Blog Archives: January 2009

Funeralcare screwupdate

Thursday, 29 January 2009

I’ve blogged about Co-op Funeralcare screwups in the past. I have been critical and it has unsettled people. We all screw up sometimes; to err is human. Be a little kinder, people have said (cos remember, you screw up sometimes, too, yes?)


Of course. And I hope I come out with my hands up. But that’s not the point.


Funeralcare, by having derecognised the GMB trade union, is arguably in breach of its foundational principles. Can it therefore claim to be an ethical organisation, of and for the people? I think not. Have I given Funeralcare an opportunity to refute these allegations and wash its clean linen in public? Yes. Frequently.


Silence.


People write and ring and tell me of their awful experiences of Co-op funeral homes. Where there’s a potential law suit to bring I refer them to Teresa Evans. She’s handling a case at the moment.


And, of course, I keep an eye out for the sort of bungling incompetence which looks as it proceeds from systemic poor practice. Here are two examples, both from the Wirral.


In 2006 a widower, Alfred Hutton, went to visit his wife in a Funeralcare funeral home. He found the wrong body in the coffin, dressed in his wife’s clothes. The staff tried to convince him he was mistaken. He knew well enough: the body in the coffin had a full head of hair; his wife had lost hers to chemotherapy. The funeral home only conceded that Mr Hutton was right when the rest of his family came in and agreed with him. Funeralcare then tried to blame the hospital for mixed-up wristbands but the truth came out. Funeralcare waived the bill and claim the matter was settled “amicably”. What an extraordinary adverb. Here’s how Mr Hutton sees it: “Mistakes of this scale are totally unacceptable and cause unbearable stress and anger to families for years after.


The second example happened on 12 December 2008. Funeralcare staff buried the wrong body. The vicar was sure it was the wrong body, the name on the coffin lid was wrong, but the funeral director said the man had two names. Later that day Funeralcare realised the vicar was right. They summoned extra staff, rushed the right body in its coffin to the burial ground and, having illegally exhumed the wrong one, plonked it in the grave without a funeral ceremony of any kind. The rescued (or wrong) body was given a second funeral a few days later and cremated. The scandal came to light when a Funeralcare staff member’s conscience got the better of him and he confessed to the vicar, who later performed a funeral ceremony for the buried body. Again, Funeralcare settled the matter “amicably” (where on earth do they get that word from?).


If Funeralcare, and the Co-ops generally (there may be exceptions) were proud of what they do and the way they do it they’d proclaim their ownership of every undertaking business they buy out (often with stupid money). They don’t. They hide their name behind that of the original owner. It deceives people.


What does that tell you?


Read the full stories in the Wirral Globe here and here.


Search this blog archive for other F-care screwups.

The dead belong to their people

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

In the United States, Thomas Lynch, sage, poet, writer and undertaker, has been denounced by industry watchdogs the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) and the Funeral Ethics Organization (FEO). Both of these organisations exist to protect consumers, expose malpractice, shame shysters and explore ways in which funerals can be cheaper and more meaningful. Both organisations are keen for families to reclaim funerals from funeral directors. You could sum up their philosophy like this: ‘We deal with death by dealing with our dead.’

The Good Funeral Guide supports all of these objectives wholeheartedly.

What are the watchdogs saying about Tom Lynch? In essence, they are saying that he is “vocal against families caring for their own dead.”

Lisa Carlson of the FEO says: “Tom Lynch has stated to me personally that he will lobby against [a] change [in the laws] that would allow families to care for their own dead without a funeral director.”

Wendy Lyons of the Funeral Consumers Information Society is campaigning in Tom’s state of Michigan for the repeal of a 2006 law mandating that the handling and disposition of a body “shall be under the supervision of a person licensed to practice mortuary science in this state.” She wants the state to “enact a law protecting the rights of families and faith communities to care for their dead without assistance from a funeral director.”

What’s all this got to do with us in the UK? A heck of a lot. No one has written with more intelligence and humanity about death and its rituals than Tom, nor more quotably. No one, arguably, is more influential. If we find out now that he is nothing more than a money-grubbing fraud our disillusionment will leave us feeling grievously foolish and terminally dismayed.

I asked him what this was all about.

First, that 2006 law. It was brought in after some abusive parents burned the body of their child. The state now requires that someone supervise the handling, disposition and disinterment of a dead person, someone, in Tom’s words, “having some oversight, some witness to the verity of who died, of what, and what was done with the corpse … In our state of Michigan the occupational group charged with collecting and registering these vital statistics and medical certification is licensees in mortuary science … an occupational class which it licenses and regulates”

Tom goes on to say (and I include this exclusively for its word-music): “In Milford we can’t burn leaves in the autumn, bury our trash in the back yard, drive an unlicensed vehicle or tend to the duties of our toilet in public.  Nor can we hunt squirrels, coyotes, deer or dogs in town.  “We the people” have made our laws, on these and a million other matters.  Including the dead.”

Does this give Tom a stranglehold over families who would wish to care for their dead themselves?

I put it to him. “Would I,” I asked, “in the State of Michigan, be able to keep [my dead wife, Sharon,] with me and tend to her and take her to her place of final dissolution (earthly or fiery) without the intervention of a funeral director except in an administrative capacity as the envoy of the state government? Would I be able to engage a funeral director in a consultative capacity to drop in, say, twice a day and deal with the stuff that’s coming up out of her nose, but stay his hand in matters I wanted him to keep out of?”

Tom’s reply: “What you describe as what you want for you and your Sharon, and the partnership or collaboration that you have control over with the funeral director, is PRECISELY allowed under the law and ENCOURAGED (right word) by me and everyone who works with me.”

What that 2006 law means is that (Tom’s words) “any legal next of kin may make any decisions about handling, possessing, burying, burning, scattering, disinterring a body, and is not prevented from doing so at their own home, in their own style, at their own pace, with their own people … It DOES NOT MEAN that only a funeral director may handle or dispose of a body.  It only means that a funeral director must supervise.  What level of oversight might be involved is up to the agreement between an individual family and the individual funeral director. ”

Wendy Lyons says there’s a human rights issue in this. Can’t see it, Wendy.

There’s an insane irony here. It is this. The watchdogs and Tom share, mostly, the same values. All of them want to help families to hold funerals which accord best with their wishes and values. That phrase about dealing with death is Tom’s, not theirs.

Let’s hand the microphone to Tom: “I’m the one, after all, who has preached for thirty-five years that OURS IS A SPECIES THAT DEALS WITH DEATH BY DEALING WITH OUR DEAD.  And that part of the funeral director’s job is to embolden families to do all that they can themselves.  But you are right, some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all.  Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”

I rather think that admirers of Tom can come out from behind the sofa. If you’ve yet to read him, read him.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The world of death has given birth to very few websites of any value or beauty. Most undertakers are technodunces; many do not even rise to email.

What’s more, there is very little discussion of death and dying going on in this country (the UK) just now. I have far more responses to this blog from the New World than from the Old. Wake up, Blighty! Wake up, Natural Death Centre!

If one were to award a prize to a deathly website – let’s call it the Good Funeral Guide Website of the Year Award – one would award it unhesitatingly to green fuse. Full marks for design, clarity, navigability and overall loveliness. Honourable Mentions to The Green Funeral Company and Family Tree.

The Best Read Award goes just as unhesitatingly to the Suffolk Humanists and Secularists. This is a cheat, really, because this site is not dedicated exclusively by any means to mortality. But what it says about funerals is written with such a marvellous blend of matter-of-factness and emotional good sense that you don’t stop there. The design is superb, too.

It also contains a brilliant celebratory masterstroke, a card you can (if you are godlessly inclined) download, print off and send to your atheistical friends on Darwin Day. I love it.

Go get it.

Habeas corpus

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

I was emailed last night by someone who wants to visit their dead parent at the undertaker’s. The undertaker won’t make an appointment. The client thinks the undertaker is prevaricating. The undertaker tells the client that the customary time to visit a dead person is the day before the funeral. This is not soon enough for the client. The email concludes with the client asking me what their rights are.

Leaving aside the matter of rights (it’s quite clear what they are), anyone who knows how the funeral industry works will know what’s probably going on here. Let’s hazard a guess.

The undertaker is part of a chain operating out of a satellite branch. The dead parent is not, as the client may fondly suppose, at that branch. No, the parent is in a central mortuary some distance away with, perhaps, a hundred other bodies from other satellite branches. It’s difficult for the undertaker to arrange for the body to be brought to the satellite branch because businesses of this size operate with the fewest staff they can. At this busy time of the year it is impossible to find spare manpower to bring the parent out to the satellite.

Perhaps

The bigger the business, the more incapable it becomes of flexibility and, therefore, of personal service. There ought to be a trade-off here. The big businesses, with their car pools and central mortuaries and staffing rotas to keep everyone frantically busy, enjoy economies of scale which ought to enable them to undercut their competitors. But that’s not the way it works. Economies of scale are not passed on to the consumer. In the case of, say, Dignity that’s not surprising. They’re in it for the money. Their shareholders expect. In the case of Co-operative funeral homes, however, there’s a case to answer.

Let us not deplore this state of affairs too loudly. It is because the big beasts, the Dignitys and Co-ops, charge so much that the little independent businesses are able to thrive despite their higher overheads. Not only are they able to thrive, they are even able to undercut the big beasts. The law of the jungle is not working here. Long may it not.

I decided to find out how widespread is this practice of deterring people from visiting their dead (‘viewing’ as they call it in the trade, a peculiarly repellent word). I made some phone calls and asked undertakers how much notice they required. Here are my results.

Co-op Funeralcare, Aylesbury: Later the same day.

Arnold Funeral Service, High Wycombe (independent): None. Walk in off the street. If the chapels of rest are full you may have to wait for up to an hour or so.
Midlands Co-op, Stirchley, Birmingham: None, but best to ring first.
Henry Ison and Sons, Coventry (independent): None – unless busy.
R Morgan, Dudley (a satellite branch of Dignity): Will try to make an appointment for you to visit when you make your funeral arrangements. All bodies stored in a mortuary in Birmingham where they are embalmed (optional), washed, dressed and coffined. You can visit before the body goes to the mortuary: they will put a dead person on a trolley and make him or her as presentable as possible.
T Hadley, Halesowen (independent): None – unless busy.
T Broome and Sons, Baguley, Manchester (United Co-op): Prefer appointments but around an hour’s notice usually enough.
Haven Funeral Services, London (independent): None
Co-op, Hammersmith: None, but prefer you to make an appointment when you make arrangements and hope that’ll be the day before the funeral.
AW Lymn, Nottingham (many satellite branches): None. All bodies kept at city centre mortuary, or at Long Eaton. Either pop down there, or the body can be sent up to the satellite. They have a bed with quilt if you prefer that to visiting your dead person in a coffin. If they’re really busy and no one’s available to drive a body out to a satellite, “management will step in and do it.” Oh yeah? “YES!”

I stopped ringing. The picture is clear enough. Small, independent funeral homes are very responsive. Members of chains aren’t, with the exception of Lymn’s, quite so willing: most would rather tie you down to an appointment made when you make funeral arrangements. That’s a heck of a lot of big decisions to make in a very short time!

My emailer’s undertaker would appear, thankfully, to be a rare exception.

While ringing round I made a discovery I ought to have made ages ago about transparency of ownership. This is a debate which rages and will go on raging. When a big beast buys out an independent it goes on trading under the old name in which all the good repute is tied up. There’s nothing unusual about this. No one demands that Harrods change its name to Al Fayeds. But in the case of a funeral home it can be misleading to those who are looking for an independent funeral director.

Here’s a scenario. Someone has died and I am looking for an independent, family undertaker close to me in Moseley. What do I do? I google funeral director birmingham moseley. What do I get?

Funeralsearch.co.uk tell me about N Wheatley and Sons. Good-oh! So does zettai.net. And fastfinders.co.uk. And 192.com. And uk.local.yahoo.com. And yell.com. And businessclassified.com. And cylex-uk.co.uk. And sheriffratings.com.

That’s only for starters. There’s oodles of help on the internet. But what none of these sites tells me is that N Wheatley and Sons is, actually, in the ownership of the Midlands Co-operative Society.

I need to know that.

Evansabove

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

In December 2006, Boyd Evans, 20, a talented, stylish, popular hairdresser, died after a car crash along with his partner, Nathan.

 

Boyd’s mother, Teresa, set about trying to get his clothes and things back: “I had wanted every last thing close to Boyd in his last moments.” The hospital prevaricated, then told her they had been disposed of. Later, after Boyd’s funeral, Teresa discovered that the undertaker had stuffed a bag containing Boyd’s bloodied clothing, together with she knows not what else, underneath him in his coffin. Thus was he buried.

 

Outraged, Teresa sued. Eventually she prevailed. The experience has forged her into a campaigner for consumer education, consumer rights and funeral reform. She is an unstoppable force, a thorn in many sides. She is presently laying down challenges to an array of government bodies, demanding a joined-up approach to consumer education and empowerment. She is challenging the status quo where funeral directors – whom she implacably calls funeral undertakers – may ply their trade unregulated and self-policed – this in a country where you have to have a licence to run a cattery. In any case, she says, ”Should it not be the bereaved that ‘direct’ the funeral?” It is the bereaved who are the funeral directors. The undertakers – “labourers in suits” she calls them – are their servants.

 

Teresa says: “Whilst I hope that there are many funeral undertakers that serve the public well, there are also many, I am sure, that forget that they are a service to which they are paid and depict an arrogance that I was presented with…There is an apparent reluctance to explain to a potential client that they may conduct a funeral independent of a funeral undertaker.” I feel very proud when she goes on to say: “To date I have sourced one that is content to do so!” That one is my esteemed friend James Showers.

 

The law allows consumers far more rights than they may suppose. Teresa would have liked to collect the body of her son herself rather than give him up to strangers. All mothers, in particular, will know how she felt: this was her boy. She was given to suppose that only an undertaker can do that. Hospital bereavement staff customarily tell the bereaved that they must engage a funeral director.

 

Fact is, there’s nothing in law to compel you to acquiesce in surrendering the body of someone who has died to strangers. There is nothing to stop you, if you are the next of kin, from taking the body home with you, there and then, in your car, if you wish, yes, propped up in the passenger seat — so long as the coroner is happy. And, of course, you can conduct all the funeral arrangements yourself.

 

But I didn’t know until, earlier on this week, I talked to doughty campaigner John Bradfield, green and home burial pioneer, and learned that you don’t even have to dispose of that body. All you have to do is prevent it from becoming a public health hazard. The law is much, much more permissive than you might think, something officialdom would really rather we didn’t know.

 

Funeral professionals will, mostly, reckon Teresa a pest. Not all of them. Other people may be alienated by the intensity of her singlemindedness. But no one ever brought about change without possessing Teresa’s species of singlemindedness. I applaud her. She is a hero.

 

Find out more about Teresa’s experience and her campaign at her website, here. I’m pretty sure she’ll leave a comment, too.

Don’t trash the ash

Monday, 19 January 2009

There – just over there. See them? That conspiratorial huddle, furtive, watchful. Burglars? Satanists? What are they up to?

Chances are they’re only bereaved people waiting for the coast to clear before they can scatter some cremated remains.

It’s difficult to do that in public, openly. It might distress people. It’s not yet a socially okay thing to do.

But the impulse to scatter ashes in a place beloved of the personification of those ashes is strong and it is growing. And the chances are that the dead person’s favourite place was, at any given time, a favourite place of lots of other people, too.

The scattering of ashes is a ceremony often marked by awkwardness and secrecy. A pity.

It is also often done shamefacedly, in the wrong place. The adverse effect of ashes on the ecology of uplands is well attested, yet people go on doing it. Staff at Jane Austen’s cottage in Hampshire regularly encounter piles of ashes around the writer’s home and garden. This puts ash scattering right up there with dog fouling. It’s a poor way to commemorate someone, turning them into a bio-hazard. It’s not the sort of thing you’re going to feel good about.

There’s probably a very straightforward rule of thumb for choosing an appropriate location: if you can’t do it safely, openly and vocally, don’t.

The Observer ran a piece on this on Sunday. Read it here.

He died as a fool

Friday, 16 January 2009

One more post about how we should speak of and to our dead people.

All of us, probably, cling to the superstition that we should not speak ill of them — not too ill, anyway (just mildly critically, perhaps). To do so could have calamitous, possibly supernatural, consequences. Hush and awe hold us in their sway.

The YouTube clip above shows someone speaking very critically about a dead person — very critically indeed. How must his parents have felt?

I am indebted to Pam Vetter for pointing me to it. Thank you, Pam. How do you find them?!

Can’t act. Can’t dance. Can’t sing a little

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

A funeral is theatre. Yes? The protagonist is a dead person in a box who hogs centre stage and utters not a word of dialogue throughout. Unusual theatre as theatre goes, but theatre all the same, I think we can assert. To what genre does it belong? Tragedy, of course (for all that, in conventional tragedy, the protagonist waits till the end to die). But comedy, too, in many cases. Tragi-comedy. Tears and laughter, the essence of a good funeral. The essence of a good tragedy, too, come to think of it.
Woe betide anyone who tries to upstage the star of the show.
People delivering a tribute can easily fall into this trap. They talk about the dead person as someone who orbited their own life. This is how I felt about him/her; this is what he/she meant to me, did to me, said to me; I remember that time when… Me, me, I, I, me, me. Audiences don’t like that.
It puts one in mind of the occasion when a bowler, to his great glee, dismissed WG Grace first ball. WG refused to budge. In the face of the bowler’s remonstration, WG responded stonily: “They came to see me bat, not to see you bowl.”
A funeral is for the dead person and it is for those who mourn. But it is about the dead person and the dead person only. Minor characters are allowed, of course, but in peripheral roles only.
The other day I read a tribute which seemed to break this rule but which, paradoxically, did precisely the opposite. It was delivered at his mother’s funeral by blogger Abra Cadaver (how we wish we’d thought of that!). It is beautifully written and I commend it to you. It really is as good as it gets.

Read the entire post here.

Posthumous charisma

Monday, 12 January 2009

Photo by KQED QUEST on Flickr

Kathryn Flett wrote in this Sunday’s Observer about a funeral she went to. Her account is testimony to the value of a funeral. She says:

“The send-off was standing room only, with moving speeches, singing, essential tears, equally essential laughter and a cardboard eco-coffin covered in stickers and scrawled personal messages from family and friends which looked like the graffitied sarcophagus of a very cool king, which James was… is… remains… “

Sounds like a good one.

She goes on to reflect on the pulling power of funerals compared with the pulling power of other rites of passage — weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs. These latter it’s easy enough to invent an excuse to skive, and still keep a clear conscience. But the funeral of someone we love is an unmissable event. Why is it that we feel so drawn to a funeral? A mere sense of duty wouldn’t suffice.

Ms Flett brilliantly pinpoints it. The reason we go, she says, is because of our “need to connect to those who will understand,” a need, she adds, which is “not to be denied.”

Yes, that’s it!

She concludes:

“It is a cruel irony that we are, if we’re lucky, only likely to attract all the friends we’ve dreamed of gathering together under one roof when we’re not even there to witness it.”

It is somewhat of a crazy irony, too, if we have greater pulling power dead than alive. But doesn’t it just say everything about the value of a funeral?

Read the whole account here.
See George Melly’s coffin (and read about his funeral) here.

Louder than words

Friday, 9 January 2009

I’ve been mentoring a fledgling funeral celebrant. The occasion of her first funeral was quite an event. She had formed a relationship of warmth and trust with the wife of the man who had died and she had written a good tribute, full of personal touches. She is nothing if not a hard worker, and hard work is our only sure insurance policy against failure. I don’t know which of us was more nervous, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Afterwards, she reflected ruefully that the deliciously funny story she told had elicited no laughter. I reminded her that a funeral audience is like no other. Rarely at a funeral does anyone hang on your every word, sit on the edge of their seat and begin to chuckle well before you get to the punchline. People at a funeral tend to gaze at you in a way people only gaze when they’re at funerals. You can’t read their minds any better than they can read their own minds. The funeral gaze is a gaze suffused with multiple thoughts, crowded emotions.

We meet that gaze with words — fine words, meticulously crafted sentences, high thoughts offered up in exactly the right verbal wrapping. But sometimes it feels like pouring words into a void, only their sonorities serving, in some way, to create a sense of occasion.

Words target the brain, an organ in which, at many funerals, bitrate is low. Words have their purpose and, for certain tasks, no substitute. But they have their perils, too. Words are what we use to exert reasonableness and they tend to be reductive. A funeral is no time to be wholly reasonable. The heart, the senses, must also have their day.

Words can tell life stories and so, too, can a montage of photos set to music. Put them alongside each other and you’ve got a marriage made in heaven. Over in the US the DVD tribute is well established. In the UK its use is hampered by lack of multimedia equipment in crematorium chapels and by the time and expense involved in preparing one.

Which is why I have been delighted, this week, to stumble upon Animoto. What they offer is a stylish, cheap and rapid. You simply feed your pics and music into its software and, minutes later, the result is back with you. Click on the YouTube clip at the top to see how it works.

The Animoto website is incredibly helpful and easy to use. And you won’t just want to use it for creating funeral tributes, either. It’s fun! You can make videos of anything you want — a holiday, a day out, a birthday party — and post them on YouTube or Facebook. It’s addictive! I made one about the Isle of Portland. See how the photos move to the beat of the music. Watch it here.

Is it as good as a video crafted by a human? I discussed that with craftsperson Louise Harris over at Sentiment. She reckons the process does a good, basic job but, because it does not know what are the most important parts of the photos, fails to focus and linger on them and, thus, loses emotional impact. She reckons to spend a good few hours perfecting the way a photo moves.

I don’t know if Animoto is the future of the multimedia funeral tribute. It’s unquestionably not as good as a human. But I’m glad I found it and I urgently want to share it with you.

Page 1 of 212