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Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 08:54 UK
For those who die alone

What happens to the people who die alone without friends or family? Nicola Stanbridge spent a day with a Welfare Funerals Officer in Brighton to find out.

Coffin at funeral
Increasing numbers of people are dying alone in the Brighton area

Elaine Gaston is making final preparations for the funeral of Peter, a 54-year-old man who died alone.

After a long illness Thomas died over Christmas and lay undiscovered for two months until an old tenant returned to the flat and alerted the authorities.

No family and friends could be found and Elaine Gaston made the arrangements, one of 22 funerals she has organised since the start of the 2009. She says numbers are rising every year.

As Welfare Funerals Officer, Elaine organises the funerals and often acts as the lone mourner for the growing number of people who die without friends or family.

Responsibility for what were once called pauper's graves passed from the Church to the state early in the 20th century.

Now, local councils have a duty to arrange the funeral for those people who have no-one else to do the job. But not all councils have a specially designated officer like Elaine - many juggle the role with other jobs.

Lonely death

Elaine takes us to Thomas's funeral. It is a bright, sunny June morning in Brighton. Our presence doubles attendance.


We live in a large city and to think that somebody has died on their own, I always find that sad.

Elaine Gaston

"It doesn't matter how many times I do these funerals, I'm always nervous," she says.

"I always think it's such a big responsibility when you're arranging someone's funeral for them and you don't know them."

For Father John McCormack, who conducts the funeral, it doesn't matter if there are two or 200 in attendance.

"His life is as valuable and as important as anybody else," he says.

"Although I am aware that there is an underlying sadness in that there is only us here."

Elaine Gaston
Elaine is often the only mourner at the funerals she organises

Before the funeral can take place, Elaine carries out exhaustive investigations looking for next of kin, sometimes from contacts on mobile phones she discovers.

"Just from a Christmas card we've been known to find a relative," she says.

Sometimes Elaine will remove personal items from a property, like bank details, to avoid ID fraud in the case of a break-in.

Family are occasionally found who will pay for the funeral. But in nearly all the cases passed to Elaine, the council will pick up the bill - on average £2000.

No preparation

We drive to the Moulsecoomb area of Brighton and visit the next council flat on Elaine's list to investigate.

Peter lived here. He died just before Christmas but was only discovered in May when neighbours reported hundreds of flies crawling on the windows.

Elaine is used to the ever pervasive smell on entering a property like this, even though the body has long been removed.

When she started the job it was a different matter.

"Nothing could've prepared me for it, nothing," she says.

"The first one I went in I really felt my stomach come up to the back of my throat.

"For the first few visits, even after I'd gone home and had a shower, I couldn't get rid of that smell."

Peter lay dead for four months before he was discovered. Even though his body has been removed, the smell of bodily fluids in the stuffy confines of his flat and decomposing food in the kitchen is overwhelming.

Elaine Gaston
Elaine follows up all the leads she can to track down a next of kin

Snooker trophies and decorators equipment lie in the hallway, surrounded by a mound of unopened post. In the lounge there is an imprint where Peter last sat - probably watching telly, halfway through a cigarette.

Despite a lone Christmas card on the electric fire and a mobile phone nearby, Peter's family and friends cannot be located, so it falls to Elaine to organise the funeral.

It took place in Brighton on Friday 3 July. Elaine, once again, was the only mourner.

"We live in a large city and to think that somebody has died on their own, I always find that sad," she says.

"But I also have to remember that this is their choice of life."




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