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More people in the UK are choosing direct cremations to reduce costs when planning a funeral. But there are still people who can’t cover this cost and need to turn to their local council. Or it may be that someone has died without any family to take care of their funeral. This is where public health funerals can help. 

Note: this article is based on council-funded funerals in England and Wales. The law is slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We cover these differences towards the end of the article. 

What is a public health funeral? 

A public health funeral (previously known as a ‘pauper’s funeral’) is a very basic funeral that’s organised and paid for by the council where the person died. 

What is a ‘pauper’s funeral’? And where did the term come from? 

A ‘pauper’s funeral’ is an old term for a public health funeral. It came from the poor laws that were developed from the Medieval and Tudor eras in the late 1500s. But ‘paupers’ funerals’ were more common in the 1800s when more people lived in workhouses and had no way of paying for funerals. This poor relief system continued up until the Second World War when the modern welfare system was introduced.  

Who qualifies for a public health funeral? 

Public health funerals are for people who have died and: 

  • Have no next of kin  
  • Or have family who are unable or unwilling to pay for a funeral  

For example, someone might be eligible for a public health funeral if: 

  • They lived alone and had no family or didn’t leave any money to organise their funeral.  
  • Their family can’t pay for the funeral.  
  • They were estranged from their family and their family don’t want to be part of the funeral arrangements.  

In these cases, local councils must provide funerals under section 46 of the Public Health Act 1984. This is to protect the public’s health and make sure that all people are treated with respect whatever their circumstances. 

Local councils don’t have any public health funeral guidance from the government, so each local authority has its own policy on what is and isn’t included. If you approach your local authority, make sure you check what their public health funeral policy is like. We’ve provided more info on what can be included as part of a council-arranged funeral below. 

What happens at a public health funeral? 

A public health funeral is usually a cremation. But if the person who passed away didn’t want to be cremated for personal or religious reasons the local authority must respect this. 

The local council will usually: 

  • Contact a funeral director to help  
  • Provide a simple coffin  
  • Organise a time and date for a low-cost funeral 

The local authority will arrange the burial or cremation, but they don’t have to provide a funeral service, although some local councils will. If they do, they’ll provide a very simple service in line with the beliefs of the person who died. This could mean that a representative from their religious community may be able to attend. 

The local council won’t pay for any extras like: 

  • Visiting the body 
  • Transport to the service 
  • Flowers 
  • Wake 

Can you attend a public health funeral? 

It depends on the local authority’s policy. Generally speaking, you can go to a council funeral if a service is offered and you’re related to the person who has died. Sometimes, however, there won’t be any kind of service. Other times, the council may let family attend but you might not be able to get involved in the service. 

The local council might place a notice in a local newspaper or on their own website with the date and time of the service so that other people can attend. This is especially important if the person who died had no family, and friends would like to pay their respects. 

If no one is expected to show up for the funeral, local council representatives sometimes attend as a sign of respect. 

What happens after a public health funeral service? 

If the person is buried 

If the person has a public health burial, they'll be buried in a grave with no marker (previously known as a ‘pauper’s grave’). This means that no gravestone or plaque is allowed. 

It could also be a communal grave. This means that other people’s coffins may already be buried in the plot. The plot could also be reopened at a later date for other burials. 

If the person is cremated 

What happens to the ashes after a council funeral? They’ll be kept by the crematorium until a family member or close friend comes to collect them. The crematorium staff will usually let you know how long they’ll keep the ashes before making other arrangements. If no one comes to collect the ashes, they’ll either bury them in an unmarked plot or scatter them in the crematorium gardens. 

Can you get a public health funeral on the NHS? 

When a person dies in hospital, the local NHS trust may take responsibility for arranging the funeral. As with a council funeral, this usually happens if the person had no next of kin and was unable to cover funeral costs. Some NHS trusts will also help you to arrange a funeral for a stillborn baby, with a service held in the hospital chapel.

A funeral arranged by the NHS isn’t the same as a public health funeral. Unlike local authorities, the NHS is not legally obliged to provide funerals for people who can’t afford them. The decision is up to the NHS trust and is guided by policy, not law. 

How do council funerals work in Scotland and Northern Ireland? 

Different parts of the UK use different laws to govern how public health funerals work. 

In England and Wales, council-funded funerals come under the Public Health Act 1984. In Scotland, it’s the National Assistance Act 1948. And Northern Ireland uses the Welfare Services Act 1971

Despite these differences, the rules for a council funeral are broadly similar in all parts of the UK. All the laws say that councils must provide a funeral if a person dies in their area and no other arrangements can be made. 

How to apply for a public health funeral 

Local councils across the UK organise public health funerals for lots of people who die without any family or friends to make the arrangements for them. But there are some instances where the local authority has to step in because family members simply can’t afford to pay for the funeral. 

This is usually a last resort and you’ll need to prove that you can’t pay for the funeral in any other way. So before approaching your local council about organising a public health funeral, you’ll need to explore all your options. 

You’ll need to think about: 

  • Other ways of funding the funeral. Be prepared for the council to ask if you’ve looked into the government’s financial help for funerals. Check if you qualify for the funeral expenses payment or bereavement support payment. Our guide on how to get help with funeral costs may help too. If you qualify for other financial support, you may not be able to hand over responsibility to the local authority.  
  • Whether the person left anything in their will. If the person who died left a will the council will usually contact the executor of the will. They’ll want to know if any funds from the estate can be used for the funeral. If there are funds, the council may still provide a funeral. But they could recover the cost from the estate at a later date. 
  • Any other relatives or friends who can pay for the funeral. If the council traces other family members who are willing to pay for the funeral, they won’t provide a public health funeral.  

If you and your family have looked at other ways to pay for the funeral and aren’t eligible then your local council should take on the arrangements for you. You’ll be asked to sign a statement explaining why you’re unable to arrange the funeral and the council will take it from there. 

If you’re struggling to find the right person to speak to at your local council contact the Down To Earth helpline for advice.