anyway.

The journo responsible for the story has made some calls for quotes, one to Kate Woodthorpe at CDAS, and another to Simon Lewis of Merthyr, onetime president of the BIFD. And he seems to have googled ‘pauper funeral’. I wonder how much dull truth he discovered and decided to omit. Never let the truth get in the way of a corking lapel-grabber: HUNDREDS of people are being laid to rest in empty funeral parlours – because they have no-one to grieve for them.

The figures quoted are interesting. Between 2008 and 2010, 288 public health funerals were carried out in Wales at a total cost of £218,100 – an average of £757.29 per funeral. One funeral in Merthyr Tydfil in 2009 cost the local authority just £109.99 … Other budget services … included a £149.69 service in Caerphilly in 2008, a £250 send-off in 2008 in Merthyr and a £275 service for a funeral in Monmouthshire last year.

With the price of cremation in Merthyr now £460, I’m scratching my head here. A lot of paying customers would like to be able to get their costs down to figures like these. Can anyone shed some light?

Read the article in WalesOnline here.

More on pauper funerals here.

What to pack for hospital

Thursday, 13 January 2011

There’s an engaging little story in January’s Funeral Service Journal describing the custom at Norwich Great Hospital, back in the medieval day, requiring those who had fallen into indigent, aged decrepitude (50+ female BBC presenters, for example) to bring with them, as their entry pass, a coffin. Not so different perhaps from today when you would be well advised to do just that were you unfortunate enough to be borne to Stafford Hospital, the sort of place that undertakers toast at Christmas parties.

But it turned out that the doddering ancients in Norwich Great Hospital thoughtlessly used their coffins as cupboards. Some of these coffins, when the time came to use them for their proper purpose, were found to be worn out. So the hospital changed the custom. Instead of a coffin, prospective entrants were required to bring £1 to pay for a shroud when their time came.

Roof boss at the Great Hospital, Norwich, depicting the Ascension. Dig the soles of Christ’s feet as he ascends.

Monday shorts

Monday, 8 November 2010

Death Ref got there first

Time was when I could tuck a story away for a slow news day and not give a thought to any other death blogger getting there first. Can’t do that any more. The story I had been saving up for today has, I see, already been aired on the excellent Death Reference Desk blog, so I suggest you pop over and read it. It’s a very good blog, DRD, run by brainy people.

Find it here.

Having found it and enjoyed it, test your powers of enjoyment by reading their latest post. Here.

Time to remember

Yup, it’s a mixed bag today. You might like to go over to Dying Matters now and see what they’re saying about Brits and remembrancing:

A survey released today has revealed that three out of four (75%) people in England do not set aside time with friends and family around this time of year to remember loved ones who have died.

Commenting on this Professor Mayur Lakhani, GP, Chair of the Dying Matters Coalition and the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC), said:

“It is shocking that the vast majority of people in England don’t take time to remember dead loved ones. This is further compelling evidence of the wall of silence our society’s built around dying and death.”

It’s an interesting point, if not well made. Of course Brits set time aside to remember their dead, they just don’t have rituals to accompany their remembrancing, that’s the point. Actually, I’m amazed that as many as one in four do something with friends and family. What do they do, I wonder? They can’t all be grave tenders.

Full survey results here.

Gail’s marathon

I hope you’re keeping up with Gail Rubin over at her blog as she covers 31 funerals in 31 days. I thought at the outset that it would amount to a fascinating and valuable social document and that’s just how it’s panning out. She’s on #10 already.

Start here.

Bear necessities

Here’s a story I’ve been sitting on for far too long. The aftermath of Russia’s long, hot summer has left bears very hungry, it seems. So hungry that they have started wandering into graveyards and eating the tenants. “In Karelia one bear learned how to do it [open a coffin]. He then taught the others,” she added, suggesting: “They are pretty quick learners.”

Find the full story here.

Dark art

Finally, over in Dublin the painter known as Rasher is holding an exhibition entitled Womb to Tomb.

Womb to Tomb shows his darker side, which emerged when his mother Sheila was diagnosed with cancer. She died two years ago at the age of 62. Watching his mother’s health deteriorate caused a shift in his world view. “It made me think about life in a way I hadn’t before. I remember saying to myself, before this, I can’t be a controversial painter because I don’t think that’s who I am but in some ways I’ve been pushed into this.”

The first painting visible in the cramped studio is a huge work called Dead Man’s Bells . The colours, brilliant blues and pinks, and the swirling endless sky is pure Rasher. The skeleton curled in a foetal position underneath the soaring foxglove or Dead Man’s Bells as they are known in America, is something of a departure. “I like the idea that when we go to our tomb we go back into the earth and when we decompose we feed new life, flowers bloom and then bees feed off the pollen and repollinate,” he says. “I find that cycle of life very comforting.”

Just to the right of this is an alarmingly authentic pig’s head with a bunch of flowers in a glass box, a work called Embalm and Calm . Another painting on the wall is a picture of his mother who used to tell him that self-praise was no praise, all the while quietly supporting her son’s dreams. “I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it if it wasn’t for my mother’s death because I’d have been afraid what people would think. I don’t care any more, it’s about expressing how I feel.”

Since she died, Rasher has been preoccupied with the ephemeral, the quicksand of life, the “here today, gone tomorrow” of existence. In this exhibition, the beautiful and the rancid sit side by side, like a disgusting perfume presented in exquisite packaging. “I just see beauty and tragedy hand in hand in everything I look at,” he says. “I see flowers and I just think in the next couple of weeks they are going to die. Everything I do now seems to be a reflection of that.”

Full story in the Irish Times here.

Rattle his bones

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

There’s been quite a lot of nattering in the papers lately about the society-shaming rise in the number of what they like to call pauper funerals. Yes, shock horror, more and more people are dying without leaving enough money to pay for their funeral. So, even in this day and age, they suffer the, er, terrible indignity of a pauper’s funeral.

What does this mean exactly? It ought to mean that indigent modern-day skint corpses are wheelbarrowed stark and naked through the streets either to the anatomist or to a communal pit, serenaded along their way by jeering urchins—hoodies in new money—chanting “Rattle his bones over the stones; / He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns” – except in a twenty-first century rap version, of course.

Back in the day a pauper’s funeral was a matter of terrible stigma. But the regrettable truth (from the media point of view) about today’s indigent funerals is that they are pretty much indistinguishable from anybody else’s. Sure, if it’s a burial, you’ll go in a grave beneath or atop strangers. Such a big deal? Terrible stigma?

What’s more, all paupers aren’t the same. There are different sorts of modern-day ‘pauper’ needing to be funeral-ed. There are those who die alone, all family contacts having predeceased them or simply walked off the case. There are homeless anonymous people (John Does, they call them) hauled out of canals. I think we can be pretty proud of the way society looks after blameless folk such as these as, also, those who have to have a public health funeral because their relatives refuse to arrange a funeral for them.

Not all dead paupers are to be pitied, though. Some of them are downright feckless. Could they have saved up enough money for their funeral? Yes, they could. Instead, they die leaving a godawful mess for others to clear up. I remember the partner of a man who steadfastly refused to make provision for his imminent death. When he died his partner shouldered responsibility, applied to the social fund and doubtless, in time, received a contribution towards the cost of the funeral – but it won’t have been enough to spare her months, probably years, of debt. By contrast, I recall the ne’er do well who, glimpsing the Grim Reaper’s shadow, saved up in a year and a bit enough money out of his Disability Living Allowance to pay for a very decent funeral. It was the height of good manners.

The number of people dying alone will, as the population ages, continue to rise. Nothing anyone can do about that. But if the number of feckless paupers rises steeply, the state has a choice: bring back the stigma or bring back the universal death grant.

It’s not pauper funerals but the level of the social fund payment which shames society. It doesn’t lead to proper old-fashioned pauper funerals, it simply beggars those who are left.

That rhyme in full:

There’s a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot:
The road is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings:–
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

Poor pauper defunct! he has made some approach
To gentility, now that he’s stretched in a coach;
He’s taking a drive in his carriage at last,
But it will not be long if he goes on so fast!
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

But a truce to this strain! for my soul it is sad
To think that a heart in humanity clad
Should make, like the brutes, such a desolate end,
And depart from the light without leaving a friend.
Bear softly his bones over the stones,
Though a pauper, he’s one whom his Maker yet owns.