What happens to the homeless when they die?

As the winter chill bites and the number of homeless in Britain has risen for seven consecutive years, Remember Me researcher, Dr Yvonne Inall, asks what becomes of those who die in a state of homelessness.

The number of homeless people in Britain has been on the increase for the past seven years. Crisis UK reports that average life expectancy for homeless persons is just 47. When someone has lost everything, and their social support networks have collapsed completely, what happens to them when they die?

When a homeless person dies, unsurprisingly, their death becomes a public health matter. From a purely legal perspective, under Section 46 of the 1984 Public Health Act, local authorities have a duty to bury or cremate any dead body found within their area, if no other arrangements for disposal of the body are being made. This means that homeless persons, persons who die without any known living relatives, or whose relatives cannot or will not make arrangements, all fall under the Act and become the responsibility of the local authority to dispose of. In a strict legal sense there is no obligation for the local authority to provide these persons with a public funeral service. Nor do they have any specific requirement about what should be done with the cremation ashes. Local authorities also have the right to attempt to recover the costs of disposal from the deceased estate or any person who was “liable to maintain” the deceased prior to their death. All of this sounds, and is, very legalistic and impersonal. However, in practice, local authorities do endeavour to accord the deceased with a measure of care and dignity.

Here in Hull, if the body of a homeless person is found, it will be taken to the City Mortuary at Hull Royal Infirmary. Staff at the Mortuary will contact Bereavement Services at the local Crematorium. Bereavement Services then work closely with the Coroners, who may be called upon to investigate the cause of death. Bereavement Services attempt to find out who the deceased person was, whether they have any surviving family, and, whenever possible, find out what the deceased person’s wishes may have been. If there are documents that specify burial would be preferred to cremation, then the local authority will request burial. If no information about a preference for funerary treatment can be found, then the person will be cremated. Fortunately, in Hull Bereavement Services reports that it is very rare for a person to pass away with no identifiable next of kin. If the next of kin are found, they take over arrangements and the responsibility for ‘disposing’ of the body.

Do homeless persons get funerals?

While there is no legal requirement to provide recipients of Public Health Funerals with a funeral service, most local authorities do provide some kind of funeral service. In Hull, the deceased is placed in a regular coffin and transported from the Mortuary to the Crematorium in a private ambulance (rather than a hearse) provided by a funeral director who has been engaged for the service. Services, which consist of some music and a reading of the Lord’s Prayer by staff, are held in the Crematorium chapel. The service is ‘closed’ meaning that members of the public do not attend, so that the funeral director and Crematorium staff are often the only people present. Following the service the body is cremated and the ashes are later scattered in the Garden of Remembrance. The place where the ashes were scattered is recorded.

How are homeless persons remembered or memorialised?

Despite the lonely nature of Public Health Funerals, homeless persons are part of a community, and their deaths rarely go unnoticed. Spontaneous, temporary memorials sometimes appear to mark the death, and evoke the memory of departed homeless persons. One such memorial appeared in Hull in April 2016. Offerings of flowers, soft toys and chocolates were left in the doorway where this individual regularly sheltered, along with a photograph.

Homeless Memorial2
Memorial to a homeless person who had died. Hull city centre, April 2016. Photograph copyright Nick Evans.
Homeless Memorial - blurred
Detail of memorial to a homeless person who has died. Hull city centre, April 2016. Photograph copyright Nick Evans.

The homeless exist on the periphery in life and in death, but they are remembered and attempts are made to accord them a measure of dignity in their passing.

Feature Image: Homeless man asleep outside shop, by Allan Warren, used under creative commons license.

Dr Yvonne Inall holds a PhD in History from the University of Hull. She is  assisting Dr Malcolm Lillie with the long durée component of the Remember Me Project: ‘Deep in Time: Meaning and Mnemonic in Archaeological and Diaspora Studies of Death’.

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