Public health funerals are provided by local authorities for people who have passed away and have no next of kin, or whose next of kin, relatives or friends are unable or unwilling to make the necessary arrangements for a funeral. They are designed to protect public health and are important in ensuring that all individuals are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances.
The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (‘the Act’) places a statutory duty on local authorities to arrange for a burial or cremation where no suitable alternative arrangements are being made. However, the Act does not define how local authorities should carry out this duty – meaning there is considerable flexibility in how these funerals are delivered.
This non-statutory guidance has been developed following feedback from some local authorities that they would value information on good practice and suggested guidelines which they can draw upon to inform their local policies. While local differences mean that not all sections will apply to all local authorities, it is important that all arrangements for public health funerals are delivered respectfully and with care.
Throughout this guidance, the term ‘public health funeral’ refers to the activity undertaken by local authorities to discharge their duties under the Act – though individual local authorities’ approach to public health funerals will vary.
This guidance includes some of the considerations for delivering public health funerals during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It should be read alongside other guidance designed to assist people who are involved in caring for the deceased or managing or organising a funeral related to death from any cause during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who is this guidance for?
This guidance is for local authorities in England and Wales. It may also be useful for others with an interest in public health funerals, for example funeral directors, NHS Trusts, faith leaders or the friends or relatives of those who may be receiving a public health funeral.
Local authorities are required to provide public health funerals under section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
Local authorities may also wish to refer to the Coronavirus Act 2020 and any subsequent regulations which may impact on the management or organisation of funerals.
How can this guidance be used?
This guidance has been developed so that it can be used by all local authorities in England and Wales. However, the underpinning legislation provides flexibility and therefore local authorities may want to consider how this guidance fits with their own local arrangements and circumstances.
As non-statutory guidance, this does not create any new requirements beyond those in the Act. Where there are practices which are required by law, the guidance makes this clear.
Section 1: overview of public health funerals and guiding principles
This section provides an overview of public health funerals, the legal requirements and some guiding principles which can be used to help inform local approaches.
Overview – public health funerals
The provisions within section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 were developed to protect public safety and limit the spread of infectious diseases – their primary objective is to protect public health.
Public health funerals are delivered and funded by local authorities (although local authorities can recover their costs from the estate of the deceased). For deaths that occur in hospital, NHS Trusts are advised to develop their own policy which takes into account their local authority protocol and work together to ensure a respectful burial or cremation as efficiently as possible.
What is legally required of local authorities?
Section 46, ‘Burial and Cremation’ of the Act requires that:
It shall be the duty of a local authority 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.
Local authorities, as defined in Section 1 of the Act, are therefore responsible for arranging a burial or cremation where a person has died or who has been found dead in their area (though may not live there), and it is apparent that this will not be carried out otherwise. Local authorities also have responsibilities where the deceased were provided with accommodation in care settings.
The Act also stipulates:
- The deceased should not be cremated where the local authority has reason to believe that would be contrary to the wishes of the deceased. It is therefore important to be mindful of any indications of the deceased’s preferred method for their final committal, including any requirements they had in relation to their religion or belief. Further details are included in section 4.
- A local authority may recover, from the estate of the deceased person, the expenses incurred in the provision of a public health funeral. The Act also stipulates that this is recoverable as civil debt by proceedings brought within three years after the sum becomes due. Further information on recouping the costs of the funeral can be found in section 6.
Local authorities will have varying approaches in meeting the legal requirements set out above and certain practices carried out in one authority may not be suitable for another as policies will be influenced by local circumstances. However, the following guiding principles can be used to support good practice in any local arrangements, and this document has been developed with these principles in mind.
Ensure the deceased are treated with dignity and respect
Ensuring dignity and respect of the deceased, regardless of their circumstances, is of the utmost importance when delivering public health funerals. As part of this, it is good practice for local authorities to consider the personal circumstances of individuals (see sections 4 and 5).
Minimise public health risks
Public health funerals play a critical public health role, and it is important to keep public health considerations in mind when plans are developed. For example, following appropriate Public Health England and Public Health Wales guidance, including for COVID-19 caring for the deceased and managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic.
Be considerate of the bereaved; make efforts to find the next of kin and keep them informed of arrangements
Wherever possible, take steps to locate the next of kin. Engaging with them sensitively and keeping them informed of arrangements is both important for them and for ensuring dignity and respect for the deceased. See sections 3 and 4 for further information.
Recoup costs as far as possible
Wherever possible it is important to attempt to recover expenses for public health funerals to minimise costs to the taxpayer. Besides secured debts (e.g. mortgages), funeral costs are the first charge on an estate and the 1984 Act enables cost recovery. See section 6 for further information.
It is good practice to make the local authority’s public health funeral policy publicly available and accessible, and to provide information on local arrangements for anyone requesting it. See section 7 for further information.
Have a duty to cremate or bury the deceased in line with provisions of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
|Funeral directors||In most cases funeral directors will administer the public health funeral on behalf of the local authority. Funeral directors should notify local authorities as soon as possible if they think they have someone in their care who may require a public health funeral, for example if no next of kin have come forward.|
|NHS Trusts||For deaths that occur in a hospital, NHS Trusts should develop their own policy which takes into account their LA protocol and work together to ensure a respectful burial or cremation is delivered as efficiently as possible.|
|Coroners||Will release the body to the next of kin when it is no longer required for their investigation. Where there is no identified next of kin or other person who will take responsibility for disposal, the coroner will refer the deceased to the local authority.|
|Care homes and nursing homes||Will refer the deceased to the local authority for a public health funeral where they have no known next of kin. It is helpful to inform local care and nursing homes if a contracted funeral director is in place for public health funerals.|
|Executors of the deceased's will||Administers the estate and is responsible for organising a funeral if there is a valid will and no next of kin.|
Public health funerals – steps in this guidance
It is important that the local authority is notified as soon as possible where there is reason to believe a public health funeral may be required. Notification can be given by the family or a friend of the deceased, nursing or care home, coroner or the police.
The steps taken will then vary depending on the referral route and specifics of the case.
This guidance does not seek to cover all scenarios but includes the main steps that local authorities can take, from the point of notification through to the funeral.
Section 2: making a reasonable attempt to find the next of kin
This section sets out the steps that a local authority can take to locate the deceased’s next of kin where they are not known.
What is legally required of local authorities?
There is no legal requirement to locate next of kin, but it is good practice to try to do so in order to inform the bereaved that their relative has passed away, and to provide families with the option of organising the funeral themselves should they wish to.
The next of kin can also play an important role in advising authorities of the deceased’s personal wishes, including any requirements they had in relation to their religion or beliefs, which can help to determine whether a burial or cremation is more appropriate.
What steps can be taken to find next of kin?
There are different methods available to local authorities to trace the deceased’s family – these are set out below, though the specific approach taken will depend on local circumstances and each individual case.
Search local records
Searching any records held by the local authority or by other local organisations on the deceased is a helpful first step in locating the next of kin. These can include any records held locally such as:
- Medical records held by hospitals or their GP.
- Housing records – housing services, Land Registry.
- Social services
- Care or nursing home (if applicable)
- Registrar’s office for details of birth / marriage(s)
- Council Tax
- Electoral roll
- Cemetery and crematorium registers
- Local telephone directory
- Missing persons registers
If the deceased has died locally but was known to have lived in another area, a request for any records can be made to the relevant local authority.
Data relating to the deceased is not classified as personal data under data protection legislation. However, data that relates to any living identified or identifiable individual, such as a next of kin, is classified as personal data under the Data Protection Act 2018. Local authorities and any other organisations involved in searches, or other activities where personal data is processed for the purposes described in this guidance, must ensure that they comply with the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulations 2016 and the Data Protection Act 2018.
Speak to the deceased’s friends or acquaintances
Any known friends, acquaintances or neighbours of the deceased may also be able to help with providing details on the next of kin.
Look for documents or records in the deceased’s property or residence
In some circumstances local authorities may need to enter the deceased’s property or residence, which can also be helpful to find information about the next of kin, identify if there is a will (in which case the executor would be expected to take on arrangements for the funeral), or identify any other information which can help inform the funeral arrangements.
The route to access the property and powers of entry will depend on the nature of the case. Local authorities should ensure that they have received legal advice and are clear on their grounds for entry when entering any property.
It is good practice to conduct any search in pairs and develop a local search policy which sets out protocols for safely entering and searching the property, including local arrangements for removing and storing any items and keeping records.
When entering and searching a property it is important to be respectful of the deceased’s belongings. Useful documents to look out for include letters, appointment confirmations, passports, address books, bills, a will or other official documents, such as birth or marriage certificates.
Local authorities and others entering a property will wish to ensure that appropriate procedures are followed for entering establishments where there is the possibility of infection from COVID-19, in line with the care of the deceased during COVID-19 guidance.
Useful resources local authorities may refer to when attempting to locate next of kin, include guidance from The National Archives on tracing living persons, social media websites and personal document maintaining websites.
Using a genealogist
Some local authorities opt to use the services of a professional genealogist or researcher. If using a genealogist, it is important to carry out due diligence to help ensure satisfaction with the provider.
Contact any relevant religious or belief group, community or organisation
If the deceased’s beliefs were publicly known and they were involved in a related community or group, local groups may be able to support efforts to locate the next of kin. It is helpful to establish a working relationship with local groups; they can provide support and advice, and in some cases, they may take on responsibility for providing the funeral from the local authority. Public Health Wales' guidance on managing a funeral during the COVID-19 pandemic should be followed during COVID-19.
Arrangements for children in care
When a child becomes a Looked after Child (LAC), local authorities have a statutory duty and responsibility to look after, safeguard and promote the welfare of a child and become the ‘corporate parent’. In the unfortunate case of a child or minor being the only know next of kin, it is good practice to consult both the child and the social worker to ensure there is a support network who are aware and can help the child and, if appropriate, discuss the funeral arrangements.
If a child passes away whilst in care, it is the local authority’s responsibility, as the ‘corporate parent’ to arrange and cover the costs for the funeral. It is good practice to try and find any next of kin, as well as consult with the child’s social worker and support network regarding any funeral arrangements.
What constitutes a ‘reasonable’ attempt?
While good practice, there is no legal requirement to locate the next of kin, and so local authorities will need to make decisions on whether to do this and, if so, how much time and resource to invest based on the nature of the case and the situation locally. It is suggested that local authorities set a target timeframe to locate the next of kin and include this in any written policy on public health funerals.
It is important to keep records of any steps taken and the rationale for any decisions made, even if the decision is not to seek the next of kin. In some cases, the next of kin can approach a local authority years later to enquire about the deceased (see section 7).
Section 3: conversations with the next of kin and their options
This section covers the options available for the next of kin prior to agreeing a public health funeral, where they are willing and able to engage in discussing the deceased’s funeral arrangements.
It is important that, in any conversations with the next of kin, they are made aware of the options available to them and what a public health funeral will entail - they are not intended to be a welfare benefit or a free alternative to private funeral arrangements.
The next of kin’s options
It is good practice to encourage the next of kin to explore the options available to enable them to arrange the funeral themselves. Where possible, this could include support to access financial assistance schemes (see box below) and lower-cost options.
In most cases, the local authority’s arrangements for public health funerals will be standardised and so a private funeral will give the bereaved family autonomy over the funeral arrangements in a way that a public health funeral will not.
Scenario 1: Next of kin organise and pay for the funeral
If the next of kin are willing and able to pay for the funeral, the local authority can hand responsibility for the deceased to the next of kin in order for them to make their own arrangements. The local authority will no longer have any statutory responsibility for the deceased’s final committal and its involvement will most likely end at this point.
It is good practice to obtain formal written agreement from the next of kin that they will take on responsibility for the funeral.
Local authorities may also wish to inform the next of kin of ‘What to do when someone dies’ guidance on GOV.UK, and inform the source of the referral of the deceased that the case has been transferred to the next of kin (or other friend or relative).
Scenario 2: The next of kin are willing to organise the funeral, but cannot afford the expected costs
In some cases, the next of kin will be willing to take on responsibility for the funeral but may not feel able to pay for it. Where cost is an issue, there are a range of options to access funding or work within a limited budget which can be discussed with the next of kin:
- Financial support schemes provided by government or the local authority – see box below for further details. In some cases, it may also be helpful to support the next of kin when applying for the below schemes.
- Funding provided by charities: Some charities provide funding for bereaved families to help meet funeral costs, for example benevolent societies.
- Lower cost funeral options: Many funeral directors have a ‘simple’ or ‘basic’ funeral package which include all the essential features of a funeral but at a lower price than other options. If the local authority offers affordable cremation or burial options then these can be discussed.
- Sharing costs with other relatives or friends of the deceased.
If the deceased’s beliefs were publicly known and they were involved in a related community or group, in some cases the group may be able to assist with organising and funding the funeral.
|Financial support scheme||Description|
Funeral Expenses Payment
Funeral Expenses Payments (FEP) help people on qualifying benefits with the costs of arranging a funeral. It can be used to cover costs, including the purchase of a grave; necessary burial or cremation fees; and travel costs for the applicant to arrange and attend the funeral. It can also cover other funeral costs, such as the coffin or funeral director fees, up to a maximum of £1000. Full details on eligibility and on how to access FEP can be found on GOV.UK.
Bereavement Support Payment
|Bereavement Support Payment is a contributory benefit, based on the National Insurance contributions of the deceased person. It provides financial support in the short-term to help with the initial costs associated with bereavement. It is available to help working age people whose spouse or civil partner dies, through the intial period following bereavement. Further details can be found on GOV.UK.|
Children’s Funeral Fund for England
|Burial authorities and cremation authorities can to apply to the Government’s Children’s Funeral Fund for England for the reimbursement of the fees which would otherwise be charged to the bereaved family for the burial or cremation in England of a child under the age of 18 or a baby stillborn after the 24th week of pregnancy. Funding is available regardless of the income of the bereaved family. The Fund also provides for funeral directors or the person organising the funeral to apply for reimbursement of certain associated expenses. Further details can be found on GOV.UK.|
Local authority hardship funds
Some local authorities have hardship funds which can be used to cover costs, including funeral costs, following a bereavement.
Scenario 3: Public health funeral
If the next of kin cannot afford funeral costs or are unable or unwilling to make such arrangements, a public health funeral will need to be arranged by the local authority.
It is vital that the next of kin are informed of what a public health funeral will entail under the local authority’s standardised arrangements and understand what this means for them. In particular, it is important that the next of kin are made aware:
- That by opting for a public health funeral, they are relinquishing responsibility for, and therefore control of, the funeral to the local authority. It is advised that the next of kin sign a consent form confirming their understanding of this point.
- Of the local arrangements for the funeral. In some cases, this can include some level of personalisation (if offered – see section 5) but ultimately decisions on the content and form of the funeral are for the local authority, rather than the next of kin.
- Of any arrangements following the funeral, for example around the collection of ashes or what is provided in terms of memorialisation.
The local authority has the statutory right to recoup the cost of the funeral from the deceased’s estate (but not from the next of kin). See section 6 on recouping costs.
Section 4: ascertaining the deceased’s wishes
This section covers the steps that a local authority can take to ascertain the deceased’s preferred method for their final committal, including any requirements they had in relation to their religion or belief. This can help ensure that the deceased does not receive a funeral which is against their known wishes and can be used to inform any other faith or belief requirements for the funeral, where these can be accommodated locally.
What is legally required of local authorities?
Local authorities have a legal duty not to cremate a body where they have reason to believe that cremation would be contrary to the wishes of the deceased.
Beyond the method of committal, local authorities are not legally required to accommodate any requirements the deceased may have had in relation to their religion or belief, though some local authorities may choose to reflect these in their public health funeral arrangements.
Options to ascertain the deceased’s wishes
Whether the deceased should be buried or cremated is of the utmost importance to many people, including those with certain religions or beliefs. Where local authorities are able, it is good practice to make a reasonable attempt to identify the deceased’s wishes, including any requirements they had in relation to their religion or belief ahead of their final committal where these are not already known.
The options available to local authorities which can help to ascertain the deceased’s final wishes include:
- Discussing the deceased’s wishes with the next of kin, close family or friends.
- Engaging with local religious or non-religious belief groups. In some cases, local groups may take on responsibility for delivering the funeral from the local authority.
- Viewing the social media of the deceased, where they may have expressed wishes or beliefs.
- Accessing hospital records.
- Looking for any indication of the individual’s wishes, religion or beliefs if searching the property of the deceased (see sections 2 and 6).
- Checking the local authority’s burial records to see if the deceased owned burial rights in a local cemetery.
- Checking the local authority’s cremation records to see if the deceased acted as an Applicant for Cremation for any other family member.
- Details in any last will and testament of the deceased that they may have made (where the executor has formally renounced their role).
Factoring in the deceased’s wishes
Where it is known that the deceased wished to be buried rather than cremated, local authorities must ensure that a burial is provided. It is also important to accommodate any known preference for cremation.
It is good practice to consider personal preferences for other aspects of the committal process, including any requirements the deceased had in relation to their religion or beliefs. However, while important, these considerations will need to be balanced with local factors such as cost, resources and operational requirements.
Examples of factoring in the deceased’s wishes, including requirements they had in relation to their religion or belief include:
- Pre-burial or cremation rituals, such as bathing or shrouding of a body. A local faith representative may be able to assist in making the necessary arrangements. Caring for the deceased during COVID-19 includes guidance for faith and belief practices that involve close contact with the deceased.
- Consulting a representative or celebrant of the deceased’s religion or belief group and having them present at the funeral. It is helpful to establish working relationships with local groups.
- Burying the deceased or interring cremated ashes in the appropriate section of a specified burial ground or cemetery, or scattering of ashes based on the personal wishes of the deceased or any requirements they had in relation to their religion or beliefs.
If the deceased’s wishes are not known
If local authorities cannot ascertain the wishes of the deceased and there is no known preference, the local authority can carry out its duties in line with its standard practices.
Section 5: funeral good practice
This section sets out suggested good practice for the public health funeral, including any service where this is being provided. Regardless of the arrangements in place – whether a full funeral ceremony or direct cremation or burial (where no service is provided) – it is important that the arrangements are carried out with care and respect.
What is legally required of local authorities?
A local authority must make arrangements for the burial or cremation and must not cremate the individual where there is reason to believe that this is not in line with the wishes of the deceased. However, how the local authority discharges the duty to carry out the burial or cremation, and the arrangements associated with it, are for them to decide – there is no requirement to provide a funeral service, though some do.
Ceremony good practice
Some local authorities offer a minimal ceremony for the deceased’s funeral. Where a ceremony is being offered, it is important that local authorities inform the next of kin of the time and venue in good time ahead of the funeral. They may also wish to:
- allow open attendance and, if resources permit, place a notice in the local newspaper or on the local authority website with time and venue details – particularly if the deceased has no next of kin. This can help to ensure any friends or acquaintances who may wish to attend are aware of the arrangements. While Covid-19 social distancing measures are in place, Public Health Wales' guidance on managing a funeral during the COVID-19 pandemic should be followed.
- provide a simple ceremony in line with the religion or non-religious beliefs of the deceased, where known, or any relevant personal circumstances - for example, having a representative or celebrant of the deceased’s religion or belief group attend and help advise on any faith requirements, or by including other rituals such as those for military veterans, where these can reasonably be accommodated.
- allow the next of kin, friends or relatives to select the music or reading, where these can be accommodated at no extra cost.
It is important that all cost incurred are reasonable (see section 7) and so it is not advised that the local authority includes extras such as transportation to the ceremony for the next of kin, flowers, a wake or further memorial event.
Post-ceremony good practice
It is suggested that the local authority sets a timeframe for retaining the ashes of the deceased to allow the next of kin (or another friend or relative) to claim them if they wish. It is helpful to include this information in any written policy on public health funerals, and to ensure that the next of kin is made aware.
Some local authorities charge a fee for collection of the ashes. It is important that local authorities act sensitively and in good faith, and any fee should cover costs only, for example for the urn or box.
If no individual claims the ashes during the time period, then local authorities can make their own arrangements, for example scattering the ashes in the local authority’s garden of remembrance or equivalent. It is good practice to inform the next of kin of this decision and, where possible, take into account any known wishes of the deceased. It is advised that records are kept on the arrangements taken, as set out in section 7.
Local authorities are not required to provide a gravestone for burials, beyond any plaque or marker that is provided locally to mark the grave. Local authorities may wish to allow the next of kin to place small memorial pieces or make their own arrangements for a gravestone, where these can be accommodated locally.
Where possible, it is good practice for burial to take place in line with any known wishes of the deceased, including any requirements they had in relation to their religion or belief.
Local authorities are advised to ensure that all funeral arrangements are the most cost-effective and value for money, whilst maintaining the dignity of the deceased and the bereaved.
Section 6: recouping costs
This section sets out local authorities’ rights regarding recouping the costs of a public health funeral and guidance on recovering those costs. It is important to recoup costs wherever possible to minimise expense to the local authority and ultimately the taxpayer.
Funding a public health funeral
The costs of a public health funeral can be recouped from the deceased’s estate. However, in some cases, the deceased may have no estate from which costs can be recovered, meaning that the whole cost of the funeral is borne by the local authority.
From the point at which a deceased person is referred to the local authority for a possible public health funeral, it is important that records are kept which include details of all costs incurred, and all activity which can be monetised and claimed, e.g. use of local authority resources and staff time.
Local authorities’ legal right to recoup costs
The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 provides the local authority with the legal right to recoup the cost of the public health funeral from the deceased’s estate. Under the Act, the costs can be claimed as civil debt, provided that proceedings are brought within three years after the sum becomes due (the date of the funeral).
Local authorities are not responsible for managing the deceased’s estate, beyond their right to recoup funeral costs.
What constitutes eligible costs?
Local authorities have the right to reclaim the cost of ‘expenses incurred’ for the deceased’s funeral, and it is important that all costs are reasonable. Local authorities cannot claim additional monies to cross-subsidise the costs of other funerals. Costs can include anything connected with the burial or cremation, as well as reasonable ancillary costs. For example:
- the cost of the funeral including burial/cremation fees;
- time spent registering a death;
- time spent arranging a funeral;
- general administration costs;
- funeral director fees – in some cases a calculation on a suitable unit cost will need to be made, for example if the funeral director is contracted on an annual basis.
Recovering costs and the deceased’s estate
While local authorities have a right to recoup costs, there is no legal requirement to do so, and so local authorities will need to make a judgement on the appropriate level of activity to seek to recoup any costs based on the circumstances of the case.
The process for recovering costs will depend on the value of the deceased’s estate. Documents in the deceased’s property may help with information relating to the estate, for example bank statements. As set out in section 2, it is important that for any property search local authorities ensure that, on the basis of legal advice, they are satisfied they have grounds for entry. It is good practice to have a local search policy which sets out how the searches will be conducted safely, and how possessions and any cash found in the property will be stored.
Funeral expenses are the first charge on the estate and have priority over other liabilities with the exception of secured debts (e.g. mortgages), and local authorities can approach banks or other asset holders to settle, or seek reimbursement of, the funeral account. Many banks and building societies have dedicated bereavement teams who can support this process, and some provide a service in local branches, where funds will be released upon presentation of relevant paperwork such as a copy of the death certificate and proof of eligible payments.
The Bona Vacantia Division of the Government Legal Department administers the solvent estates of people domiciled in England or Wales who appear to have died without leaving a valid will or relatives entitled to share in their estate in priority to the Crown. Where local authorities believe this is the case, cases should be referred as soon as possible.
After an estate referral has been accepted and advertised on their website for approximately 90 days, if no entitled relatives have come forward, Bona Vacantia will then be able to receive invoices detailing a breakdown of any funeral and admin costs, along with confirmation if any of these have already been settled, for example from the bank.
Guidance on referring estates, and on who is eligible for any estate where the deceased has not left a will is available on GOV.UK. Local authorities can also contact Bona Vacantia to discuss whether they should refer a particular estate.
Bona Vacantia cannot deal with any estate that is considered insolvent, which includes any estate worth less than £500 once the liabilities have been paid. In this scenario, local authorities can seek to recoup costs through the relevant bank or building society, or through any assets held by the deceased.
Where a will or estate is discovered after the funeral
In these cases, local authorities can attempt to recoup the costs associated with delivering the funeral through the administrator of the estate.
Section 7: administrative considerations
This section sets out administrative matters local authorities may wish to consider when devising and implementing any policies or arrangements for public health funerals.
Written policy on public health funerals
It is helpful to have a written policy on public health funerals which can be shared publicly on the local authority’s website. Local authorities may also wish to consider making the information available in a range of formats, so it is accessible to all groups, for example individuals for whom English is not their first language, and braille for individuals who are blind or partially sighted.
It is good practice to review the policy annually, although it could be appropriate to review more regularly in line with local circumstances, or in the event of a pandemic or significant risk to public health.
In any policy, it is helpful to include:
- Explanation of the circumstances in which a funeral will be offered.
- How to notify the local authority of a death which may require a public health funeral, including contact details.
- Local arrangements for a public health burial or cremation and the features of any service (if offered) – including the approach to considerations related to religion or belief. It may be helpful to consult local faith organisations as part of this process.
- The timescales for each step of the process from notification of the possible need for a public health funeral to the committal and any post-funeral arrangements (see below).
- What the local authority is not responsible for and will not be included in any arrangements.
- Details of any arrangements for hospitals - NHS Trusts should develop their own policy which takes into account their local authority protocol, working together to ensure a respectful burial or cremation as efficiently as possible.
As part of this work, it may also be helpful to develop standardised letters for different processes (for example, to request a final decision from the next of kin), or forms (for example, for consent from the next of kin).
When devising any policy on public health funerals, it is helpful to include target timescales for each step in the process to help to protect public health, ensure dignity for the deceased and provide clarity for the next of kin.
The timeframes for each step of the process will need to be set by the individual local authority based on their own policies and local circumstances. It is important that any pre-funeral timescales take into account guidance from the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) on body storage. The HTA advises that bodies should be moved into frozen storage after 30 days in refrigerated storage if there is no indication that they are soon to be released for a public health funeral, or further examined (or before that point, depending on the condition of the body). This is to minimise the risk of deterioration of the condition of the body. Local authorities or funeral directors will therefore need to ensure there is appropriate available storage when setting any timescales.
It is good practice to consider the deceased’s faith or beliefs when creating or adjusting timescales.
Where a coroner is involved, burial or cremation cannot take place until the body is released.
Selecting a funeral director
Some local authorities have established their own funeral director function, and others have entered into contracts or arrangements with funeral directors to administer public health funerals on behalf of the local authority.
If contracting a funeral director, this will need to be procured in line with local authority procurement rules appropriate to the value of the contract in order to ensure value for money. It is also helpful to have fixed review points for the arrangements.
It may be helpful to provide local care and nursing homes with details of the contracted funeral director, to avoid another funeral director being contacted in the event of a potential public heath funeral death.
From the point of referral, it is important that comprehensive records of all public health funerals are kept. It is helpful to include details of any work to locate next of kin, any costs incurred and the funeral arrangements.
It is recommended that the deceased records be maintained for a minimum of 10 years. However, under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as implemented under the Data Protection Act 2018, personal data, such as next of kin details, should not be kept for longer than it is needed. When data is no longer needed in accordance with any retention requirements, it should not continue to be kept and should be securely destroyed.