Mind the Gap

Rest in poverty?

Stephen Beard May 22, 2014

This is probably the grimmest indicator of Britain’s growing inequality: There’s been a striking rise in the number of paupers’ funerals. 

To be fair, it is not a very precise indicator because the number of British people who cannot afford their own funeral and have to be buried or cremated at the state’s expense is shrouded in secrecy.

Local authorities have a legal duty to dispose of the indigent dead – under the Public Health (Control of Disease ) Act – but they don’t brag about the subject. In fact they have to be compelled by requests under the U.K.’s freedom of information law to divulge any details.

A series of these requests by the opposition Labour Party has revealed a disturbing trend: Over the past five years, the number of paupers’ funerals (or Public Health Funerals as they are more decorously termed) has increased across the country by 35 percent to more than 3,000 a year. In southwest England, the number has doubled.

“It’s becoming too expensive for the poor to die,” says Dr. Kate Woodthrope, of the Death and Society Centre at Bath University. Woodthorpe is not entirely surprised by the secrecy surrounding this subject. “There is something Dickensian about this. And there is a Victorian legacy of shame about not being able to give someone a decent send-off.”

Dr. Woodthorpe – a sociology lecturer – blames a number of factors for the increase in state-funded burials and cremations.

“The costs have been rising. A cremation now costs an average of around [$5,000] and much more for burial because of the shortage of land,” she says. “That’s too expensive for many poor people.”

But she also says Britain’s relatively high divorce and separation rates have led to families becoming more dispersed around the country, blurring the lines of responsibility for burying sometimes distant relatives. 

A pauper’s funeral sounds like a desperately bleak affair. But Julie Dunk of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Management says the service is not perfunctory; it’s simple and dignified and although there is usually no memorial marking the grave, the the name of the deceased is always recorded in the cemetary register. And these state-funded funerals can be well attended.

“I once arranged a public health funeral for a homeless man,” says Dunk. “And although there was no family or friends to pay for the service, he was such a well known figure in the local neighborhood, that more than hundred people turned up at the funeral to pay their respects.”


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