What is a public health funeral?

funeral flowers arrangement

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. This is where public health funerals can help.

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’s eligible for a public health funeral?

Public health funerals are for people who have died and:

For example, someone might have a public health funeral if:

In these cases local councils must provide public health 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. So 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 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:

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:

Can you attend a public health funeral?

When a service is offered family can attend. But it depends on the local authority’s policy. Some councils 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 who died is going to be buried after a local authority funeral service, it’ll be 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 happen to the ashes after a public health 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.

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:

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.