What happens when you die? It’s not just a philosophical question for thousands of people round the country. Research released today has revealed saddening details of the number of people who are left with no money or family to pay for the disposal of their mortal remains.
The buck stops with local authorities, who are forced to pick up the tab for the so-called “pauper’s funerals”. They spent £5.4m in the last financial year, up 3.5% from the year before, according to data released today by insurance and pensions firm Royal London.
This spending tells a story of Britain’s regional inequalities. The most demand for public health funerals (as they are more properly called) is in Birmingham and Manchester – two of the largest cities and most condensed populations in the UK, and in parts of the country most damaged by poverty.
The disparities are not surprising. Those most likely to require a public health funeral are individuals with no existing family; those estranged from their family; those whose family refuse to pay for their funeral; or those whose family simply cannot afford it.
With the average funeral now costing just shy of £4,000, it is an expense that is slowly creeping out of reach for many. You may have seen an increase in adverts for budget cremations, but these still start at about £1000 and head higher.
Public health funerals are a backstop option resorted to for reasons of isolation, estrangement and poverty – which will be more prevalent in different parts of the country. Royal London states clearly that government austerity has driven more bereaved families to seek help from local authorities.
There is no quick way to eradicate the need for public health funerals. Their rise is a symptom of bigger (but low-priority) problems. None of the factors listed above lend themselves to funeral planning so it is very difficult to simply suggest that more preparation is needed.
So where to go from here? A regular collation of the numbers of public health funerals across the country would be a start. Royal London’s figures have come from Freedom of Information requests.
There is no standard or systematic comparison of how many public health funerals are being conducted by different local authorities, the reasons behind them, what that funeral constitutes, the cost to the public purse or the successful recovery of those costs by each local authority.
Consistent data would mean local authorities could predict with greater certainty what strains these funerals and their organisation will place on their staff time and finances.
And of course, there are far bigger questions about the consequences of living into very old age in isolation, the societal cost of family estrangement, and addressing the end of life when living in poverty.
These are creeping social problems, hard to monitor or address, but they can reach a climax at the end of life. The consequences of this kind of social breakdown are vividly seen when no one is able or willing to take on the financial responsibility of a funeral. A failure to provide a respectable funeral was a profound concern for Victorian families, 150 years ago; even now it remains a marker that something is wrong.
Why not force the next of kin to pay for funerals of their family members? It is a fair question, but it is unlikely to happen given the ambivalent status of next-of-kin in this country. Such a policy would also require monitoring, and an infrastructure to penalise individuals who refuse to uphold their responsibilities. It would likely end up costing more to the public purse than public health funerals themselves.
So the news today about the nationwide cost of public health funerals is not unexpected, nor is the depressing inevitability of the regional variations. What is more there is no easy fix. What we do know is that demand for public health funerals and the subsequent pressure on local authority purses will only increase as more people live into very old age and/or live estranged from their family.
Knowing this is coming down the track means it is time for local authorities to come together, collate and share their data, and for more public and political attention to be paid to the circumstances that can lead to the need for public health funerals in the first place.
Each one of the 3,835 revealed today is an emblem of isolation, estrangement or poverty, all of which are sad reflections of the society we have become.
Dr Kate Woodthorpe is a researcher in the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath focusing in particular on issues surrounding funeral poverty. She is the author of the IPR report Death, Dying and Devolution https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/death-dying-and-devolution/.
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