Sometimes called ‘pauper’s funerals’, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 places a statutory duty on councils and health boards to bury or cremate anyone who has died or been found dead in their local area if no other arrangements have been made or are being made otherwise.

In recent years, the numbers of such funerals have soared because of rising funeral costs and the increase in the numbers of people dying alone. A Royal London report at the beginning of the year reported that local authorities spent more than £4 million on public health funerals in 2015/16, an increase of 12 percent over the last five years.

At the same time, the cost of public health funerals increased by 36 percent. Freedom of Information data taken from 260 councils revealed that 3,784 public health funerals took place in 2015/16. The biggest percentage increase in public health funerals was for councils in the East of England—up 36 percent.

London local authorities experienced the most significant increase in costs, with a 51 percent rise in the average funeral cost – £1,004 in 2015/16, compared to £666 in 2011/12.

Royal London’s funeral cost expert, Louise Eaton-Terry, said it was always upsetting when the deceased had no one to arrange a funeral, or that their family simply couldn’t afford the expense. It was clear, she added, that councils were facing increasing pressure to accommodate the number of public health funerals and that the Government needed to take urgent action to tackle rising funeral poverty.

A Devonshire report earlier this month backed the national trend. Torbay Council spent more than £45,000 paying for public health funerals in 2017/18—a total of 25 funerals. In its worst year (2015/16), the council paid for 36 funerals.

Nick Pannell from the Friends of Factory Row, a homeless hostel in Torquay, said each of the public health funerals were a “personal tragedy”, and that the area had a “vulnerable, homeless population”.

What happens at a public health funeral? The service varies between areas, but it’s mostly a “no-frills” event that includes the collection and storage of a body, a basic coffin, burial in a public grave or a cremation, and vehicle/bearers to transport and help in the burial of the deceased. The local authority or health board decides on the funeral director, date and time and family members can attend if they wish—providing they can be located.

David Lockwood, Finders International’s public sector development manager, said: “Finders International runs a funeral fund which can be accessed by local authorities and health boards. We’ve pledged to put £10,000 a year into this important fund as this isn’t an issue that’s going to go away.

“Sadly, Torbay Council’s experience isn’t limited to that area. Across the UK, councils and health boards face the same problem.”

You can read more information about the Finders International Funeral Fund here.