Anger over council’s ‘Dickensian’ funeral system

The Waveney District Council Riverside building. Picture: Nick Butcher

The Waveney District Council Riverside building. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

People who die without enough money for a cremation are being buried in unmarked communal graves.

Paul Newson. Photo: James Carr.

Paul Newson. Photo: James Carr. - Credit: Archant

The policy, adopted by Waveney District Council (WDC), has been branded as 'Dickensian' by members of the public who feel a person's last wishes should be respected – regardless of financial situation.

If a person were to die in Waveney and no suitable arrangements have been made for a funeral the council will organise a state-assisted, or public health, funeral.

A WDC spokesman said: 'We will deal with all aspects of the funeral, including registering the death, dealing with the undertakers and organising interment or cremation.'

However if the person's preference had been cremation the council can only meet such wishes 'if financially possible'.

Waveney MP Peter Aldous. Picture: James Bass

Waveney MP Peter Aldous. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014

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While the council will attempt to recover expenses through the estate left by the deceased, costs are kept to a minimum so as to be 'mindful of the cost to the taxpayer'.

The spokesman added: 'This means that a common grave may be used and graves will be unmarked.

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'Whilst public health funerals may vary depending on the individual circumstances of the deceased, we always ensure the funeral is conducted with complete respect and dignity.'

Controversy has arisen after it was discovered that neighbouring Great Yarmouth Borough Council (GYBC) offers cremation irrespective of a person's finances.

Mark Bee, leader of Waveney District Council. Picture: Suffolk County Council

Mark Bee, leader of Waveney District Council. Picture: Suffolk County Council - Credit: Archant

A borough council spokesman said: 'The council always seeks to follow the person's wishes, including any religious wishes, in relation to whether they are buried or cremated, which is sometimes stipulated in their will or known by their family.'

Similarly to WDC the Yarmouth council also adopt a communal grave system which usually sees two coffins placed in each plot.

The spokesman added: 'The borough council seeks to strike a balance with Public Health Act funerals between its legal duty to arrange a cost-effective funeral, while preserving the dignity of the dead person.'

The differences in policy between the neighbouring authorities mean if a person from Waveney were to be taken to the area's largest hospital – James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston – and died there they would be entitled to more than had they died at home.

Paul Newson, a 65-year-old landlord from Carlton Colville, was first made aware of the policy when helping an ex-tenant prepare for the funeral of their terminally ill mother.

He said: 'It's completely unfair; through no fault of their own not everyone can afford their own funeral.

'I don't think in this day and age that's fair.

'It seems wrong to me that if you lived in Waveney all your life but died in Great Yarmouth you can have a cremation.

'And to be buried in a nameless grave with two other people seems Dickensian.'

He added: 'There's no constant. Why should one council do one thing and the other another?

'I don't think it should be a council decision, it should be countrywide. If you die in England you should have the option of burial or cremation.'

The landlord is not alone in his opinion; with Waveney MP Peter Aldous towing a similar line.

Mr Aldous said: 'It is an issue that has been brought to my attention locally and it is also something that has been raised nationally in parliament.

'There is cross party support which I am right behind to address this particular anomaly which isn't right and isn't fair.'

Likewise Mark Bee, leader of WDC, has said it could be an issue to raise with the Local Government Authority (LGA) in order to implement a uniform approach across the country.

Mr Bee said: 'It's unfortunate that because of the way in which local authorities may approach these kinds of things that perversely different rates are applied to what is a tragic situation.

'This can often be the case between different authorities, counties and countries.

'One of the things we could do is take it up with the LGA.

'It is an unfortunate but unintended consequence of different authorities approaching different things in different way.'

Different councils; different policies

While there have been calls previously for councils across the county to take a uniform approach to Public Health Act funerals this is not yet the case.

Below different councils explain its system:

• Norwich City Council (NCC)

At the NCC public health funerals are always by burial rather than cremation as the crematorium is privately owned.

A spokesman added: 'We use what is known as a common grave which will have had one or more burials previously.'

• Fenland District Council (FDC)

'Up until recently we conducted burial as standard as we did not own a crematorium. However, with burial plots becoming scarcer, values rising and contract cremations becoming cheaper we have carried out cremations.

'Our policy for public graves is for two unrelated persons, but it has been many years since a second interment in the same grave has taken place.

• Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk

'We cremate as standard unless there is a reason not to, i.e. clearly known and practiced religious grounds or a letter stating they wish to be buried.

'If the Borough was required to bury the deceased then the burial would be in a grave where the rights are un-purchased – so the families have no rights to who else if placed in the grave or what is placed on the grave.

'This would give us the right, should the Borough wish to do so, to bury other deceased in that grave. However, this has never happened.'

•Breckland District Council

'Normally cremation will be the preferred option unless specified. No payment is requested unless the deceased's estate can provide payment towards the burial.'

In the case of burial it is one plot per person.

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