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Church could seek to end "paupers' funerals"

by Michael Ford last modified 31 Jan, 2020 11:58 AM

General Synod is set to challenge the “cruel experience” of paupers’ funerals after recent figures showed UK councils spent more than £6m in 2018-19 on disposal of bodies.

Church could seek to end "paupers' funerals"

Original photo courtesy Pexels

While the Church of England conducts about a quarter of funerals in England, local authorities have a statutory duty to provide public health funerals for people whose families cannot be traced or who die without sufficient resources to pay for a funeral.

The term “pauper’s funeral” dates from Victorian times, but is still used to describe public health funerals that are no-frills services, without ceremony or notification about the date and time. Burials may take place in an unmarked grave that could be shared with others. Some councils refuse to return ashes to relatives after a cremation.

General Synod will decide next month whether to deploy church resources to tackle the issue and, where possible, end paupers’ funerals.

Sam Margrave, a General Synod member who is proposing a motion on paupers’ funerals at next month’s Synod, said:

“The church needs to acknowledge this issue, and work with local and national government to find solutions in circumstances which are often extremely painful.

“The number of paupers’ funerals is increasing hugely, and there is a postcode lottery regarding provision. People should have dignity in death, and those left behind should have the love, care and support they need. The way we treat those who have died tells us a lot about how we are as a society.”

A background paper for the motion criticises the “cruel experience” of paupers’ funerals, and the motion calls for a taskforce to work with councils “to find ways, at an affordable price, to deliver a more compassionate sendoff for the departed and to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of those left behind.”

Sandra Millar, the C of E’s head of life events, said:

“It is a terrible thought that someone is so alone when they die that they are ‘known only to God’.

“That often happens when a person dies with no relatives. But it also happens when there are grieving family and friends but little or no financial resource.

“The C of E is working with other church groups through the ecumenical Churches’ Funerals Group to help ensure that this doesn’t happen. The issue of “funeral poverty” has even been raised in Parliament.”

Although limited benefits are available to bereaved families, MPs were told that a quarter of families that cannot afford funerals borrow from friends or relatives, a quarter put costs on a credit card, and the rest take out loans or work out an instalment plan with funeral directors. Some even sell their belongings.

It has also been revealed recently that people are increasingly turning to crowdfunding websites to raise money for funerals.

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