ITV News investigation finds 70% rise in 'paupers' funerals' - with some councils preventing relatives attending

ITV News has been investigating the rise in what are called public health funerals, more widely known as "paupers' funerals".

You might associate them with Victorian Britain, but we've found they are increasing.

They happen when families cant pay for their own arrangements and our findings show they are now costing councils millions of pounds a year.

In our investigation:

  • 300 councils across the UK responded to a freedom of information request

  • Their responses revealed a 70% increase in paupers' funerals over the last three years

  • That's cost the councils just over £4 million in the last financial year alone (£4,050,672)

I met Jack, a 10-year-old, who lost his father last week. He had carefully written some words for the funeral, but his mum Allana Carvell was dreading the occasion.

Although Jack's dad left many happy memories, there was nothing to pay for a funeral. That left the family facing the prospect of a pauper's funeral.

In her area that means there would be no headstone and there could be two strangers in the same grave.

Ms Carvell told me: "Something needs to change so that people don't have to go through what I've been through. Just the thought of it was killing me, I was trying to imagine how it would be and all I can say is cold...just to be disposed of in that way is just shocking."

If there's nobody to pay, councils have a duty to provide these paupers' funerals. The increasing cost of funerals has combined with lower levels of household savings to push more families towards them.

Our research highlights how very basic many have become. There were 15,000 last year, but we discovered some councils don't allow relatives to attend cremations. Others won't let the bereaved have ashes or even choose words and music.

It's rare for insiders to speak out about this, but one funeral director agreed to talk to me.

Lucy Coulbert believes that, as these funerals become more frequent, we need national standards.

She said: "It is a postcode lottery whether you are allowed to attend a service or whether you are not told when it will be. Whether you can have some ashes or weather you never really know where your person is...what we are saying to people is because you are poor you cant say goodbye to them."

Responding to our findings, councils say the funerals put pressure on over-stretched budgets but that they are "respectful and dignified".

Though some councils do far better than others, one council worker spoke to ITV News anonymously about the worst examples.

She said: "The funeral doesn't take place straight away, so it's having that person waiting for up to six months knowing their loved one is in storage in effect. Not being able to say goodbye to them, not having access to them like you can go to a chapel of rest.

"Local authorities don't necessarily give the ashes back to the family, I know with our local authority sometimes you don't even know when the funeral is taking place".

A government spokesperson said: “We understand that bereavement is an incredibly difficult time for people. Arrangements in place for public health funerals are a matter for individual local authorities and we’re committed to supporting local authorities with the funding they need in order to provide vital public services.”

Jack will now be going to his father's funeral on Monday. His bereaved family has only avoided a pauper's funeral at the last minute by agreeing to spend almost £4,000 with a local undertaker. They have no idea how they'll ever pay.

Saying goodbye to a much loved father, they'll end up buried in debt.

  • Do you have experience of a pauper's funeral that you would like to share? Email and one of our team will be in touch.