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Modern ‘Paupers' Funerals’

By Spalding Today Columnist

Losing a loved one is heart-breaking. Funerals provide the chance of a final farewell, allowing us to unite as family and friends to share the loss of someone close. This opportunity to say goodbye is a necessary part of grieving, a staging post in loss. Funerals can change moods by lifting hearts, as reflections on the past keep the spirit of the departed alive in hearts, minds and memories. It is because of the importance of these shared experiences that the character of last partings matters so much.

Public health funerals, or national assistance funerals in Scotland, occur when a family cannot or, in a minority of cases, refuses to pay the funeral costs of a deceased relative. In essence, the state - in the form of local councils - covers the cost of a basic funeral.

Last week, leading a debate in the House of Commons, I described the shocking reality of some public health funerals, which are callous, careless and cruel.

Dubbed ‘paupers’ funerals’, on occasions, as one council official put it: “There’s no attendees, no keeping of the ashes. Nobody’s invited; you don’t have any say over the funeral at all…It’s literally as basic as basic can get”.

That is what these modern ‘paupers’ funerals’ are - the reduction of a human life to something that is “as basic as basic can get”.

According to reports, a number of councils ban family and friends from attending funerals. Who could possibly believe that grieving families should be forbidden from saying a last goodbye to those lost to the grave?

As though excluding families isn’t bad enough, some councils even refuse to return the deceased’s remains! One official in Scotland was recorded telling a reporter: “It’s us having to pay for it, so, as I say, she will not get his ashes back.”

Surely, as a Christian country, we believe that every life has intrinsic value. There can be no pretence that these funerals fulfil our Christian duty - they are the very antithesis of what Christ taught us.

The Prime Minister has already established the Children’s Funeral Fund to ensure that parents no longer have to meet the costs of their child’s funeral. Now we must reform public health funerals. To which end the Government should conduct an urgent review of the 15-year old cap on funeral expense payments. In April 2003, a £700 cap was imposed, and has since remained in place. That means that the assistance offered now covers about 17% a funeral’s cost compared with 36% back then.

At the heart of reform must be an urgent examination of the appalling way in which some public health funerals are routinely conducted.

The Government could issue statutory guidance to every relevant local authority describing, in detail, best practice in the conduct of public health funerals. I am pleased to say that here in South Holland our council, setting an example that should be followed everywhere, ensures that family members are made aware of the dates of funerals which they can attend.

It is the self-satisfied delusion of those who regard the past with disdain—perhaps from misplaced guilt, or because they know little or nothing of it—that our age is at the apex of accomplishment. More thoughtful people know that many things were once much better. For now, in our time, some ‘paupers’ funerals’ ban children from mothers’ gravesides. Now, in our kingdom, some public officials refuse to inform sons and daughters of their father’s cremation. Now, in this age, parents who have loved and lost cannot keep their child’s ashes to scatter or retain.

This outrage must end and the Government must make it happen.


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