Updated: Sep 13
The London Borough of Lambeth's bereavement services team are the first London Borough Council department to offer an affordable or "simple" funeral service for its community at West Norwood Cemetery and Crematorium - one of London's famous, historic "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries.
Renegade Production's creative lead Ciarán O'Fathaigh speaks with Jacqueline Landy, Lambeth's Bereavement Services Manager, about this initiative, the inspiration behind it and plans for the future.
The Simple Lambeth Funeral is a complete and affordable funeral service and Lambeth's Bereavement Service team provide the following under a single fee:
· Funeral arranging
This involves collection and care of the deceased, a service at West Norwood Crematorium Chapel as well as the cremation itself.
· Collection of the deceased in working hours
They will collect the deceased between 8am and 4pm Monday to Friday. If a collection out-of-hours is required, there is an out-of-hours number to call.
· Organisation of statutory medical papers if required
If statutory medical papers are required to release the deceased, the Bereavement Services team will liaise with the relevant medical or coroner personnel an manage the process.
· Provision a coffin suitable for cremation
The Bereavement Services team will also include a simple cofin approved for use in cremations
What they don't do:
· Hygenic treatment (embalm)
· Permit viewing of the deceased once in their care
· Organise ministers' booking fees - they will provide guidance if needed
· Convey the deceased anywhere other than the West Norwood Crematorium
· Bring the deceased into their care beyond a 10 mile radius - additional milage would apply
“You come to us, we'll help you arrange the funeral, we will go and get your loved one as soon as we can and we arrange the cremation, we fill in all the paperwork for you. If you go to see a funeral director, they do their bit, they help you fill in our bit, but then they have to call us to organise ... and we can refer you to registrars as well," says Jacqueline
"We're trying to build that relationship so that we can book appointments for you at the registrars. The Lambeth registrar is the busiest in the country so it's really hard to get an appointment. In fact, I've even looked into training registrars so that we can register deaths as an outpost, so you wouldn't have to go anywhere else.".
And in a wonderful continuation of history, this service is performed at one of London's fabled, Grade II listed "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries which were originally established to tackle the issue of London's dangerously overcrowded parish cemeteries during the first half of the 19th century - "to get to our crematorium, you travel through a Magnificent Seven and we're bang in the middle, on the hill."
One of the main drivers behind this initiative has been rising poverty driven by austerity and exacerbated by local government funding cuts.
"There are high levels of deprivation and many people struggle. If the unexpected happens, very few people can get their hands on 6k." says Jacqueline.
"I worked with a pawn broker who regularly came across people who would pawn their valuables in order to pay for funerals - sometimes for children – sometimes people couldn’t afford to bury their children."
"There are also people who come to us and say that they really want to take care of a funeral, but they can't afford it and they're not eligible for help from the DWP either ..." [The Department for Work and Pensions can in some cases offer a funeral payment]
The issue is wider than the ailing economy and/or peoples' financial situations though, and the Lambeth Sinple Funeral is distinct from a public health or a "pauper's funeral".
"Every local authority in the UK has a statutory duty to make arrangements for these so-called pauper’s funerals when a person has died in circumstances where the family is unable to be traced, or no funeral arrangements have been made for that person." – source, funeralguide.co.uk
Jacqueline explains, "The statutory public health function - so section 46 of the 1984 public health act, control of diseases - that's the only thing we can work from for a public health funeral. If someone dies, and there's no-one, it's the council's remit because, if I'm using old terminology, you have to dispose of the body before it presents a health issue.
"It does literally stem from Victorian times when people didn't dispose of the deceased properly. So obviously 1984 is a bit closer than Victorian times, but that's where it comes from, you can't have deceased lying around, so if nobody is around, then it will be referred to the council."
Public health funerals are completely stripped-back, impersonal, no-frills service provided by local authorities primarily for the purposes of public health ad hygiene - "When a council arranges a public health funeral, the person who has died will be provided with a coffin and the services of a funeral director to bear them to the crematorium or cemetery with dignity.
“[they] do not include flowers, viewings, obituaries or transport for family members. You cannot choose a funeral director or the date or time of a public health funeral. Burials may take place in an unmarked grave, known as a common grave, that may be shared with other people.
“Every local authority provides details about how they carry out public health funerals in their area and practices can vary. Councils have a responsibility for people who died within their boundary and may not take into account where the person had lived." - source funeralguide.co.uk
"Some councils manage it in their waste department,” explains Jacqueline.
“Some manage it in their public health department, some don’t have a public health department ... Lambeth up until I came on board in 2017 - it was managed through our waste department."
"We do interact with people with public health funerals, it isn't just a case of oh, they've got no-one, we don’t speak to anyone, we do, we speak to neighbours, we speak to social workers ..."
But there is a rising, nationwide issue with abandonment at the moment [covered in part by Francisco Garcia who interviewed Jacqueline earlier this year which was picked up by Vice] - "people can’t afford the funeral and they know that if they abandon the body, then we will deal with it."
Jacqueline felt that the community needed access to a means to a proper funeral service for their departed loved ones, "Less than 2 years ago, it got moved into cemeteries and crematoriums which is where I think it belongs anyway - I think it should sit with burial services - but we're rare, we're quite rare, a lot of them don't."
"I'd like to prove that I can balance the public health funerals with [the new service]," says Jacqueline.
"I get a really small budget and the numbers [of cases of abandonment] are going up."
Jacqueline explains that reasons behind abandonment and subsequent investigations can be a mixture of things - "it could be that someone's not identifiable, they could be a non UK national and we can't get hold of anyone back home or we can get hold of someone back home and there's no means to repatriate, it can be someone who's deliberately isolated themselves and it can be a family member that doesn’t want to take responsibility because a fractious relationship or an ex wife ... or it genuinely sometimes can be they really want to, but they can't, they really can't for whatever reasons, they might have mental health issues, money issues ... it's not always about money, it's not always about money .... but often ..."
And although Jacqueline is reticent about making this declarative herself, Lambeth is the very first borough council in the London and probably the UK to offer a complete, affordable, in-house funeral as a community service.
"The way that we're doing it is specific to Lambeth." she says.
"Cardiff offer it, but they don't offer it in-house, Bristol are looking into it, but they all engage funeral directors. Milton Keynes are looking into it as well, they're quite progressive ..."
"I don’t know what people are preparing behind closed doors, because the government is pushing funeral poverty as an issue and the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management which we adhere to, they've been asking our authorities to think about what they can do for the last year or so, so they’ve done a survey, they've actively encouraged people to bring it in house – I don’t think many people have got the skills to bring it in-house. Dealing with burials all day if someone’s in a coffin is not the same as dealing with a deceased – it’s really different.
"Funeral directors can't [rarely/do not] do cemetery and crematorium jobs and vice versa, so I'm quite lucky in that I have almost identical levels of experience in both."
Lambeth have been approached by a number of borough councils
When pushed, Jacqueine admits that initiative was her idea - "I explained to [my head of service] my background and one day I found out how they ran it and I said, 'I can do that'."
West Norwood Crematorium and Cemetery is also the only fully functional "Magnificent Seven" cemetery, "Kensal Rise has West London [crematorium] attached, but it's not quite the same and obviously all of them have ... as I've said before we're closed [space for graves is used up], but if someone has a grave opened, we have burials."
Take a look at some photos of the grounds, chapel and columbarium:
All photography by Renegade Productions
To get in touch to find out more:
website - https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/places/west-norwood-crematorium-and-cemetery telephone - 020 7926 7999
email - firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been edited since publication for clarity - the original, un-abridged interview transcript can be found here as a PDF >>