Pensioners buried in mass graves

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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS OF people who die each year with no will and no known next of kin are being buried in unmarked graves with up to six others, despite having enough means to pay for a decent funeral.

Among those who are most frequently interred in such graves are pensioners who die in old people's homes and hospitals. The "common burials" take place because all the goods and money of a person who dies intestate are handed over to the state in lieu of an heir. The Treasury Solicitor, who administers the estate, will release only enough money for a single wreath.

In Westminster, the funerals cost pounds 135 each, a 10th of the average funeral cost. Bob Bradfield, the council's cemeteries contract manager, described people who ended up in paupers' graves as "oddballs and no-hopers".

Twelve months ago, the then Health Minister Alan Milburn condemned the burials and said: "I have been shocked that this Dickensian practice is still continuing." He pledged to write to health authorities making it clear mass burials went against the spirit of official guidelines and recommended that there should be a memorial or plaque to "record the deceased". But the burials themselves have not changed.

Interment usually takes place under cover of darkness, with the dead buried in cheap chipboard coffins. It is carried out on behalf of town halls which have a duty to ensure such funerals are carried out as economically as possible under the Public Health Act. Several coffins are often buried together at once.

The Bishop of London's chaplain, the Reverend Derek White, who regularly conducts funerals beside such graves, said yesterday: "It's just awful. They dig the graves with a digger; sometimes it's still there at the funeral. It's like burying someone on a building site."

David Adams, policy adviser for the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administrators, said: "In a rural area it might happen only once a month but in an urban area you might be doing anything from 20 to well over 100 a year, including cases from hospitals." Alan Wickenden, a funeral director in Ealing, west London, confirmed that health authorities were burying people in common graves. "I'm sure this goes on; in fact, I know it does," he said.

Jane Farrin of Service Corporation International, a large undertakers based in the south of England, said that more than 140 people buried last year were put into common graves because they were unidentifiable so the authorities have no chance of finding a next of kin. "It's as if they come out of nowhere," she said.

When a person dies alone, any assets, including home and furniture, are sold and the money is transferred the Government's bank account, the Consolidated Fund. Newspaper advertisements are placed by the Treasury Solicitor as a final attempt to trace any relatives.

Only small boxes of treasured possessions are kept in council storerooms, while the remainder of their estate is handed over to the Treasury Solicitor. If the dead person has left a will asking for specific burial or cremation arrangements, the local council will follow their wishes, using any money that may be available.

"This could happen to my father or your father," said Dr Patrick Logan, author of People Not Paupers, a guide to funeral arrangements for the homeless. "Councils can be a bit defensive about using the term pauper's grave, but if a grave is three deep and two abreast, then what do you call it?"