Too poor to die? The rise of Paupers’ funerals 2 August 2014

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A report earlier this year indicated there has been a rise in Public Health Funerals in the UK. But what are these so-called Paupers’ funerals and why are they on the increase?

GravesResearch conducted by the University of Bath hit the headlines in early 2014 as it was revealed that ‘Paupers’ funerals’ were becoming increasingly common as families could not afford to pay for funerals.

What is the background?
The funerals, formally known as Public Health Funerals, are officially the final recourse for a local authority that must safely and with dignity ‘dispose’ of a human body. They are, traditionally speaking, intended for the deceased who had no family, friends or estate that could financially provide for the funeral.

The funerals are a balance between being cost-effective and dignified. Bodies are either cremated or buried in unmarked (but recorded) plots. There is no hearse or procession, simply an appropriately adapted van. Ceremonies are minimal, and many bodies will be buried at the same time.

What help is currently available?
The Social Fund Funeral Payment exists to support individuals who cannot afford a funeral. The system is, however, problematic. It requires those applying for the fund, to pay for the funeral in advance, and thus if the fund not awarded, it can leave poor families with an unmanageable and unexpected debt. In 2012-2013, out of 66,000 applications, only 35,000 were awarded.

The research also found that the application process for the Social Fund Funeral Payment is lengthy, complicated and doesn’t take into account the ‘nature of contemporary family relationships’.  All of this results in a support system not fit for purpose.

The rise in Paupers’ funerals
In 2013, 4,100 were buried in the anonymous mass graves of a Public Health Funeral, compared to 3,000 in 2009.

The research by the University of Bath concludes this increase is not simply due to more anonymous deaths, but a marked increase in families being unable to pay for a funeral service (the cheapest of which can cost £3,500). The researchers argue the lack of a ‘culture of financially preparing for death’ coupled with existing problems in the provision mean a Pauper’s Funeral may be the only solution left.

The report did mention that some council workers felt families resorted to a Pauper’s funeral out of an unwillingness, rather than inability, to pay.
The report did not mention austerity  measures and its impact upon the poor, but campaign groups have argued the rise in Paupers’ funerals is an expected consequence of an increasingly poor British population.

What is the solution?
The researcher suggests reforming access to financial support for funerals, as well as promoting life insurance and funeral schemes.
Other solutions include developing co-operative funeral schemes. Many have already been developed amongst British Muslim communities that avoid funeral insurance for religious reasons, and may provide an expandable system that is significantly more affordable than current market options.

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On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.