Page last updated at 18:39 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 19:39 UK

The funerals without any mourners

By John Waite
Radio 4's Face the Facts

William Hunter
William Hunter - who died alone - had received treatment for cancer

The number of lonely, council-funded funerals for people who have died alone with no known next of kin or family are on the increase - and what is even more tragic is the sometimes painfully long periods before their deaths are noticed.

Earlier this week I attended a particularly poignant funeral. The coffin was plain and black rather than varnished.

The pew reserved for family mourners was empty - because this was a funeral for someone who had no-one, and so the council was having to pay.

Such council-funded funerals - where people die alone and with no known next of kin or family - are on the increase.

'Frustration and anger'

Perhaps that is only logical with an ageing population and more people living alone. But, tragically, all too many of these deaths can go almost totally unnoticed, with bodies lying undiscovered for weeks, months and even years.

In the case of William Hunter, his corpse was only discovered in February last year, when his rent had gone unpaid for more than a year, and his landlords, Albyn Housing Society, began proceedings for eviction.

Helena Pugh
Helena Pugh lay dead in Bristol for an estimated 18 months

It is believed he had lain dead at his Ross-shire home for around 14 months. Albyn has since introduced new "trigger" measures to try to prevent something similar happening to other tenants.

The society's chief executive, Calum MacAulay, accepts Mr Hunter's death should have been picked up more quickly.

He said: "Myself and my colleagues were all very shocked by that and a real sense of frustration and anger with ourselves that a situation like this should have arisen".

It is a situation that has arisen all over the UK, however. In Bristol, Helena Pugh lay dead for an estimated 18 months in a flat owned by another housing association, Guinness Hermitage. Her body was found in February.

She had a history of mental health problems and neighbours say they had reported concerns about her welfare to the health service and her landlords.

Dick Clarke, who lived opposite, said: "When I first met her she seemed quite a normal person but she just got gradually more and more unstable, threatening, shouting, swearing… she threatened our other neighbour with a knife.

Grave and cross
Campaigners want more attention on the isolated and vulnerable

"I'm just angry more than anything that all this effort to try and alert people that something wasn't right had just fallen on deaf ears".

Department of Health policy states that patient confidentiality should be maintained even after death.

Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, therefore, would not comment on what care it did - or did not - provide for Helena Pugh. Guinness Hermitage also refused to comment.

Just this month, Isabella Purves's body was found in her Edinburgh flat where it is believed she had lain for five years.

And there have been other deaths of people undiscovered for between five weeks and two years - in Cardiff, Bury, Brighton, Lancashire and east London. Each case was revealed within the past 12 months.

Few of those people made the national news. In stark contrast, says Lizzy Feltoe of Age Concern and Help the Aged, to cases involving the death or neglect of children.

She would like to see more attention paid to the needs of the isolated and the vulnerable, and is calling for a new breed of support worker.

She said: "If we took an expert in care and we put them in say a GP's surgery or local library, it would bring them closer to the community. It would be a very good first step forward to see if we can find these people who are very isolated."

Face the Facts: A Death Unnoticed will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2100 (GMT) on 27 July or listen again online or via BBC iPlayer.

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