PICTURE the scene: The man in black cuts a lonely figure at the chapel. A simple, yet dignified bouquet of flowers sits atop the coffin.

The funeral directors bow their heads with respect. But there’s no sea of colour with floral tributes, no family, no friends and no acquaintances tearfully saying goodbye to their loved one.

The one person dressed in black is a council official who has been tasked with organising the so-called pauper’s funeral or, in officialdom, public health funeral.

It is a sad reality across the country and our councils are no exception.

In Southend, the council was asked to assist with 41 of these public health burials last year. Of these, the council organised 22 funerals and either found a next of kin or put other arrangements in for the other 19.

Since April 2020 the council has already been asked to assist with 53 public health burials. The council has arranged 16 funerals.

Now, Southend Council is taking steps to ensure “paupers’ funerals” become more dignified. In addition, the council wants to make it easier for families of people who die with no funds to cover their funeral.

Under current laws every council in the country has a duty to dispose of the body of someone who dies within their boundaries, where there are no relatives or friends willing or able to pay take on the funeral costs. This is largely a public health service rather than a social care issue.

These public health funerals include the basic elements of a funeral: transportation of the body from the morgue to the crematorium or cemetery as well as the physical disposal of the body.

They do not include any type of religious service or any extras such as music, viewings of the body or death notices. In some cases the next-of-kin are not even allowed to attend the funeral and if they want to retrieve their loved ones’ ashes they are often required to pay a fee.

But Southend Council has now voted to adopt recommendations by the Public Health Act Funeral Policy, which will see a short ceremonial service by a religious minister or celebrant included in the funeral from now on. The council will also allow the family of the deceased to attend the funeral and to take the ashes for free.

The council is going above what it is legally required to do in order to make public health funerals in Southend more dignified. The proposal was backed by Southend Council’s cabinet.

Martin Terry (Ind, Thorpe Ward) and cabinet member for community safety and customer contact said: “The hallmark of a civilised society is that we look after the vulnerable people and those less well off all through their lives and we should also look after them at the end.

“At the moment, in particular, there are a lot of unplanned deaths - way above the average because of the pandemic - and people are struggling to pay for funeral costs which can go up to £6,000, so I think this is a very good thing for us to do.”

The council estimates the extra cost of providing the religious service by the graveside or in the crematorium chapel at a PHF will be £4,000 a year on top of the existing costs of paying for the public health funerals.

The average cost of a PHF can be £1,200-£2,000 depending on the circumstances. It will also mean a council officer spending one extra day a week dealing with PHF matters. Since April 2019 the council has also had to absorb the responsibility of paying for funerals of patients with no next of kin who die at Southend Hospital.