The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Bang to rights?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

I don’t know if it’s the anarch in me or the libertarian, but I am inclined to be very relaxed about the absence of any regulatory structure for funeral directors. Almost everything you can think of is governed by regs designed to reassure and protect consumers. An unregulated funeral industry looks anomalous. Catteries are regulated. You’d think that the funeral industry was imminently and urgently next. But Government isn’t interested, there’s little call for it, so the trade/profession (such a snobbish distinction) jogs along, open to all regardless of (dis)qualification. It remains the case that the rules governing the disposal of dead humans are not nearly as stringent as those governing the disposal of dead farm animals.

And this means that next of kin remain the default disposers of their dead. They are in charge, they sign the legal forms, and the funeral director they appoint is their agent. This is an attractively ancient right: the dead belong to their own.

My mind was swayed a little when I read a just-published report by the Irish National Council of the Forum on End of Life. Over in Ireland the funeral industry is as unregulated as ours. The Forum reckons there are major problems as a result of this, and a lot of ‘sub-standard funeral care’. Interestingly, of Ireland’s 600 funeral directors, fewer than 100 are full timers. In the UK, in rural areas, there are those who combine funeral directing with something else, building, usually, but only a handful, nowadays.

The Forum uncovered abuses with which we are familiar over here, but there’s probably a difference in degree. They report ‘extreme variation’ in the provision of services, together with neglect and misconduct on the part of FDs and mortuary staff. Embalming is often carried out by untrained personnel.

The Forum takes issue with the lack of price transparency, detailing instances of ambiguous or inappropriate invoices. It also reports anecdotal evidence of bungs to hospital and hospice staff.

Nothing we don’t have here, then. And we note that when Richard Sage was trading recently in Burnley there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop him. All the NAFD could do was warn its members to steer clear of him – and it did that, citing evidence from this blog. But no message got out to consumers. I urged the Burnley Express to run an expose but it balked.

If our own funeral industry is not so bad that it cries out for urgent regulation, wouldn’t it be a good idea anyway if regulation can expunge low-level malpractice?

Over in the US the industry is regulated. Funeral directors have to do two years at mortuary school and earn a licence to practise. It’s absurd. There’s not two years’ worth of learning to be done – unless you introduce embalming as a course component. Which is why US funeral directors embalm. It’s the only thing they do that consumers can’t.

Professionalisation flatters the status of funeral directors, and it shows in their fees. A US funeral is vastly more expensive than one of ours. There are contributory cultural factors at play here, too, let’s not forget: for immigrant communities an opulent funeral proclaims, “I came, I worked, I made it.” All the same, the gap is great.

Another upshot of US regulation is that those wishing to care for their dead at home can find themselves enmeshed in red tape, compelled to defer to a funeral director.

Just this week, the excellent Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the consumer advocacy body the Funeral Consumers Alliance, wrote this to me: “I love the fact that there’s no such thing as licensure for undertakers over there – no opportunity to puff one’s self up as a Capital P Professional. The licensure requirements in the US have made a complete mockery of the idea of consumer protection.”

That’ll do for me.

Josh goes on to propose: “But what about the idea of a parallel in Britain to our Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule? Not a licensing scheme, but a consumer bill of rights. I should think that would be beneficial just the same, even though you all don’t have as much of a nightmare dealing with undertakers as we do.”

It’s an interesting proposition. Views?

Read about the report by the Irish Forum on End of Life here.

Read to find out about the FTC Funeral Rule (brought in to protect consumers from licensed and regulated funeral directors) here.

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