“Public health funerals” and “direct cremation” – an update

In July 2016 we posted “Public health funerals” and “direct cremation”, which we then noted was “[a] little known, but long-established area of funeral legislation that is becoming increasingly relevant”. On Wednesday 12 February, the Church of England voted in favour of a Private Member’s Motion on this topic; this post gives further consideration to the issues involved.


The debate in General Synod was informed by the background papers Private Members’ Motions: End to Paupers’ FuneralsGS 2160A and GS 2160B, and was followed by the publication of the Press Release, General Synod calls on Government to act over ‘pauper’ funerals. On 13 February, in a debate about bereavement services, The Bishop of Winchester asked Government about pauper funerals and bereavement support, [HL Lords Hansard, 13 February Vol 801 Col 2343].

Synod Motion

The following PMM (as amended), proposed by Sam Margrave, was passed by General Synod last week (by 273 votes, nem con and one recorded abstention.):

“That this Synod noting:

(a) the substantial rise in the number of ‘pauper funerals’ in England and the pain and hurt arising from them; and

(b) the call of the Gospel to meet people as Jesus does, in their time of need, as well as the duty of Christians to the poor as set out in Proverbs 31.8-9 and Deuteronomy 15.7-8;

call upon the Archbishops’ Council to direct and resource the Life Events Advisory Group, in consultation with the Churches Funeral Group and the British Council of Funeral Services to:

1. undertake the formation of plans at national, diocesan and parish levels to utilise Church resources (whether in the form of finance, volunteers or buildings) to tackle the issues relating to and, where possible, end ‘pauper funerals’; and

2. Work with other stakeholders to find ways, at an affordable price, to deliver a compassionate send off for the departed and to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of those left behind; and

3. Report progress made with reference to the above by the end of 2021.

And further call on Her Majesty’s Government to develop with Council leaders, a national plan and basic standards for pauper funerals, which should include allowing a Christian funeral service to take place in Church or at a Crematorium; for family or others to attend; and the return of the departed (where permitted) to family members.

The motion was amended in the debate to the above form; this does not initiate a new task group but directs the existing group identified in  GS 2160B to undertake the work.

With thanks to David Lamming and Tiffer Robinson for the clarification. 

Exchange in the House of Lords

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, the number of pauper public health funerals has risen by 70% since 2015. Churches perform half of all funerals in the United Kingdom and offer ongoing bereavement support to all. Recognising that other faiths also offer bereavement support, will the Government commit to encouraging local public health departments to work with faith communities to improve bereavement support and ensure that every person receives adequate funeral provision that includes care for the bereaved, who are often excluded?

Baroness Stedman-Scott: We must pay tribute to the Church of England and faith organisations, which come into their own in these very difficult times and provide invaluable support. I will take the right reverend Prelate’s request to officials and write to him with a response.

Practical data

The House of Commons Library provided a Commons Debate pack on Funeral Poverty, CDP-2018-0200 in advance on the Westminster Hall debate secured by Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck on Tuesday 11 September 2018. 

More recently, in January 2020 the insurance firm Royal London issued a Press Release, Revealed: Councils that don’t return ashes from a public health funeral, based upon a Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on public health funerals. The company sent FOI requests to 400 local councils for information on levels of expenditure for the 2018/19 financial year and examples of basic provision which it believes should be included to guarantee a dignified send-off.

It specifically asked whether the funeral service allowed family to attend, whether ashes (from a cremation) were returned, and if so, whether there was a charge for this.

A total of 383 responses was received. These showed that: more than 4,000 public health funerals took place in 2018/19; the total spend on public health funerals was £6.3M; and the average cost of a public health funeral to local councils was £1,507. In addition:

  • Whilst 261 councils allow family members to attend funerals, 14 do not. The reasons given for not allowing family attendance included that “there is no service provided by the council for a family to attend”.
  • Almost one third (29%) of public health funerals were undertaken by local councils because bereaved families were unable to afford the cost.
  • 21 councils in the UK do not routinely return ashes to the family after a cremation funeral, and 18 councils make a charge of between £10 and £18 to bereaved families for the ashes to be returned. Nine councils were excluded from the list either because they charge courier costs or make a decision to charge or return ashes on an individual basis.


Our earlier post reviewed the legislation in this area: the treatment of a body prior to its final disposal is subject to a quasi-hierarchy of common law rights, based upon its “custody and possession”; and the duty of local authorities to provide public health funerals under s.46(1) Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (“the 1984 Act”).

Aside from the adequacy of the government Funeral Expenses Payment, here and here, are the issues of attendance at the funeral service, and the retention of ashes. The 1984 Act imposes a duty on local authorities

“(1) … to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority”.


“(3) An authority shall not cause a body to be cremated under subsection (1) or (2) above where they have reason to believe that cremation would be contrary to the wishes of the deceased.

Apart from this provision, no duty is placed upon a local authority with regard to attendance at the funeral service or the return of ashes to the family of the deceased. Providing all “public health funerals” arranged by a local authority are subject to the same criteria, the question of discrimination against a particular religious group should not arise.

With regard to the retention of ashes, s.30 Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008 requires the cremation authority to give the ashes to the applicant or a person nominated for that purpose by the applicant. In the case of a Public Health funeral, this would be to the local authority or funeral director instructed by them.


Both “paupers’ funeral” and “public health funeral” are “terms of art” and attract a certain degree of stigma. However, whilst the former is a relic of the Victorian era and is directed at the financial state of the deceased, the latter places its focus on the financial arrangements for the funeral. In the absence of an alternative term, we feel that the latter is preferable.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Public health funerals” and “direct cremation” – an update" in Law & Religion UK, 21 February 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/02/21/public-health-funerals-and-direct-cremation-an-update/

5 thoughts on ““Public health funerals” and “direct cremation” – an update

  1. Thanks for this

    I will be using it in my follow up work to General Synod’s motion.

    Have you thought about a better term to describe these funerals that don’t presume indigency or a budget line?

    • Thanks. Please contact me if there is any further information you require. BTW, Frank Cranmer is a member of the Churches Funeral Group, but to avoid any potential conflicts of opinion, did not contribute to this particular post.

  2. There are also funerals arranged and paid for by hospitals. In the 2016 post on this subject, there is referenced a Department of Health response to a Freedom of Information request that recognised that some NHS hospitals take on the responsibility of making funeral arrangements for a person when there is no one else willing to pay.

    Hospitals are in the lawful possession of a deceased patient’s body at the time of death and unless someone has a stronger claim they have some level of duty to make arrangements for the decent disposal of the body [UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL LEWISHAM NHS TRUST Claimant v HAMUTH & OTHERS [2006] EWHC 1609 (Ch)]. Some hospitals exercise this duty and others discharge this duty through their local council. The exception is probably in relation to stillbirths and pregnancy loss where hospitals generally offer to make arrangements unless the parents are happy to do so.

  3. Pingback: More answers to readers’ queries and comments – February | Law & Religion UK

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