I’ve been researching the rise of ‘Pauper funerals’ in the UK.
Also called Section 46 funerals, these are burials that are paid for by the local authority when someone dies alone, with no known next of kin.
What struck me as I read through case studies, watched news articles and looked up Gazette postings, is that when these people died, they got more attention in a few weeks than they may have had in their entire lives.
These almost nameless, unknown people, often living in crowded streets where they spoke to no-one, saw virtually no-one. For years and years.
By chance (or sadly by smell) they are eventually missed, and discovered deceased in their homes.
Council officers visit to sift through personal letters and correspondence, try to find photographs, make connections. They try to get to know the deceased as a person, maybe even trace friends or family.
If no relatives are found, the local authority is responsible for disposing the bodily remains under the Public Health act.
The ‘pauper funeral’ can range from transporting the body in a van to be buried in an anonymous mass grave, to a more respectful and ceremonious committal. It’s usually a burial, as it’s cheaper than cremation.
But how difficult it is to say ‘goodbye’ to these elusive people, often the most shy and reclusive members of our society, when we’ve never really known how to say ‘hello’.
It was comforting to see ministers striving to find relevant and appropriate words to say at the simple ceremonies.
And to see council workers caring enough to attend the service so the ‘pauper’ wouldn’t be sent off alone.
In some cases the thoughtful neighbours even clubbed together to buy a few flowers, so at least one wreath could be laid.
But I wasn’t so sad at the manner of their lonely, austere deaths as I was at the thought of their (seemingly) lonely and anonymous lives.
The non-stories of their life stories.
Lives never properly begun?
I was particularly affected by the life — and death — of Malcom Horncastle, who lived in Leeds.
This much I know about Malcolm Horncastle.
He was born.
He lived in the same house as his parents until they died.
And then he lived in the same house, alone, until he died aged 64.
I know he rode a bike.
He was slim and had dark hair and was always clean shaven.
He used to work at a printers when he was younger.
He visited the local shop for groceries: it was the absence of shopping trips that eventually alerted his neighbours to see if he needed help.
Not one photograph exists of Malcolm Horncastle.
Read the above sentence again, because in a world of social media, smartphones and CCTV, it is worth a moment of thought.
Not one living relative is known.
We know that Malcolm’s life began.
And then it was over.
If I could, I’d love to know the real, true life story of Malcolm Horncastle.
I heard he was very shy.
Maybe something in life frightened him?
Maybe he had a traumatic childhood.
I worry that Malcolm may have perhaps been on the autistic spectrum (like my own son) and never learned to cope socially without mum and dad.
I can’t bear to think of him, year after year, just going through the motions of ‘life’. Summer. Winter. Summer. Winter.
The same. The same.
No one to mark his birthdays or Christmas. No one to share a meal with or talk to.
Or maybe he had a rich fantasy life and I’m worrying about nothing.
Maybe he had a cat.
Maybe he was happy with his own company.
I’d like to think that.
But I’ll never forget him now.
Find out the very little anyone knows about Malcolm Horncastle in this short film about Pauper funerals: The story of one man’s death
Giles Fraser in The Guardian must’ve thought this was a subject worthy of coverage too. He wrote something similar in Lest we forget