Funeral Poverty in Britain

Earlier this month I joined colleagues in the House of Commons in supporting Carolyn Harris MP and her letter to the Prime Minister concerned about funeral poverty. I share Carolyn’s concerns about the rise in ‘pauper funerals’. People should have the right to live in dignity, and rest in peace in dignity. The stress, and pain caused by a loved one’s death should not be exacerbated by poverty. I believe the Government should help, and therefore I join Carolyn in her calls to the Prime Minister. The full text of the letter is below.

Jared O’Mara MP
Sheffield Hallam


Dear Prime Minister,  

I am writing to urge you to address the crisis of funeral poverty in Britain. The cost of funerals has risen sharply over the last decade – yet state aid has been capped for 15 years and financial support for those in in-work poverty is practically non-existent.  

This leaves many of the poorest Brits with no option but to seek public health funerals, more commonly known as “paupers funerals”, after the Victorian tradition described hauntingly in Charles Dickens’s books. 

Unfortunately, the modern day equivalent is often no less humiliating: we have seen people buried in cardboard coffins and mass “communal graves”, and bereaved families being told they cannot take their loved one’s ashes home.

Now I want to draw your attention to a new phenomenon. In recent weeks it has emerged that councils across the country are banning relatives from attending their own loved one’s funerals. 

A Sunday Times investigation found that one woman was simply told “don’t bother” when trying to attend her brother’s public health funeral in Berkshire last December. The council refused to give her the time or date of the ceremony, so she was unable to attend. In what was already a dark time, she was left distressed and devastated. 

More examples are emerging: Bracknell Forest council has told people it has a “no invites” policy for public health funerals. In Exeter, leaked documents show it too does not permit “friends or family” to attend any public-health funerals. 

This is a national disgrace. In an attempt to cut costs and defer people from applying for public health funerals, councils across the UK are indulging in cynical punishment of the poor. A no-frills funeral is one thing. However, is it unfathomable that the poorest families are being banned from attending those funerals full stop. 

My request is that you therefore give consideration to a new and fair system for public health funerals. In particular I ask that you issue guidance establishing minimum standards for these services: who can apply, who should qualify, and what the funerals should involve at minimum.  

Firstly, central government must mandate that relatives are allowed to attend their loved ones’ funerals and that they are a given information well in advance about the time and location of the funeral. Councils should be punished for refusing to provide this information. 

In addition, families should be given a measure of flexibility in deciding when they lay their loved ones to rest and given at least three time slots to choose from. The scourge of families being forced to attend early-morning funerals with little notice must end. 

As it stands, there are no rules governing what a council must provide when a poverty-stricken resident applies for a public health funeral. In this policy vacuum councils are deploying sickening tactics to cut costs and discourage people from using this vital service. It must end, now. 

I remain grateful for your help establishing a child's funeral fund, but our work is not yet done. Please make a commitment to addressing public health funerals and offer these families help and support in their darkest days. 

Yours sincerely,
Carolyn Harris 

Jared O'Mara