Nick Beetham discusses how next of kin enquiries can help those involved in arranging funerals under s.46 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984

What is a funeral? Pre-pandemic, most of us would typically think of an event where we variously celebrate the life and mourn the passing of a relative or old friend while reminiscing and re-connecting with people we perhaps haven’t seen for years. However, based on years of experience working alongside those who organise such occasions, it seems that there are two categories of funeral: those arranged under s.46 of the Public Health Act (PHA) (known as public health funerals) and those that are not.

Dignity and respect

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many s.46PHA funerals are significantly more transactional in nature than funerals arranged by family members.

That’s understandable: if a council is going to pay for a funeral then it’s going to be – mostly at least – on the council’s terms; a dignified and respectful ceremony, but at limited cost.

Under s.46PHA councils have a statutory duty 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”. The duty stops once the body is buried or cremated.

But should an s.46PHA funeral be merely a transaction?

At the extreme, an s.46PHA funeral could simply involve a bereavement services officer telephoning whichever funeral director submitted the cheapest bid for the business, handling the paperwork and, more or less, leaving it there.

Is that really consistent with a dignified and respectful ceremony, though? Surely a significant component of that dignity and respect is dependent on who knows about and attends the funeral?

Tracing next of kin

Many councils, when arranging public health funerals, go to considerable lengths to identify and locate next of kin of the deceased so that the family know about the death of their relative before the funeral takes place and have the opportunity to attend.

In such circumstances it’s also possible that family members would want to arrange and pay for the funeral themselves, thereby taking it out of s.46PHA and providing self-evident benefits both to the family and the council.

On the other hand, consider the position of a council that is contacted by family members upset not to have known of the death of their relative until after a s.46PHA funeral had taken place.

Not only that… A recent investigation by anti-poverty charity Quaker Social Action (reported extensively in The Guardian and elsewhere) found a number of local authorities were “abdicating their duty” on s.46PHA funerals and suggested some were failing to carry out their “legal duty by arranging and paying for a funeral”.

One way to avoid scenarios such as these is to take advantage of the highly effective private sector next-of-kin-tracing resources that are available at no cost to councils. These can swiftly discover if relatives exist, share information with sympathy and, hopefully, ensure that more and more funerals include those elements of celebrating, mourning and re-connecting that most of us would expect.

Nick Beetham is business development manager at Fraser and Fraser, a specialist in working with local authorities to trace next of kin.