Tackling funeral poverty — public health funerals guide (part 1)

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As part one of our series tackling the issue of funeral poverty, we’re looking at public health funerals, which used to be known as pauper’s funerals. A public health funeral is simply a funeral that’s arranged and paid for by a local authority or council.

Applying for a public health funeral can be a challenge, so we’ve spoken to Lindesay Mace from Quaker Social Action’s Down to Earth, a charity that supports people struggling with funeral costs.

What are the eligibility requirements for a public health funeral?

By law, councils have to carry out a funeral when someone dies or is found dead in their area and arrangements aren’t being made by anyone else. It's often referred to colloquially as when ‘there is no one willing or able to take responsibility.’ Not being able to take responsibility includes not having enough funds to cover the funeral.

We see some councils putting up barriers to bereaved people in need, effectively creating their own eligibility requirements. They’ll sometimes have inaccurate information about the law: for example, that it's the family's responsibility to hold the funeral, which just isn’t the case. These kinds of extra ‘eligibility requirements’ aren’t in the law and you can challenge them.

A local authority might also potentially say that you’re eligible for the Funeral Expenses Payment (FEP) and need to go apply for that. This completely misses the point that the FEP generally doesn't cover the cost of even a simple funeral. You’re also still entitled to a public health funeral even if you’re eligible for the FEP.

Why do you think that this kind of misinformation exists?

I'm sure there's some genuine misunderstanding, but it probably also comes from an attempt to put people off. Local authorities are very stretched for funds because of cuts from the central government.

While public health funerals come out of a local authority’s budget, the Funeral Expenses Payment is covered by the central government. So if a local authority can get someone to apply for the FEP instead, it saves them money.

What recourse do people have when they're given misinformation by the council?

The difficulty is that the general public often don't have access to all the facts. So you’re likely to take what the local authority tells you as the truth because it's a public body. If you're given inaccurate information you can reference the Public Health Act, which covers public health funerals.

At Down to Earth, we’ll advocate for people when they're turned away inappropriately. It can be a challenging situation because people don't always have the tools or information to argue with a council.

How do you begin applying for a public health funeral?

If the coroner is involved then it's best to talk to them. They’ll generally be able to refer the case to the appropriate person at the council. In fact, if the coroner is involved, some councils expect referrals to come through that route.

If the person died in hospital, the hospital’s bereavement office is usually the first place to speak to. This is because they can sometimes carry out a hospital funeral, which is really the equivalent of a public health funeral just overseen by the hospital. But hospitals aren't obliged to carry out a funeral by law in the way that councils are. You’ll need to ask at the bereavement office whether the hospital will take responsibility or if you need to contact the council.

In all other cases, or if in doubt, the council where the person died or was found is the place to go.

How do you find the right person or department to contact at your local authority?

It can be really difficult. Some councils have accurate accessible information on their websites, but many — maybe even most — don't. It would be easier if the department was the same in every council, but it's not.

So public health funerals could be in bereavement services, environmental health, adult social care or even the finance department. It can feel frustrating, but sometimes you just need to keep trying different departments.

It's also important to know exactly what you're asking for. Make it clear that you’re requesting a public health funeral and that means the council will take responsibility and cover the costs. This matters because I've spoken to council employees who don't even know what a public health funeral is.

Also, some councils will only tell you about the Funeral Expenses Payment and try to send you away to apply for that. The Down to Earth helpline can help if you’re struggling to find the right person to speak to.

What can help or harm your application if you're applying on your own rather than through a coroner?

Some councils will claim that registering a death makes you ineligible because you’re ‘making arrangements’ and so taking responsibility for the funeral. It's important to know that's not true — there’s nothing in law to say that if you registered the death you can't access a public health funeral. But if you can avoid registering the death, it's probably a good idea because it might complicate things.

While there may not be specific things that help your application, there are things you can do in advance to prepare. If you’re terminally ill and think you’ll need a public health funeral, write down whether you want to be cremated or buried.

The law says that councils shouldn't cremate someone where they believe it's contrary to their wishes, and having something written down makes a very strong case.

What can you do when somebody dies at home and it's been an expected death so the coroner isn’t involved — especially when the application is taking time and the person who's died is still in your house?

lf someone is ill and it looks like a public health funeral might be needed, try to speak to the council in advance to find out what you should do.

Otherwise, if they have already died, take advice from the council as soon as possible. Call them to register your need for a public health funeral, tell them the body is at home and ask them what you should do.

If someone dies outside of a council’s office hours, check their website for information and wait for them to reopen.

In cases where the council won't help or offer advice, ask which funeral director they use — if they’ll tell you — and make a record of the conversation. This is because the council is unlikely to cover any costs associated with collecting the person who’s died if you use a different funeral director.

If you don't know who the council uses, speak to different funeral directors to ask them what the cost would be for collection and any care of the person who’s died. It's perfectly okay to shop around.

This is probably the most difficult situation to be in because councils are likely to claim calling a funeral director constitutes you making arrangements. But there’s nothing definitive to say that if you appoint a funeral director, you can't still access a public health funeral.

If you need help planning a public health funeral, phone the Down to Earth helpline at 020 8983 5055 or read one of their brilliant guides. Our guide to public health funerals continues with more information here.

Find out more ways to get help with funeral costs.

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(All information correct as of July 2020)

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