An anonymous end

MORE and more people are being buried without song or ceremony at the expense of the public purse, with few friends and family to mourn their passing.

Buried in anonymous plots, or their ashes collected by indifferent distant relatives, this is the meagre send-off for an increasing amount of people in Great Yarmouth.

But behind the statistics – which reveal a 50pc increase in the number of public burials over the last five years – are the sad stories of those left behind by the living.

For Jane Jackson, environmental health technical officer at Great Yarmouth Borough Council, the job of organising no-frills funerals can mean emptying gaping drawers full of loose paperwork, exposing letters that have not seen the light of day for years, and leafing through diaries and photo albums for fragments of information about the deceased, who to inform, and what sort of funeral to hold.

Sometimes this means combing through the debris and detritus of a life lived in utter squalor, with rubbish piled so high the emergency services have to tunnel their way in to find the source of the choking smell that was worrying neighbours – as happened in Great Yarmouth last year after a man in his 70s died and wasn’t found for weeks.

On other occasions it is a tidy search of neat rooms where family photographs sit simply on the mantle-piece, telling of ties long since loosened but still held dear.

Last year, Ms Jackson organised 14 such funerals, some of which were well attended, as in the case of the 95-year-old lady who had abundant friends at the old folks home where she lived, but whose nearest relative was a nephew in his 80s living in Devon.

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At others, she is the only person attending as a mark of respect.

For most of these people there are no hymns, flowers, wake or headstone to mark the person who lies beneath; just a simple but dignified funeral in line with what is known about their religious beliefs – Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Roman Catholics all having differing views on burial and cremation.

The recession, increased poverty and more families living apart – often as far as Australia – are thought to have contributed to the increase with up to 20 public burials carried out each year.

On the whole most of the people who die alone are over 50 and – adding to the sadness – living apparently detached lives in the midst of busy urban communities.

Ms Jackson said although her role combing through someone’s effects was sometimes onerous she gained a sense of achievement from building a picture of the deceased and doing her best for them.

Discovering relatives and friends who cared was always pleasing, as was finding money to pay for the funeral, unburdening local tax payers.

“There is satisfaction in finding a resolution and doing the last thing for somebody that someone will ever do.

“With very elderly people it could just be they have outlived everyone they know. It is not always really sad, and it’s not always that there is nobody at the funeral.

“They can be quite popular people. You find all sorts of collections, spectacles, TVs, tins of food and newspapers. Some people keep everything.

“It is a fascinating part of my job, and I do enjoy it.

“There are two that really upset me. One was an old chap and I was going through his diary and read his last entry which was something along the lines of how he didn’t feel well and he didn’t know what was wrong with him – and that he didn’t even have the energy to his washing-up.

“The other one is where people have not been found for weeks until the smell or amount of flies becomes too much.

“Overall, I try not to judge or to pry, and respect that people have differences. I am there to do a job but cannot help taking an interest because that is another human being’s life.”

The council estimates it recovers around 50pc of the funeral costs.

“We really are a last resort and it’s worth saying that if anyone is on benefits they can apply to the JobCentre Plus for a funeral payment,” she added.