Britain’s funeral backlog: ‘Dad’s body was left in the freezer like a piece of meat’

·5 min read
Jackie Sewell had to wait almost a month for her father Kenneth's death certificate - Jeff Gilbert
Jackie Sewell had to wait almost a month for her father Kenneth's death certificate - Jeff Gilbert

After Jackie Sewell’s father Kenneth died this April, she felt sadness tinged with relief that, aged 93 and riddled with dementia, his suffering had finally come to an end, and she hoped the funeral would give her a chance to reflect on his life and heal.

Yet a ceremony would not be imminent, she quickly discovered, because register offices near her father’s Hampshire home were so busy that she faced a month-long wait for an appointment to get his death certificate.

Without it, the funeral home could not embalm his body. “It had to go into cold storage like a piece of meat,” says Jackie, 64, from Lymington, Hampshire. “I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t grieve. You can’t think of anything else because, in the back of your mind, your father is in a deep freeze. This isn’t fair on the living, or the people who’ve passed away.”

Not so long ago, a typical wait from a loved one dying to being laid to rest was between one and two weeks. Now, the average time between death and funeral is 22 days. “In some parts of the UK there are currently much longer waits,” says Deborah Smith of the National Association of Funeral Directors, “with some families waiting five weeks or more to say goodbye to a loved one.”

The delays are partly down to excess deaths putting pressure on the system. Last month the Office for National Statistics data revealed hundreds more people are dying each week in England and Wales, with only around 10 per cent of excess deaths caused by Covid and experts fearing illnesses neglected during the pandemic may be behind the surge. The heatwave appears to have also caused a spike in excess deaths.

Staffing shortages have led to delays in bodies being released by coroners and deaths being registered by authorities, and perversely, the end of the pandemic has complicated the problem. The 2020 Coronavirus Act allowed the digital transmission of forms and for people to register a death without attending a register office in person to pick up a paper certificate. But the Act expired this March, leaving an archaic system creaking under strain.

“The fact that grieving people are forced to navigate a paper-based appointment system, designed more than a century ago, to register the death of a loved one, can be cruel,” says Smith. “Delays in holding funerals, for whatever reason, are extremely distressing for bereaved families.”

Unless a coroner is involved, an appointment should be made to register a death within five days, for which a family member needs a doctor’s certificate citing the cause of death.

After Jackie Sewell’s father died on April 22 his care home in Sway, Hampshire, contacted Co-op funeral services whose local representative acquired the paperwork from Kenneth’s GP before contacting local register offices. “She came back saying the first available appointment to pick up the certificate was 20 May,” says Jackie. This meant the body had to be kept in cold storage. “It wasn’t her fault – she was lovely – but I was horrified. I would have liked to have seen him, to have said a final goodbye.”

The funeral was held on 18 May: flowers were laid on his coffin, before the family toasted him with champagne. “It was exactly as dad would have liked, but it should have happened a lot earlier.”

A spokesperson for Hampshire County Council said: "Registration services across the country experienced unprecedented demand in the first three months of 2022 following two years of pressures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They added that this was due in part to a higher number of people wanting to get married following the lifting of Covid restrictions, a move back to in-person registration appointments since national restrictions ended and the removal of other Covid-related procedures, alongside a high level of staff sickness due to Covid-19. “In some cases, this has led to longer waiting times for appointments, and we apologise for any distress or inconvenience this may cause. In Hampshire, the average time for an appointment to register a death is currently under five days."

Even before the pandemic, a rising population had led to a shortage of burial plots. One 2013 study found that a quarter of England’s local authorities, which oversee most cemeteries, expect those they managed to be full by 2023. “Some cemeteries in Manchester, for example, now only offer one burial slot per day,” says a spokesperson for one funeral services company, who didn’t want to be named. “We have also seen this in Lambeth which is a location with high demand.”

They attribute most delays to government budget cuts and staff shortages. “For example, in the past there would have been one grave digger per cemetery in a busy location. However, in some cases, there is now one covering a whole district.”

When a coroner is required for those who have died suddenly or unexpectedly, the process “is contributing to delays of more than a month and sometimes much longer,” says Smith. She believes greater use of digital post mortems that use high-resolution scans to determine cause of death, instead of cutting the body open, could speed up the process. “A funeral date cannot be finalised until the deceased person is released by the coroner. The longer they remain with the coroner, the less likely it will be that the family will be able to spend time with their loved one when they are finally released to the care of the funeral home.”

Tracey Llewellyn's father, Kenneth Brookfield
Tracey Llewellyn's father, Kenneth Brookfield

Tracey Llewellyn was also affected by the funerals backlog when her father died on 17 June. The family weren’t able to hold the funeral until 21 July. “I felt awful, and my mum was in floods of tears,” says Tracey, 53, a watch specialist from London. “The funeral home said the delay was due to a lot of people dying because they hadn’t been treated for non-Covid-related illnesses during the pandemic.”

They were able to visit the body at the funeral home’s chapel of rest as they awaited his cremation, but says the experience was upsetting and has made it harder to grieve. “A funeral is cleansing, and a cremation essential to come to terms with what had happened.”