In the past, a “Pauper’s funeral” was a funeral paid for by the state, for those who either didn’t have enough money in their estate or family members willing to cover the costs of the burial arrangements. This was one of the earliest social welfare provisions in Britain, dating all the way back to Elizabethan times.

In modern times, local government authorities are still obligated to bury those who die in destitute circumstances. The official name is “Public Health Funerals”, as these funerals are less about assuring the dignity of those who have died and more about disposing corpses in a safe manner to protect the health of those who are still alive. However the term “Pauper’s Funeral” survives as a widespread colloquialism.

There is still a simple dignity in these procedures, but it’s a marked departure from what most people consider a funeral to be. The deceased will often be transported to the crematorium or cemetery chapel in a van rather than a hearse, and if they are to be buried then the grave will generally be unmarked. Friends and family of the deceased are welcome to attend, but they will have no power to determine any elements of the arrangements, even the timing. Public Health Funerals are generally performed when the cemetery or crematorium would otherwise be unused, such as very early mornings.

The original intention for Public Health Funerals was for them to be performed in very rare circumstances, such as when someone died without any family at all. However, recently the numbers have risen dramatically. Figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests have indicated that around 3000 such funerals were performed in 2009, a stark increase over previous years.

There are a few theories for why this increase might have taken place, including a lessening of stigma around so called “Pauper’s funerals”, but most commentators agree that wider economic issues have contributed to this situation. As you’d expect, the numbers of Public Health Funerals being performed has risen most dramatically in areas of social and economic deprivation. Most beneficiaries of a Public Health Funeral are elderly people who have become socially isolated, but tragically in a few circumstances those who have been buried are teenagers and other young people who have lost touch with their families.

The Public Health Funeral program is just one way that governmental authorities help to deal with funeral expenses. The other, known as The Social Fund Funeral Payment Scheme, is intended to assist families who rely on benefits. This scheme allows families to obtain a slightly more standard, although still basic, funeral for their loved ones. The scheme has often been criticised for being unfair and complicated, and out of the 66,000 applications to the scheme in the last year, only 35,000 have been awarded. The failings of this scheme could be blamed for the huge rise in Public Health Funerals in the last few years.