Merseyside figures have shown dozens of people every year are dying alone, with nobody to go to their funerals.
According to data, there were 124 such funerals carried out across Merseyside in 2020, up from 114 in 2019.
Liverpool arranged the highest number of funerals at 50, although that was down from 53, while St Helens, up from six to nine, saw the biggest increase.
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Officially known as “public health funerals”, these ceremonies are arranged by councils for those who die in poverty or with no next of kin - although in some cases the deceased may be wealthy, which is the basis behind the television program ‘Heir Hunters’.
The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (‘the Act’) places a statutory duty on local authorities to arrange for a burial or cremation where no suitable alternative arrangements are being made.
Funerals take place often without flowers, sometimes without even a service, and the dead may be laid to rest in unmarked graves.
A Liverpool City Council spokesperson said cremation is the most popular form of repose - 75 to 80% cremation / 25 to 20% burial. The deceased may be buried in a grave and the council retains the ownership.
Liverpool City Council does not allow further burials in the grave in case a relative is located at a later date and wishes to purchase the grave. They may be used in the future if not purchased but no graves are termed 'paupers' or 'common' - these terms are a legacy of the Victorian class system of First and Second class graves from late 18 and early 1900s.
The oldest person whose funeral was arranged was 92 in Knowsley, while the youngest, in Wirral, was just 27.
The costs of providing the funerals may be repaid when next of kin are found, or later claimed back from the deceased’s estate.
A Liverpool City Council spokesperson added that funeral costs and reasonable expenses can be recovered from the estate of the deceased with any residual amount either being passed to the next of kin if they can be located or to the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, which is known as 'Bona Vacantia'. The latter Latin phrase means 'vacant goods' and is the name given to ownerless property, which pass to the Crown by law.
Councils that provided details had spent £114,713 on arranging funerals in 2020, although some of those costs may have been later reclaimed.
Almost 6,000 public health funerals nationally in 2020
Data shows that, nationally, there was a sharp 26% rise in these sad events during the year the worst pandemic in a century gripped Britain. The North West was one of the worst areas in the UK.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, data from 362 out of 371 councils across Britain showed there were 5,875 such funerals last year. The percentage of Public Health Funerals to deaths is 0.97% and the following table offers some perspective and comparison:
Public Health Funerals
Total Deaths registered (ONS)
% of PHF to total deaths
England , Wales and Elsewhere
'People just aren't going to have sufficient cash for the funeral'
Christina Martin, from Wealden Council, organised and attended 11 public health funerals in 2020, up from four the previous year.
She said: “It feels like it is becoming more common.
“I have had a couple of covid funerals. But it seems to be more about the aging population and not always having the traditional family set up.
“It's also about the funding, which is becoming more often the reason.
“National Insurance is going up, council tax will too. People just aren't going to have sufficient cash for the funeral.
“It can be £4,000 for even a basic funeral.”
The ECHO was informed that in Liverpool a direct cremation starts from as little as £927.00
The Department for Work and Pensions offers means-tested support in some cases, such as the death of a child or where the family claims certain benefits.
A Liverpool City Council spokesperson made clear the assistance that is available includes the DWP funeral grant, which is means tested and is subject to certain benefits being claimed by the applicant.
On 23rd July 2019 Government launched the Children’s Funeral Fund, funeral providers will be able to directly claim burial or cremation costs, as well as a contribution towards the cost of a coffin, so that parents do not need to worry about managing these expenses. Parents can also claim directly from the scheme if they choose not to use a funeral director.
The scheme is available regardless of a family’s income, and will cover costs for children under 18 and stillbirths after the 24th week of pregnancy. There are also a number of charities who may be able to offer financial support in certain cases.
Funeral director Jeremy Field admitted the cost of funerals was a factor in the rising numbers of public health funerals.
He said: “For a lot of people finding £3,500-£4,000 at short notice is not easy. With a lot of people losing their jobs, that does not help."
In response to the latter, a Liverpool City Council spokesperson explained that Jeremy Field is a very well respected funeral director and the owner of one of the oldest Funeral Directors dating back to the 1690.
Over the years they have arranged the funerals of many famous and important people including Royalty such as Queen Victoria, and King Edward VII. Based on South Coast and South East prices will obviously differ from Merseyside. In Liverpool CMA standard Cremation start from £2,345.00, Burial Interment from £2,329.00.
Mr Field added: “The Government help for funerals for people on certain benefits does not cover the costs and the number of people who qualify for it has decreased. I think that's pushed more people into public health funerals."
The ECHO was told by Liverpool CIty Council that this situation differs from region to region, tradition is very important in the North West and especially Merseyside.
Mr Field accepted that there was a "possibly" a stigma attached to them, but said: "On the day of the funeral, they wouldn't really know it's a public health funeral.
"You can't have the ashes returned to you if you have a public health funeral. And if it's a burial and you don't own the grave plot then you can't have a headstone."
In response to the latter, a Liverpool City Council spokesperson added that there are a few cemeteries which include the memorial as part of the cost (City of London Cemetery), however there are conditions to this option and it is a communal grave for four or five persons.
Mr Field went on to say: "I remember one funeral for a veteran. He had no-one. My funeral director was a standard bearer at the British Legion and he arranged for someone from the legion to pay respects.
“Funerals are all about gathering together. When there is no-one there it doesn't help shape the perception that life is important.
"But people find themselves in these positions.”