‘Pauper’s funeral’ is a pretty grim term for what can be a respectful send-off for someone who dies without anyone to pay for their funeral. Here we’ll cover how these public health funerals work, what they’re like and how to arrange one if you need to. Don’t forget to check out our guide to getting help with funeral costs, as well.


What is a ‘pauper’s’ funeral?

A ‘pauper’s funeral’ is an old name for what’s now known as a ‘public health funeral’. This is a very basic funeral that’s arranged and paid for by the local council.

Councils arrange public health funerals when someone dies without any friends or family to take care of the arrangements. They can also step in when friends and family don’t have enough money to plan the funeral themselves, or when the person who died was estranged from their family.

Under the Public Health Act of 1984, councils have a legal obligation to arrange a funeral when no one else is available to do so. But they can take back the money spent on the funeral from the estate later on, if the estate is large enough to cover the cost. They have three years to do this.

Due to rising funeral costs, councils arrange more public health funerals than you might think. There were 3,784 public health funerals in the UK in the financial year covering 2015-2016, up 12% since 2011. The cost to the local councils involved was £4 million.


What is a public health funeral like?

Public health funerals are often described as ‘no-frills’. They are very simple. The council chooses a funeral director, who will organise a low-cost funeral at a time of their choosing.

Every local council has its own approach to public health funerals, so the details can vary from place to place.

Usually, a public health funeral will be a cremation in the early morning on a weekday, when there is less demand. However, a burial and a graveside service can be arranged if it’s known that the person who has died would have preferred it for personal or relgious reasons.

A public health funeral only includes services that are strictly necessary, so there aren’t usually any flowers, cars for the family or death notices. Depending on the funeral director, you may not be able to visit the person who has died during their time at the funeral home.

Despite their simplicity, public health funerals are respectful, and do include a memorial service at the crematorium or graveside. Family members don’t tend to have much of a say in what happens at a ‘pauper’s’ funeral, but in some areas, they may be able to arrange a minister or celebrant for this service.

The main alternative to a public health funeral is the government’s Funeral Expenses Payment. This is a grant of around £1,500 – slightly less than half the average cost of a funeral, but often enough for a direct cremation without a ceremony. This can give you time to save up and arrange a memorial service later on.


Can you attend a ‘pauper’s’ funeral?

Usually – but it depends on the policy of the local council involved. Before arranging a public health funeral, the council will do their best to track down any family members or friends of the person who has died. Even if the family is unable to pay for the funeral, the council will tell them about the time and the place should they wish to come. Other guests are also often welcome.

If it seems like no family members or friends will attend the funeral, some members of the council will often come instead as a mark of respect.

Councils generally arrange public health funerals for those who have died in their catchment area. They therefore might not be willing to step in for a local resident who died elsewhere.


What happens after a public health funeral service?


After the council paid funeral service, the person who has died will be buried in a grave without a marker. The grave chosen is often communal, meaning that other people may also be buried in that spot, both previously and later on.

Depending on what your local council’s policy is, you may be able to add a plaque to the grave. But in many areas, you’d need to buy the exclusive right of burial for the plot and pay for a memorial stone yourself. Usually, you need to wait about six months after the burial before you can add a headstone, to give the ground time to settle.


If the public health funeral is a cremation and there’s no family to pick up the ashes, the crematoria staff will often scatter or bury them in their garden of remembrance.

If the person who died did have family, in most cases they will be allowed to collect the ashes from the crematorium. However, some councils have caused controversy in the past by telling relatives that they cannot claim the ashes. It’s important to check with your local council what their policy is ahead of the cremation.


Arranging a public health funeral

A lot of public health funerals are arranged for people who died alone, without any known friends or family.

However, sometimes the family of someone who has died feels the need for a council funeral because they simply can’t cover the costs involved themselves, or because they’re completely estranged from the deceased.

If you’re considering this, here’s what you need to know:

  • You can’t have already made arrangements. The council won’t step in to pay for a funeral that has already been planned and arranged.
  • You’ll be asked to look for other ways to pay. Public health funerals are considered a last resort – you can expect the council to ask you to explore all the other options, like the government’s Funeral Expenses Payment or Bereavement Support Payment, first. You can find out more about the other ways to get help with funeral costs here.
  • The council will seek out other relatives and friends to pay. The council will try to find a relative who can pay for the funeral (and is willing). If there’s a will, they will contact the executor to see if they will make arrangements using funds from the estate.
  • You will be asked for a written statement. You’ll need to sign paperwork explaining that you don’t feel able to arrange the funeral.
  • The funeral will be respectful – but very simple. You won’t be able to control much about the funeral arrangements, which will be quite basic. Some families find this upsetting, but it’s important to remember that you are doing your best for your loved one. If you like, you can save up after the funeral to have a memorial service that’s a bit more personal later on.


Can Beyond help with funeral costs?

Beyond offers a few services that can help those who aren’t eligible for government assistance and don’t want a public health funeral:

  • Funeral price comparison: compare quotes from your local funeral directors to find the most affordable option.
  • Direct cremation: Beyond can arrance a direct cremation without a funeral service for just £1,195.
  • Probate service: settle the estate with Beyond’s full estate administration service, and we’ll cover the cost of the funeral and our fees from money in the estate.


Print this guide