In our last article (ICCM Journal Autumn 2021) we looked at funerals arranged under s.46 Public Health Act and asked “What is a funeral?” We noted that Councils’ statutory duty under s.46 is 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.

We identified that there is no requirement under s.46 to notify next of kin or anyone else that the person has passed away, or that the funeral is taking place – even though to do so somehow seems respectful to the deceased. Indeed, some Councils take a very limited approach to locating family or friends of the deceased, preferring simply to carry out the funeral as cost-effectively as possible and at the most convenient time. This might be because Councils’ Bereavement Services teams are at full stretch and resources aren’t available to make enquiries into the whereabouts of next of kin.

But contrast the position with more-or-less any funeral arranged other than under s.46 PHA where friends and family have the opportunity to attend and pay their respects – whether they show up on the day is a matter for them, but no-one could be criticised for not having informed them of the deceased’s death or of the funeral.

The purpose of next of kin enquiries is twofold: to give the families of the deceased the opportunity to attend and pay their respects and, of course, to enable them to take on the funeral arrangements themselves and take the funeral out of s.46. However, neither is conditional upon the other – regardless of whether the family take on the funeral, it seems hard to argue that they should not be informed of the death of their relative before the funeral takes place and have the opportunity to be there.

Some Councils do as much as can reasonably be done to locate next of kin, saying that there is a value to the families of the deceased in being notified of the death and having the opportunity to go to the funeral, regardless of estrangement or distance (whether in terms of relationship or geography); they take the view that they do not want any s.46 PHA funeral to take place until reasonable enquiries to locate next of kin have been made. This seems consistent with the notion of the Council operating with the benefit of their citizenry in mind.

Experience of countless cases shows clearly that even where friends or neighbours of a given deceased confidently assert that “…they have no relatives…” they almost always do – it’s just a question of identifying them and locating them.

Councils tend not to have the resources in-house to trace next of kin if they don’t know who or where they are and, increasingly, are reaching out to the private sector for help. The fact is that for a tracing agency with the right attitude, tools and resources, tracing next of kin is often a quick and straightforward exercise, enabling family members to attend the funeral if they wish. After all, if you were a family member of such a deceased, wouldn’t you prefer to know before rather than after the funeral that your relative had passed away, and to have the opportunity to attend?