“I RECEIVED a funeral call at the manse from a local undertaker: ‘There’s been a death in your parish, the body was found after a few days. The neighbours say that the person kept themselves to themselves and they’ve never seen anyone going in or out of the house for years so there’s not likely to be any family. Would you be willing to do the funeral?’”
These are the words of the Moderator Designate of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as he reflects on the rise of so-called “pauper funerals”.
Reverend Dr Derek Browning, minister at Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh, reacted to what he describes as a “trend that is part of an epidemic of loneliness” after it emerged there had been a 24 per cent rise in such funerals over the last four years.
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It is thought the rising tide of loneliness combined with the soaring cost of burials and cremations is contributing to more and more councils meeting the cost of funerals where there is no family to take responsibility for the ceremony.
Research by the Stirling Citizens Advice Bureau shows a total of 549 “paupers funerals” were carried out in 2015, a rise of a quarter from 2011.
It also showed burial costs varied by up to £1,552 between councils and the bureau called for a review of costs and a standard national price.
Writing on the subject, Rev Browning said: “Sadly, standing alone by the coffin of a stranger is an experience most Church of Scotland ministers can relate to. I’ve always believed it important to respond with a definite ‘yes’ to a request for a funeral. I’ve done a number of these as a parish minister serving in Cupar and Edinburgh. They take the same amount of thought and care as a funeral where the church or crematorium is packed.
“From the faith perspective, whether the person who has died is mourned by hundreds or no-one, my first thought is ‘here is a child of God. Here is a person who was held in a mother’s and father’s arms. Here is a person who laughed and cried. Here is a person who was unique.
“Here is a person who will have dealt with the struggles of life, and maybe found them easier or more difficult because of the circumstances of how they chose to live, or found themselves living. But here is a human being.
“Over the years, I have wondered if the rise in number of these deaths is symptomatic of contemporary culture’s emphasis on the individual. Are we seeing what happens to humans if they are not supported and included and noticed in community?
“Taking the funeral for someone who has no obvious family or friends to help with arrangements is a tough call. I recall times when I’ve been at the crematorium with only the undertaker and the crematorium attendant present with me.
“There is the same amount of respect and consideration shown in the conduct of even this simplest of funerals. It is a healthy reminder that sometimes fewer words can say more. I mark the birth and living and death simply, and give thanks for the words said and actions done by this person that brought something good into the world.
“As a Christian, as I say goodbye to that person, the simple reality of commending the person who had died into God’s hands remains powerful and moving. It’s a privilege to be there.”