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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

All the lonely people

By Dan Bell
BBC News

Chaplain touching coffin
The Rev Nick Martin, Michael Disney's prison chaplain, conducts the funeral
Every year thousands of recently deceased people are buried not by their loved ones, but by their local council - often because they have no known family to make the arrangements. Who attends these funerals and how are they organised?

As the plain wooden coffin holding Michael Disney's body is lowered slowly into an unmarked grave, the mourners who knew him are out-numbered by people there because they are paid to be.

If he had any family, none of them turned up. The handful of friends hunched against a chill wind under a granite-grey autumn sky knew Michael from the streets or from prison. The rest are from the funeral directors or the council.

The only sign of his grave in the small cemetery outside Exeter is now a mound of freshly-dug earth. Soon you will not be able to find it at all.

Homeless and a heroin addict, Michael was found dead in a park in Exeter aged 30. With no known relatives, he became one of hundreds of people each year whose final resting place is a multiple grave paid for by the government. Ultimately, Michael's burial spot will hold four bodies.

For many the grim scenario will resonate with echoes of the Beatles classic song Eleanor Rigby, about an elderly woman buried in a pauper's grave.

Millionaire's death

But that was more than 40 years ago. These days, with DNA databases and social networking, and Britain dubbed by some a "surveillance society", it seems hardly credible that someone could die with no-one to bury them. But there are still many people who end their lives in such circumstances.

Manchester, 400 - 450
Birmingham, 300
Edinburgh, 150
Glasgow, 100 - 150
Liverpool, 100
Lambeth, London, 25 - 35

There are no figures for how many people are given so-called public health funerals, but a straw poll of local authorities suggests they run into the thousands.

There are those, like Michael, whose desolate deaths are the tragic end to lives withered by addiction. Some are pushed to the fringes of society by mental illness; others simply outlive everyone they know.

But according to Brenda Dickens, who oversees 300 public health funerals a year for Birmingham City Council, there is no such thing as a "typical case".

Her office has carried out burials ranging from a foetus "that's been discarded in a public place, to someone who dies in their own home in luxurious surroundings and doesn't have any relatives and hasn't made a will".

One council reported burying someone who turned out to be a multi-millionaire.

There may be more ways than ever to stay in touch, but none of them are compulsory and many are superficial.

Michael Disney
Michael Disney, one of thousands each year buried in public health funerals (Pic courtesy Express & Echo)

"If somebody chooses to become anonymous, then that's what happens," says Ms Dickens.

"It is possible that we are referred a case with someone's name, but they may have three or four or five aliases.

"And you may have your own name and date of birth and still have dropped out of society because there is no compunction on someone to register with their GP or claim their benefits."

In one recent case in Exeter an elderly man lay undiscovered in his flat for three weeks. In August a man's body was found at a home in Lancashire after lying there for two years. His bills and council tax had been paid by direct debit.

Without hard figures, it is impossible to tell whether there is an upward trend in these lonely deaths. But what is clear is that with the break-down of many traditional families and an aging population, more people than ever are living alone.

He said to my wife: 'In prison there is always someone you can talk to, you're a somebody. Out here, you're a nobody'
The Reverend Nick Martin

Michael had not dropped as far from sight as some.

While Michael was in prison, the Reverend Nick Martin, the prison chaplain who led the funeral, saw him every day. But that soon ended when he got out.

Shortly after his release, the Rev Martin's wife saw Michael back on the streets, looking emaciated. She bought him pureed food normally eaten by the institutionalised elderly. Her small act of generosity touched Michael.

"He said to my wife: 'In prison there is always someone you can talk to, you're a somebody. Out here, you're a nobody.'"

Just weeks later, in a park behind Exeter Central station, children out playing among the neatly-kept lawns and colourful flowerbeds found Michael's dead body.

Scars and tattoos

It seems Michael was well-enough known for confirmation of his identity to be relatively simple. But that is not always the case.

It can take months to name an unknown body, with a coroner stitching together an identity with anything from scars and tattoos, to prison records and a person's final steps. The City of London Coroner has kept hold of a corpse for a year.

Eleanor Rigby
A statue of Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street, Liverpool

The Home Office says the problem of identifying bodies found without personal effects would unlikely be solved by the introduction of ID cards. But realistically, would someone in Michael's condition hold an ID card?

Eventually, however, the investigation will end and it will fall to the local council to deal with the body. Under disease-control legislation, authorities are required to do no more than ensure a corpse is buried or cremated.

In practice councils are less callous.

According to the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management most will pay for a hearse, a casket and a professional mourner to lead the ceremony. For Michael, Exeter City Council also bought a simple wreath and placed an obituary in the local paper. It says each funeral costs about 2,800.

If there are no other mourners, Ian Quance, a bereavement services manager for the council, often attends the funeral himself. It is a matter of pride that the occasion should be treated with dignity, he says.

"I would like to think you can't tell the difference from a normal funeral. At the end of the day, we come into the world equal and we should go out equal. We should all have the same dignity."

Below is a selection of your comments:

Over the years I've arranged a number of "pauper's funerals". One that stands out the most was for a elderly lady who was found only after her neighbours contacted the Police as they hadn't seen her for a while. She had been dead for over 4 months. She was very rich but lived in poverty, no close friends or family could be found. I attended her funeral and ensured her estate was passed on to the Government. While I never knew her it was still extremely upsetting that I was they only person other than the Vicar at her funeral. I think people would be shocked to how often this happens in our "modern society."
Alastair Blunkett, Sheffield

In my professional life, I attend many of these types of funerals a year - roughly one a month. Frequently, there are known family (albeit distant) but no-one wants to take the `responsibility' (i.e. foot the bill) for the funeral so they leave the body unclaimed and then turn up for the funeral! Sad, lonely world this.
William, Essex

I am a CofE clergyman. Many years ago I officiated at a funeral of a woman who died with no known relatives. It was just me and the coffin in the crematorium. What a privilege to ensure her funeral was conducted with reverence and simple dignity.
Roger , Devon

Although I appreciate the sentiment, would the 2800 for a 'token' funeral not be better spent on the living?
Jonnie, Newcastle upon Tyne

I have to say I am very impressed that Exeter council took the time and effort to make sure Michael's death was appropriately acknowledged. I very sad story RIP Michael.
Emma, Talke, Staffs

Having just have my boyfriends grandfather die on Saturday this article hits a spot with me. People may whinge about the cost of each funeral, of people that even. Society couldn't be bothered with so why should we spend taxpayers money on them now they're dead but "we come into the world equal and we should go out equal. We should all have the same dignity." This is plain, this is simple and a beautiful sentiment, just a shame we can't treat everyone with the same dignity when they are alive. Luckily for my boyfriends grandfather he died with his family around him, safe in the knowledge he was loved dearly and will be missed greatly, I wish everyone was as lucky. Rest In Peace Bill, and Michael.
Claire, Gloucester, UK

I used to work for an electricity company, and one of the saddest pieces of correspondence I ever received was from a local authority who had paid for someone's funeral and were administering his estate, and asked for the small refund due to be made payable to the authority to defray some of the funeral expenses.
Deborah, Surrey

when our daughter was born at 20 weeks the hospital arranged her funeral and cremation, even though at 20 weeks there is no legal obligation to register either the birth or the death. this wasn't a case of there being no one to attend her funeral but I was amazed at the kindness and humanity shown by the hospital, the hospital chaplain and the funeral directors, who are the same people that deal with deaths where there are no close relatives. it does make you realise that there are some very decent kind and generous people out there - and the world is a better place for it.
Lisa, London

As a community nurse may I just add that, although not part of our role there are many many funerals of the lonely and isolated that are attended by health visitors and community nurses and local authority carers - we are never there because we are paid to be -we go out of compassion. We are often aware that we are that persons only contact and despite many endeavours to improve things for them whilst they live it is not always possible- by attending their funerals it is often our last chance to redress the imbalance of their lives.
Susan, West Midlands

I was touched by this story. Local Authorities are often criticised, but how nice to hear of councils behaving with kindness and responsibility to those who have died with no family or friends to respond to their death. They were all someone's beautiful baby and child at one point, before their lives followed a different path; and I commend this compassionate service by the local authorities. Long may it continue. R Marsh
R Marsh, Maidstone

Such a touching story. In some way, i hope this story encourages us to all look out for and embrace our loved ones, family and friends alike. I know I would certainly not like to end up as anonymous as these poor souls!
Anon, Aberdeen

I've no next of kin so I've made a will and a living will all that is left is to do is get a funeral plan and then I'm setup hopefully. I think it's something we should all take responsibility for especially as we get older, you don't tend to think of these things in your twenties.
Ann, Canterbury

As a Coventry based church we have run a homeless drop in for a number of years and have befriended many "nameless" faces that have subsequently passed away. We have also had the honour of conducting services for them, often packed with others from a similar background. Relatives do come forwards with time and appreciate this care.
Neil Jarratt, Coventry Jesus Centre, Coventry

Everyone when they are young thinks nothing will happen to them, there will always be someone there to look after them. But it's reassuring to know that when you get older and your friends pass away one by one and you have lost touch with your family there are still people around who care.
Darren Watkins, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

In Islam the responsibility of burying is on the local community. In Islamic belief if the local community do not carry this out then they will be sinned. Muslims see burying the dead in their community as their responsibility. Arranging the funeral and attending the funeral prayer is seen as a rewarding and very comendable act to do.
Masud, High Wycombe

An ex-work colleague of mine was given a local authority cremation last year. It was a credit to Poole crematorium, the vicar, organist and funereal directors who gave him as good a send off as any. RIP Jeff Cheshire.
James Stevens, Windsor, UK

Thanks to all the people at each council, giving a respectful funeral to all the people who are unfortunate to be unknowns. Its not an easy job to do, mentally I don't think I would be able to do it. Maybe we should look at the source of the problem, like broken families or too much liberty at too young an age. To think that such is happening in he UK means that social problems still exists, no matter what survey is done by the government to tell us otherwise.
Vik, Epsom

What a terribly sad story. It is, perhaps, understandable when an elderly person has no surviving relatives to mourn them but for a young man like this to die and be buried alone is heartbreaking. RIP Michael.
Helen ,

I have a good friend who is an Anglican priest. When he was a vicar in this city he often conducted such funerals. On many occasions I would attend with him just so the deceased had someone there and I always provided a tiny floral tribute, sometimes picked from my own garden and sometimes purchased. The only people present were my vicar friend, the funeral director and me, and we conducted the service between us. I always felt privileged to be able to show some kindness to those poor people.
Annie, Bristol

I feel sad and greatful at the same time. Council's get a lot wrong, so congratulations to Exeter City for getting something right. There go I but for the grace of God.
Jacqueline, Aberdeen

In a world where local councils are viewed as parasites only here to take our money and use it for their own gains, it's touching to see a man who completely goes the extra mile and believes he's doing something 'because its the right thing to do'

We could do with a lot more Ian Quance's in the world.
R.Evans, UK

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