The Good Funeral Guide Blog

On whose authority?

Monday, 1 February 2010

It’s an interesting fact that a funeral director can go to a hospital mortuary and collect a dead person to bring back to their funeral home on the verbal instruction of that dead person’s executor. That’ll be good enough for the mortuary. If a funeral director whom they’ve never seen before turns up, they may ask for proof that he or she actually is a funeral director. A letterhead will normally suffice. What the mortuary doesn’t ask for is written authorisation from the executor.

So far as I know, no one has ever collected from a mortuary a body to which they had no entitlement. Could a couple of Satanists in disguise go and get someone? I rather think they could. Please tell me I am wrong.

Teresa Evans runs a campaign whose object is to require public bodies to inform the public fully on all matters concerning bereavement. She wants their consumer rights and human rights to be properly respected.

She is presently researching this matter of authorisation, so I asked her to write something for this blog. If you want to respond, please do so in a comment below or direct to Teresa through her website.

A NHS Mortician unlawfully gave clothing worn by my son at his death to my contracted funeral undertaker who did not have my consent to collect these items.

The undertaker took it upon himself to bury the clothing, which he claimed was heavily blood stained, in a plastic bag beneath my son’s body in his coffin.

This experience has highlighted to me the necessity for funeral undertakers to produce a letter of authority that is specific to whatever personal property they might be collecting on behalf of their contracted party (the bereaved) from either a NHS Mortuary or a Public mortuary.

I seek to challenge that this practice be applied so to serve protection on public bodies within the NHS and the bereaved alike, and would welcome other people’s viewpoints.

2 comments on “On whose authority?

  1. Monday 4th April 2011 at 6:40 pm

    […] Back on 1 Feb 2010 I wrote a post which began: It’s an interesting fact that a funeral director can go to a hospital mortuary and collect a dead person to bring back to their funeral home on the verbal instruction of that dead person’s executor. It attracted a lively discussion. You can read it all here. […]

  2. Monday 4th April 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Here are all the comments on this post copied and pasted from Blooger whence this blog migrated.

    17 Comments:

    Armstrongs said…
    Hi Charles,
    Nick here. Hope you well.

    Most mortuaries in East Anglia now wont let us remove a deceased person unless we have a copy of the “green form” from the family which they receive when they register. This is to stop any funeral director, Satanists or even worse….the Co-*P turning up without the family’s instruction.

    1 February 2010 16:17
    Jnathan said…
    I’d like to think your’re wrong, Charles, but Satanists/Shipmanics/Bodysnatchers would have an easy time of it, in some places at least. I picked up the body release form and Form 6 (order for cremation) from the coroner, and then the body from a London hospital, with no more than an oral request from me, whoever I might have been in their eyes.
    All I had to know was the name of the deceased, and the way opened up for me.

    1 February 2010 17:10
    teresaevans25 said…
    Again here lies a problem with requesting that the funeral undertaker produces a ‘green form’ for collection of the deceased. First as there does not exist any property rights in a dead body a Trust cannot request that the Executor if there is one, or the next of kin produce a green form when collecting a body. The other is that because a Trust might ask to sight and an undertaker to produce a ‘green form’, this does not mean that the undertaker would be entitled to recover personal effects which once belonging to the deceased when ownership transfers to the next of kin or Executor to the estate.

    1 February 2010 18:14
    gloriamundi said…
    This seems to me yet another example of the clumsy, amateur and inadvertantly cruel way the formalities of death are dealt with in this country, and for all I know elsewhere. It seems that the administrative interests of whatever organisation – the state in the form of the registrar, the insurance comnpanies, the banks and other financial organisations, and sometimes (but happily, far from always) the funeral directors,are placed firmly in front of the needs and sufferings of bereaved people.
    Fortunately, there are some human beings in the systems who do what they can to mitigate its callousness. The brother of a woman who drowned told me that no praise was high enough for the way the police dealt with him, and he asked me to thank them at the funeral.
    I feel we should look at the experience of bereavement, in practical terms of the essential tasks, from the point of view of the bereaved, and re-design it. We need something more provisional, that can be corrected and tuned later if it’s inaccurate. We might start with the ridiculous demand that several organisations at once all require not a copy, but the original of the death certificate. This is a demand on people who are having to re-structure their emotional and practical lives, sometimes with no notice.
    I know people in schools are often over-worked, but the ultimate horror story recently was the woman who had to explain to a school that the reason for her daughter’s poor attendance record was that she had died two months previously. Two months, and now you write?? Well, said the school, when they apologised, the letter was generated by a computer. And unfortunately, they might have added, the system was designed by an emotional illiterate.

    1 February 2010 19:02
    Anonymous said…
    As an Anatomical Pathology Technician of long and varied experience (there is NO such thing as an “NHS Mortician”) I can assure you that in the Trust in which I work, we require either a release notice from HM Coroner, OR in the cases of non-Coroner’s cases; a release form signed by the next of kin, or ‘next friend’ – It is NOT a matter of just ‘anyone’ turning up at a mortuary and requesting to remove a deceased patient. Furthermore; it is NOT for the APT to decide to whom the belongings of the deceased are returned; nor is it desirable or practical to store or direct such belongings in any other direction. We use our utmost discretion apropos whether or not clothing is fit to be returned to the family, or whether any soiling is inappropriate for this to happen; in which case they are disposed of in an hygienic manner. Any suitably saved belongings MUST taken by the funeral director at the time they receive the deceased into their care (unless the N.O.K has expressly informed us otherwise) and they must enquire of the next of kin whether or not they wish such belongings to be returned to them, or disposed of. I would be interested in the complainants reasons for the objections published here (although the claimed manner of disposal; in the deceased’s coffin is most definitely NOT usual!) as it would appear to be an instance of the bereaved not understanding the processes of death, and thus, expecting all clothing to be returned in pristine condition regardless.

    1 February 2010 21:19
    teresaevans25 said…
    Dear Anonymous,
    I write to challenge your comments about such matters and considering that I have communicated with the Trust in question to my own complaint they have first admitted a common law breach for not handing property to me directly and apologise for the mortician that works for their Trust. Quite frankly I don’t believe you know what you are talking about.
    You need to check and research the law my friend and as you write anonymously I suggest you show yourself and what Trust you work for as I would be writing to them direct to challenge them too.
    No one other than the next of kin or the Executor to the deceased estate can make a lawful decision about what happens to property once belonging to the deceased. I believe that you are referring to the PRACTICE within the Trust that you work for…not what is lawful!
    It is attitudes such as your own that disables bereaved people. I imagine you to be one of the scare mongers that informs people that bodily fluids etc of the dead are more harmful to the living, than when the living were looking after the living and give the unscrupulous funeral undertakers ideas that they play such a vital role after death that bereaved people couldn’t possibly imagine looking after their own when death o

    1 February 2010 22:15
    Rupert Callender said…
    I think your anger at this technician is misplaced Teresa. While I agree that there is a certain amount of scaremongering that goes on about the risk of contamination from a dead body, certain viruses like Hepatitis C are thought to be active up for up to two months outside of the body. If you consider that HIV cannot last more than two minutes outside of a human host, this is extraordinary resiliant. We are facing a Hep C timebomb, with massive undiagnosed infection throughout the population as symptoms might not be felt for up to a decade or more after its contracted. It is thought that most new infections are not down to blood transfusion or intravenous drug use, but due to people sharing whatever they are using to snort cocaine, a habit so widespread that even the toilets in the House of Commons show traces.
    It is also my experience that mortuary technicians are skilled, empathic individuals doing an incredibly hard job in very difficult conditions for insufficient pay. They are nearly always local, which means they are dealing with neighbours, friends and relatives on an almost weekly basis. They treat the dead in their care with respect and caution, as well they should.

    2 February 2010 14:52
    Kathryn Edwards said…
    I feel very sorry that Ms Evans had such a distressing experience in the inherently upsetting context of her son’s death. All of a dead person’s possessions become poignant after they die, and clothing is such personal material. Placing the clothes in the coffin in this way sounds unusual and perverse, and certainly unhelpful. And it sounds as though the clothing being blood-stained is not entirely plausible to Ms Evans.

    I note Rupert’s comment about the need to avoid infection with robust and problematic viruses: there are certainly some (few) circumstances in which ‘health and safety’ should influence the handling of textiles. However, I’d also say there are some situations where no amount of rules, regulations and other formal protocols can take the place of compassionate common sense. Ideally, a FD would make it her/his business to check with the bereaved family for direction on any/all decisions that are to be made about a dead person’s body and possessions. A form-filling culture may turn out to be as unsatisfactory as an apparently insufficiently-regulated environment if it turns into a substitute for thoughtful, responsible, well-informed customer service.

    3 February 2010 00:16
    teresaevans25 said…
    I appreciate that I did come across a little angry in my response to the comments posted by Anonymous as I was, as it seemed apparent that my first post was being responded too in an arrogant manner. There is no need for this approach and if I have offended anyone I apologise for this.
    Anonymous suggests that it is not for anyone turning up at the mortuary to collect the deceased when in actual fact anyone can if they are taking responsibility for the funeral and paying for it as there is no property rule in a dead body. I imagine that this would be a rare instance but if a funeral undertaker who is not paying for the funeral and is contracted to collect on behalf of the NOK or Executor to the estate I suggest that that they submit a letter of authority to be specific what they are collecting in relation to property once belonging to the deceased if to prevent any misunderstandings or wrong assumptions being made about property issues.
    Whilst I would hope discretion is used in any Trust, applied discretion is a very different to making decisions and I believe that it is for no public body to make decisions for bereaved people. My view is supported in the Care and Respect guidelines produced by the Department of Health which unfortunately is not always adopted as seems apparent in the Trust where Anonymous works.
    It is not a case that I do not understand the process of death. I have lost 5 immediate family members to sudden and unexpected death and I am fully aware of how different Trusts apply different practice when dealing with property. When I lost my mother who died alone in a hospital in sudden circumstance I took receipt of her nightdress that was stained with faeces. Discretion was used when informing me of its condition and I made a decision to retain the nightdress as I had wanted everything close to my mother in her final moments of life.
    My experience with the undertaker took me on a route to explore what is lawful.

    Hepatitis C and transferring of body fluids – I have two friends who have this condition and it is my understanding that if blood is mixed with bodily fluids then the risk to infection exists. No one can contract the disease merely from body fluids alone. Many medical practitioners treat the living with Hep C and if the appropriate precautions are taken they are no more at risk treating them alive, than when they are dead. This surely applies to anyone else handling property whether employed by a Trust or a close relative? I am aware that there are many purveyors of falsehoods out there that have not really done their homework.
    One would hope that most morticians are empathetic, but to generalise is being optimistic or simply naive. With respect they are employed to do a job so if they are poorly paid do what others do and change positions, as working in this environment is not a Divine calling.

    3 February 2010 07:13
    Rupert Callender said…
    I also have friends with the condition, and the risk of infection is from blood to blood, however, this is more possible than would at first seem. Any small nick on a finger that is not noticable is a risk.
    Yes, it was perhaps a generalisation, but I regularly attend four big hospital mortuaries and have found this to be the rule, not the exception.

    3 February 2010 10:02
    Anonymous said…
    As a person working within the funeral service, I have removed bodies from at least 50 different hospital and public mortuaries over the past 12 months.

    I can 100% agree with what Rupert has said. My experience at those 50 mortuaries agrees with Rupert 100%.

    My previous 40 years’ experience in the funeral trade (yes you guessed it..) bears Ruperts comments out 100%.

    – Nick.

    3 February 2010 17:32
    Jonathan said…
    Dear Teresa,

    I’m so sorry to learn of your sad loss, and the distressing circumstances that followed. I do hope you reach a time in your life when you can be more at peace.

    Jonathan

    3 February 2010 18:13
    teresaevans25 said…
    Glad that you are still amongst us then Anonymous….what with working with all these highly contagious diseases!

    I wrote to the Hep C Trust to ask them about handling clothing worn by someone who had died with Hep C. This is the response that I received;
    Certainly there should be no issue with clothing, personal effects being passed on to next of kin if someone has died with hepatitis C. It is a blood borne virus only and the blood has to get into the bloodstream of someone else for infection to occur (see attached leaflet). Even if the clothing/items had blood on them the chances of infection occurring by simply handling them would be nil. As I understand it the hospital may just say to the funeral director that the deceased had an “infectious illness” rather than being specific about what that infectious illness was – so from the funeral directors point of view they have to assume it could be any infectious illness and act accordingly.
    Hope that this clears up any misconceptions or scare mongering about risks to public health.

    Jonathon, thank you kindly for your warm sentiments.

    Teresa

    6 February 2010 18:34
    Anonymous said…
    With the very greatest respect to you Teresa, I don’t think you have quite grasped the reality of the situation.

    You are obviously livid at the fact that your son’s heavily bloodstained clothing was not delivered to you following his death.

    I am truly sorry to hear of your loss.

    Do you not think, however, that the funeral director involved was not doing his or her best to save you from further distress?

    I would personally be appalled to hear that an FD had even thought to return “heavily bloodstained” items to a family.

    In the real world, health and safety, and litigation drives the day. I hate to think just how much in damages would be awarded against me if I “subjected” a family to even the slightest chance of blood-bourne infection, or the “stress” of simply returning items of heavily soiled clothing.

    Please be aware that most hospitals MAY advise you, as a funeral director, that their deceased patient was contagious in some way. What they will NOT tell you is for what reason! The data protection act raises it’s head at this point, and actually denies even the funeral director the information as to the type of infection with which he/she is now dealing.

    With this in mind, please appreciate that the FD is placed in an almost impossible position, and hopefully will tread carefully and accordingly.

    I too hope that time will allow you to be at peace with this aspect of your loss.
    -Nick

    7 February 2010 02:57
    teresaevans25 said…
    With the utmost respect to you Nick, I believe it is not for anyone to make assumptions about what the bereaved are able to cope or not cope with when learning of a death. This especially applies to someone who is contracted to act as their servant not to make decisions for them!

    In terms of the law and Human Rights a precedent was established in 2008 to prevent those carrying out a public function for making decisions on behalf of a bereaved person.

    I point readers to the Department of Health’s good practice guidance titled ‘Care and Respect in Death.
    For anyone not familiar with HRA, people working in the NHS are considered in law to be carrying out a public function and I imagine that this guidance has been written up with HRA in mind. It has not been judicially determined that a funeral undertaker is carrying out a public function or a function of a public nature, but there is always a first time.

    If any trader wishes to include or withdraw from retrieving soiled clothing as part of their remit then surely this should be included into the company terms and conditions. The terms and conditions should be made obvious to the customer.
    If there are concerns about litigation issues, then surely it would make sense not to include the retrieval of personal property into the terms and conditions or write up the specifics into a contract. That’s assuming the trader has written up a contract upon confirming an appointment as I am informed that many don’t.

    My own situation is much more complicated than outlined here, and yes whilst I would have wished my son’s clothing to have been returned to me as everything became precious, it is the fact that my son is likely buried in a manner that is not pleasing to me and his remaining family members, which causes me great anxiety.
    Had I been aware of the law as I am now, I would have taken the undertaker to Court and sued for a legally recognised harm, and not breach of contract.
    Had the police authority that I contacted been aware of the Common Law and upheld the law, they could have publicly prosecuted this guy for indignity and preventing a decent burial. This is also too much of a complicated issue to outline here.
    It is now my intention to join with some professionals with expertise in this area of law to convince the law makers in this country to make obvious the Common Law as it is in every statute of other countries that were formerly part of the British Empire.

    I believe that traders in the funeral industry have taken for granted that they might make decisions on behalf of bereaved people. Likely the consumer is part of this problem, as some might argue that they have allowed this to happen but I argue that it is because consumer agencies have not better informed the public (who are all potential funeral consumers) prior to the event of a death in the family. My view extends to the State agencies that have also not provided more timely information to its Citizens about what to do after a death in England and Wales. What information is provided to someone who finds themselves bereaved is very limited at present.
    I imagine that when the public/consumer eventually realise their rights traders and the State beware, as many litigators could find themselves extremely busy me thinks!

    7 February 2010 10:35
    Anonymous said…
    In the absence of strict legal guidelines, surely the middle ground and common sense prevails.

    When approaching the more difficult decisions, Lord Denning posed the question… “What would the man on the top deck of a Clapham omnibus say?”

    What sounds reasonable to the average person?

    7 February 2010 11:26
    teresaevans25 said…
    I am not absolutely clear what you mean by ‘in the absence of strict legal guidelines’.

    The phrase “ignorance of the law is no defence” means if, for example, you break a contract with someone, or drive without a valid driving licence, you can still be sued or prosecuted even if you didn’t know what you were doing was legally wrong.

    The reason why it is assumed that people know the law was summed up by Chief Justice Ellenborough in 1802. He noted that “every man must be taken to be cognizant of the law; otherwise there is no saying to what extent the excuse of ignorance might not be carried. It would be urged in most every case”.

    I think that I see where you are going with ‘what sounds reasonable to the average person’, and in the past and present in many cases, some might argue that it is reasonable to hand property that belonged to the deceased to a funeral undertaker but in actual fact it is unlawful practice if the funeral undertaker carries no authority to collect it.
    Hopefully if Member Trusts of the NHS accept my current proposals, the ‘traditional’ practice of doing so will come to an end.

    7 February 2010 17:29

Leave a Comment