Charles Cowling

The alternative to government regulation of the funeral industry is not self-regulation (too flabby) but implacable consumer scrutiny. That’s the libertarian way of looking at it, it’s a case I like to argue, and I concede that it may be ineffectually idealistic.

If only consumers knew. If only they knew what goes on behind the scenes they’d be on to it. Yes? Appalling things go on in funeral directors’ mortuaries. So let’s tell em. If you want to be reminded of how some dead people are treated, have a look at this version of a removal.

If only consumers knew about the dark arts of deathtrade marketing they wouldn’t be fooled when a helpful care home staff member recommends a lovely local funeral director. Because they’d suspect that the staff member had been bought by a smarmy bastard.

What goes on is not fair on consumers and it’s not fair on the good guys in the funeral trade. Here’s an email I have just received from a funeral director I admire very much:

I’ve been really tormented recently about how various funeral directors are so corrupt, bribing nursing homes, care homes etc.  I was sent an email the other day about an anti-bribing law coming in next April, and this brought everything to the surface once again, as there is no way it would affect the funeral industry.

The area where I work has numerous nursing / care homes and many of the friends of a member of my staff work in them. They all use one funeral director who supplies them with large flat screen T.V.s etc. We have spoken with the carers and they all admit that they are told to use this certain funeral director but they are frightened to approach the persons in charge to ask them why this funeral director is contacted every time someone dies. It’s a case of ‘more than their job’s worth’.

I’m such an honest person that this kind of dishonesty always enrages me and my hands are tied. I’m aware that this world is a very corrupt one and it’s a case of ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ but I refuse to be part of it and one day want to announce that we are proud of the fact that we have never had to lower ourselves to bribing care homes for our existence.

I don’t know nearly enough about the codes of practice that govern care homes and nursing homes. A code I believe to be widely observed is that of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which prescribes the following:

Be impartial

  • You must not abuse your privileged position for your own ends
  • You must ensure that your professional judgment is not influenced by any commercial considerations

I guess Trading Standards will have an opinion on this. Easy enough to establish a pattern when most dead residents go to the same funeral director. But what’s philanthropy and what’s a bung?

I’d be very interested to hear what you think about this. If you’re a funeral director and do not want to comment publicly, why not send me an email? Mark it confidential and, as many will testify, it’ll go no further. Find me here: charles@goodfuneralguide.co.uk

11 thoughts on “Hard graft

  1. Charles Cowling
    Janice Hutton

    I note your comments regarding FD’s websites, and their lack of sensitivity, and yes you are right generalisations are pretty unhelpful. Many have infomation overload and forget they are dealing with families who have just lost the most precious thing they know, a husband, wife, mother, father or child. Perhaps you would like to look at our website – http://www.gatewayfuneralservices.co.uk – This website has been designed with the bereaved family in mind, offering them as much help and guidance as we can in a sensitive and caring manner.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    Also, I might have added that there is nothing to stop the most emotionally illiterate person you could imagine setting up as a celebrant! – no doubt some have, so even more reason for FDs to pick their way through them and be well-informed.
    It’s instructive for me to look at the websites of James and Rupert – helpful, useful, sensitive. Most/many FD websites round ‘ere are a lot more basic, and often lead with photos of The Team in full rig with a fleet of big black limos in the background. To be flippant, they look more as though they are tooling up for the St Valentine’s Day Massacre then getting ready to offer an essential service in a sensitive way – which is unfortunate, because actually most of them are careful and helpful people when you meet them. But it seems to me they badly need to modernise and open out a bit!
    I guess generalisations are pretty unhelpful – in general…


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    Rupert, please bang away, NDC is a huge asset which I support unreservedly. I just want it to be huge, and much better known to all;I guess in our informationally cash-corrupted world, that means calling on the objects of Bill Hick’s justifiable loathing and giving them a lot of money – or just plugging away over a decade to two….


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    I agree James. Some of this may be the cultural distaste people feel towards those of us who deal with death and bodies for a living. There really are easier ways to make money,(“By the way, is there anyone here tonight in advertising and marketing?” Bill Hicks)
    And Gloria, I hate to keep banging our drum, but The Natural Death Centre does provide the service you are asking about. We answer over 3000 phonecalls a year, as well as letters, emails, television and radio interviews, all free.


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    “Celebster” is a Cowlingism, James, to cover “celebrant or minister,” because some of us think “celebrant” is a bit difficult, and “officiant” is rather cold and bureaucratic-sounding. We’ve also had “minibrant,” unsuitable for those over six foot, I guess…I personally never mind if someone describes me as a humanist minister. “Minister,” after all, has a wider connotation than purely “an officer of an established Christian church.”

    The reason “celebrant” is tricky seems to me because sometimes a family are very clear they want a celebration of a life, sometimes they are not, and some people feel that to assume that a funeral is only a celebration of life may be to obscure its necessary function.

    I think what I’ve been droning on about is close to your point – that it’s good when FDs are actively discriminating and thoughtful in what they do, and don’t fall back on established practice. Discretion is surely exactly what is needed.

    An FD near me uses a retired minister of a church for non-religious ceremonies rather than me, because the ex-minister is an old friend of his and he’s hard up. If he’d said to me that he thought his mate did a better job than I did, I’d be pleased, and talk to him about such matters in detail. To use someone just because you like them seems to me to be a kind of irresponsibility, whether it’s me or someone else.

    But – yes, most FDs I come across seem to me to be fair, well-meaning and helpful. I think some of them are not ideal personalities for the job – arrogant of me, they might think the same of me – because after all, anyone can set up as an FD, even the most emotionally illiterate person you could imagine!


    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    james

    As a funeral director – even as one generally cynical of the trade – I find it hard to believe that this kind of self-serving malpractice really is widespread.
    Perhaps I am naive in this? But I feel that most of us undertakers are fair, well meaning and helpful….. tho’which among us hasn’t somehow bumped a person’s body by (awful) accident?

    I wonder how useful it is for a family to know the technical points of embalming (should it ever be essential to do this to someone). And – on occasion – is it not better to have the person’s mouth subtly sutured for the family’s visit than bang on about how it is done?
    Is there never a place where discretion can be exercised and a choice made on behalf of a family, knowing/anticipating their particular sensitivities and level of interest in the process?
    After all, I do it all the time when I suggest a particular celebrant as suitable, or flip quickly through the ‘cardboard’ section of the coffin book, knowing that this will be repugnant.

    By the way – what is this celebster? It’s hard enough for a family to refer to ‘celebrant’ and hope they aren’t making fools of themselves by getting it wrong.
    james


    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    The funeral trade provides a service that people don’t want to use, so it will always be difficult to get consumers to do much research before they purchase.
    However, organisations such as ours can change this by using all the public relations and media tricks we can to raise the issue in the public’s mind.
    The GFG is excellent. In it’s rather unjoined up way the Dying Matters Coalition is trying to raise awareness of end of life issues which must therefore cover the standards of the funeral industry.
    I think there is a lot of potential for the Farewell Innovators movement to make some noise as it has members whose products and services will get coverage. Look at how interested the media have been recently with photography at funerals. There is now a facebook page for the movement, http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_108367232564686 and the criteria to join is fairly loose…members should have the aim of aim of making people’s farewells unique, positive and well remembered by their friends and loved ones.
    We should aim to hit the media frequently and with consistent messages…there’s a baby boomer audience out there probably willing to listen, if only reluctantly, but that’s better than neither knowing nor caring until too late.


    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    Sorry Charles, I really don’t mean to dismiss the mighty GFG – far, very far, from it, it’s an excellent resource. Just to recognise its current likely readership. Most funerals I help with don’t involve families who are likely to have read the book.

    There are, of course, free advice sheets and info packs. If only there was something/somewhere with presence and prestige that was automatically first choice for fair advice, no cash nexus involved.


    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    gloriamundi

    Well, this is what blogland is FOR…
    Fascinating, useful post and comments. many thanks.
    I feel Jonathan is right about ideals, and yet there’s a pragmatic bit of me that argues we have to work to improve a bit at a time, hence my banging on about FDs doing a proper job in checking and assessing celebsters before engaging them, so they can discuss with the family the sort of celebster they’d like. Now, I take Charles’ point entirely,that it’s families that should choose, independently of FDs, and Jonathan’s point that we shouldn’t base our arguments on assumptions that there should even be FDs as they currently present themselves to us. But – this year, next year, sometime, never… Let’s rapidly evolve better practice whilst we plot the revolution. Which is exactly what the GFG is doing, I guess.

    At present, families usually get no choice.Thoughtful and well-prepared FDs could suggest to them different celebsters they have already checked out.

    Free or very low-cost genuinely objective and well-informed advice before anyone starts to engage FDs, celebrants, crems…how to do it? Well, Charles’ book, but alas, unless you are a rare creature in our culture who faces his own mortality with equanimity and forethought and is likely to read Charles’ book, bereaved people with limited cultural resources are perhaps not likely first of all to reach for a book. But they might nip in to an advice centre, or phone someone.

    Maybe local ccouncils could oblige? With help support and funding from our coalition government.

    Come and take me away, please, the delusions are getting worse….


    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    P.S: I’d like to qualify what I said about ‘unprecedented’ freedom. The freedoms I’m talking about are, of course, freedoms from long-standing religious control as much as from that of the very recent development of the funeral professional.


    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    Charles, I like your idea of implacable consumer scrutiny. I have to admit you have a point with your realistic appraisal of this vision as ineffectually idealistic, too. But effectual simply means capable of effect, and idealistic means subscribing to high values; why should we not accept the notion of high values being potent to bring about change? Isn’t that how we got to where we are now from the pioneering efforts of the likes of the NDC and the BHA to drag funerals into the light?

    It is, I grant, still a short step towards our ultimate goals; but we have proved ourselves effectual to a degree, and the difference between real and ideal is only that; one of degree. So let’s not accept less than what’s only right. Is that not what the GFG is; a book and a discussion forum about the consumer rights and duties of the recently bereaved in particular?

    The point I’m gradually getting round to is that concluding that consumer scrutiny is the alternative to government regulation is begging the question when we haven’t actually established why or whether we need funeral directors at all, regulated or not. (I’m a funeral director myself, readers, so don’t think I’m dissing them.) Let’s backtrack a step.

    The immediate practical need of the bereaved is to dispose of the body. It’s the crematoria and burial sites that do that, while funeral directors merely act as go-betweens; providers of containers, transport and storage space, but all that could be done far less expensively by a private specialist if the public were more savvy and willing to be hands-on about death. And certainly, if only they knew it, the public are better at ceremony than most (not all) funeral directors, without whose influence celebrants as well as the grieving public would have an unprecedented freedom. All they need is impartial advice, such as may be found in a book or from an independent advisor.

    What else do funeral directors do? Well, they protect the public from their reticence about the dead, which they mostly do very well (and which is at risk in light of bad practice), but which is only a poor substitute for education and genuine support; not just about practicalities, but about who’s in charge here and what this is meant to be about. If public scrutiny were to be encouraged to turn on the real issue – what is our responsibility to our own dead, and whether we can really pass the buck to the professionals without compromising our need for involvement – instead of how well or badly those professionals did our job for us, we’d have no need to answer the question posed by this post.

    If we make too much noise about malpractice, we risk entrenching the assumption that funeral directors’ practice is indispensable in the first place.


    Charles Cowling

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