The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Making doubly sure

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Back in April I reported the story of the undertaker who forged a client’s signature on a cremation form  and then had the body cremated without their knowledge. The body was that of a 26 week-old boy, Sonny. His parents had wanted to dress him and put special items in his coffin. Read it here.

Sonny’s parents, Mr and Mrs Lau, asked me to publicise the case because they don’t want anyone else to suffer as they have. We can’t know what it feels like to have gone through what they did; such a thing is unimaginable. On top of it all they had to contest the obdurate lies of the undertaker.

Now, with the support of their local MP, they are asking the Ministry of Justice to require two signatures on an application for cremation, and for those signatures to be witnessed.

In an email to me Mrs Lau says, “Co-op need to be named and shamed. They had no respect for us and did nothing to support us throughout this ordeal … Fingers crossed I will be able to raise awareness prior to some legislation being introduced. I wondered kindly if you could blog the BBC report on your fine blog. I know it’s repetitive but think that the court report never captured the pain that we endured for the 9 months. I do get upset every time I talk about what happened to us but I gather strength knowing that everything I do is for my son.”

Read the full BBC report here.

14 comments on “Making doubly sure

  1. Norfolk Boi

    Monday 16th May 2011 at 9:03 pm

    The main reason the counter-signature was removed was that in almost all cases the counter=signature was that of the funeral director.

    Let’s face it, if the funeral director was going to falsify the signature of the applicant, they wouldn’t have any problem signing their own name after it.

  2. Friday 13th May 2011 at 6:41 pm

    It is a terribly high price to pay, but I can see your point, Mrs Lau. Some good can come of this, and if it can it will, in some way, mitigate.

    But the Co-op will stand forever shamed by this, and so will Mr Durden. They are an utter disgrace.

  3. Lau

    Friday 13th May 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Dear Jonathan. 

    You are absolutely right, we didn’t ask any of the questions that you posed … Hindsight is a virtue! Don’t you think we have questioned ourselves in why we didn’t take more responsibility over our precious son, why we didn’t call the crematorium to double check that we couldnt attend (as Durden had suggested), why we didn’t hound him and instead left it for 8 days before we contacted him again only to find out my son was already cremated, why we didnt speak to friends who have arranged a funeral before…  because we trusted him, he was recommend to us by three people, he had 10 years of experience! 

    Our only aim to publicise what has happened to us. Do not get me wrong, we are not suggesting it will happen again or that Other Fd’s will do the same .. Simply it’s happened to us and ‘could’ potentially happen to anyone in future. We simply hope to raise people’s awareness so that hopefully anyone reading our tragedy will, as you so wisely put it, ‘educate themselves’ and also to ask all the questions you have posed in your post and possibly more!  

    We were lied to right from the start to the very end. And even after the very end… when having found out my son was cremated.  Possibly no legislation would have stopped him, same as no legislation would stop a murderer, a rapist, a robbery etc if the individual had the intention to commit the crime. But it may have hindered him in some way if, for example, two signatures where required on the form, and for there to be a witness. (Surely, this will safeguard the public as well as FD’s?) Furthermore, If there were checks on FD’s work, if there were much more stricter guidelines in the work place, if baby funerals are recorded etc. would he still have done it and feel he could get away with?

    My only hope that this does not happen to anyone ever again and will use my best endeavours to make people aware of our tragedy. Not only was my signature forged, we were lied to, disrespected, abused and we were never given any support whatsoever by the company. On top of that we went through 9 months of criminal proceedings, stressful, to say the least. 

    Looking back, if we did question more and caught him out on his initial lies we would have taken our son elsewhere, and he would have continued in his profession….so my conclusion is.. my son paid the price in stopping possibly more dreadful scenarios, and so I believe I deserve to use this and change it into something positive. 

  4. Jonathan

    Friday 13th May 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Just one point, Teresa: I’m not saying people should take more responsibility. On the contrary, most often they’re in no fit state to do anything by allow themselves to be led. I’m saying that, for precisely this reason, it’s the responsibility of others to guide them into understanding their opportunities, and that there needs to be an independent advisory service skilled in bereavement awareness. Actually, I mean gifted in bereavement awarenss, as anyone can acquire a skill.

  5. Friday 13th May 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Ooh thank you Charles, you flatter me.

    In respect of arranging a funeral it may well indeed be the case that people find you too late, but you cannot be certain of this. I am sure that your efforts will go a long way to equipping people, even if those numbers are fewer at the moment..all best effort makes a difference. If by too late you mean should they suffer a bad funeral experience, people have 6 years to bring a claim for breach of contract, and 3 years I believe to sue for damages re personal emotional injury, which appears to me to be ample time.

  6. Friday 13th May 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Hear Hear Sandra! It is public education that is needed and I would say from around the age of 16. As it now OK to discuss sex at this age in our schools, and even younger in many instances, then why not discuss death and funeral arranging. After all it will happen to us all at some time and for your dear son much sooner than anyone can cope with imagining.

    My son was aged just 20, and considered in law to be an adult, but he was my baby boy, as is my eldest son who is now 28 years of age. This son now knows what his rights are all because bad public and commercial experiences, but it should not take experiences to be better informed. I agree with Jonathon to some extent and people should take more responsibility, but there are occasions when someone does act responsibility and ask questions and given the wrong information as was the case with me. Despite my son undergoing a post-mortem, I asked the undertaker to bring my son’s body home. He discouraged me from doing so, and I later learned for all the wrong reasons. The reasons that he gave me I now know were rubbish, but lay folk will more often in such circumstances believe what they have been advised.

    In respect of Parliament not seeking to change laws because of what one individual has done, I would like to mention the name ‘Shipman’. Does this conjure any imagery of why laws need changing sometimes?

    Durden the scoundrel appears to be seen as a person that committed a crime in an isolated incident. How do we not know whether the type of conduct that the Lau’s have painfully uncovered, does not go on regularly when babies are stillborn. Does anyone imagine that Durden was acting independently in his decision making whilst quite obviously thinking that like a good deal many parents to stillborn babies that leave the arrangements to a local authority?

  7. Friday 13th May 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you for this, Teresa. It is really good to have the Seasoned Expert in these matters drop in and shed light. Much appreciated. Yes, buying a funeral from an undertaker is a commercial transaction with all the attendant perils. Funeral consumers must be taught to research — then they’ll find the guidance they need, and more guidance will be generated to fulfil the need. I am doing my best to infest Co-op google searches with truth about the Co-op and, in truth, I’m doing pretty well. But people have a habit of finding me only when it’s too late.

  8. Friday 13th May 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Charles, I have written to Direct.gov on numerous occasions to request the team amend some information. They have done so in some instances, especially related to embalming (which had taken months), but at other times have ignored me. One of the matters that I have been ignored about was my request to include information that fees paid from the social fund could be still recovered by an eligible claimant if they was not employing an undertaker. They likely ignored me because this was not included in DWP literature, now that it will be included… I will be watching!

    Direct.gov has the ideal tool to educate people with more timely information. Look at its home page. Do you see any mention of arranging a funeral? http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/index.htm This page would be the one of the ideal places to provoke thought about more timely information re funeral arranging, as is the home page of Consumer Direct (whoops I notice today that this page has changed) It now appears to be operating from the Direct.gov website http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Consumerrights/index.htm Does anyone see any mention of funeral related subjects? Click on ‘Your consumer rights when buying goods and services’, and still you will not see any information related to funerals.

    It is my view that whilst government continues to encourage the taboo about not talking about death and funeral arranging, people will remain ignorant to both their rights and responsibilities.

  9. Friday 13th May 2011 at 12:26 pm

    The directgov website has all sorts of excellent information on a number of consumer topics. Some of its advice on arranging a funeral is good, but it could be better and it could be fuller — and there’s a box at the bottom in which we can leave feedback in just 500 characters.

    This is what directgov says about choosing a funeral director:

    Friends, family, clergy or your doctor may be able to recommend local funeral directors. Most local companies are also listed in the telephone directory.
    Most funeral directors are members of one of two trade associations:
    National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD)
    Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF)
    Member firms must provide you with a price list on request and cannot exceed any written estimate they give you without your permission. It’s not always clear from their adverts if a funeral director is independent or part of a group, so ask the funeral director before you go ahead.

  10. Lau

    Friday 13th May 2011 at 12:47 am

    We do fully appreciate your points of view. In hindsight we were stupid to believe in the funeral director. We did not check their creditabilty ; in fact we cannot record of any point of reference that these ‘levels of professionalism’ can be accessed. Are there any customer satisfaction surveys available to the mass regarding this area of business? Is there a creditability study of FD work and ethics. What we are trying to attain is not for government to change / ammend legislation in itself BUT to make the mass aware, that death in itself as hard as it is to accept, there are more avenues of research that can be done if more information materials are available. Yes we made mistakes in not researching, but to have trust in a profession that is governed by code of practise, we assumed we made the right choice at that particular point in time. We totally agree with the view that all FD do excel in their roles but we are not in your lines of expertise and knowledge in this field to have the freedom and or indication to research on a grey area that the majority knows hardly anything about like the field of genetics or astro physics.
    Public education is the key point that is raised – is / are there any in this field that can be researched thoroughly? Were we to know that the dead can be released once details are known by FD even without consent? Where/ what are alternative methods ( which are available!) for funerals apart from FD? Public educations is the key and this is one area that maybe govt can aid, not in governing a practice that to the majority is grey matter but seems unlikely probable.
    We do fully appreciate the FD work ethic, the gravity of the role, the stress and compassion and the absolute integrity in their professionalism. But there comes a point in time that the heart , mind and body let’s go. The compassion, the belief and desire withers……
    it was unfortunate for us that our paths met!

  11. Jonathan

    Thursday 12th May 2011 at 11:24 pm

    A funeral director’s employee, David Durden, was found to have broken the law (and his clients’ hearts) by deliberately forging one of their signatures on a cremation form. Discreditable as this is, to say the least, it seems a terrible shame to have to involve Parliament to ensure it cannot happen again.

    Surely the real problem is not so much that the system enabled Durden to commit the forgery as it is his willingness to deceive a grieving family, for whatever reason he did, and his callous disregard for them in failing to even let them know of the cremation in advance.

    How did this man attain such a position of public confidence? Why do we, the public, allow a travesty like this? Because we, the public, know no better and are actively discouraged from learning, by our own attitudes as much as anything. Undertakers? Don’t want to know thanks, just let them get on with it. Death? Later.

    To change the law seems to overlook the fact that Durden was one employee amongst thousands of dedicated individuals in the profession who would not dream of imitating him, and whose reputation with the public depends fundamentally on trust. That the Laus’ belief in Durden’s integrity was so tragically misplaced is not the fault of the rest of us, any more than it is their own, but of the individual in question. This trust is precious between funeral director and the recently bereaved; it is vital to being able to do the job at all, let alone do it well, and it could easily be compromised by giving the message, even inadvertently, that only through legal intervention can a funeral director be prevented from betraying it.

    Our first and indeed only priority has to be that of the families we serve – and I use the word ‘serve’ advisedly. We may have to earn a living by our work, we may at times have to consider our own convenience, and some of us even that of our employers; but these matters have to be a secondary consideration in light of the gravity of what we do. That others with different values emerge on the front desk of a national chain of undertakers, whose slogan is ‘Because We Care’, is more than lamentable. But what is still more lamentable is that the public can remain so dismally uniformed when it comes to choosing a funeral director in the first place. Did Mr and Mrs Lau interview Durden and compare his manner with that of other undertakers? Did anyone offer to do this on their behalf, in consideration of their distress? Was an independent funeral advisor made available to them? Did anyone explain their rights as well as their responsibility towards their son’s body? Did anyone point them towards this blog, regarding the sometimes apparently dubious activities of the chain of undertakers in question? Were they, in short, looked after properly by the system that governs the disposal of human remains and the necessary ceremony that accompanies it?

    I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to answer these questions for themselves; but the point is that the real needs of the bereaved are overlooked, and the fact that they are vulnerable to exploitation in rare and extreme cases such as this is almost a side issue.

    If Parliament be involved at all, let it be in the public’s education in the matter of its rights and opportunities to do with grieving – the free provision of independent advice and support springs to mind – rather than in legislation merely to prevent fraud. If you, dear Mr and Mrs Lau, had been properly provided for, none of this mistreatment of your feelings could even have had the chance of happening. I feel deeply for you, even though I too cannot possibly know how you feel.

  12. Thursday 12th May 2011 at 4:43 pm

    http://www.justice.gov.uk/guidance/docs/cremation-funeral-directors-guidance.pdf

    Page 3 of the PDF, which is page 2 of the document, Item 4 – interesting that it is termed “a minor change”

  13. Thursday 12th May 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Just in case anyone is unaware, it was a requirement to have two signatures on the Application for Cremation until very recently (2008?) – before the regulations were changed the application had to be witnessed. The first time I used a “new” Form 1 instead of the “old” Form A, I was searching for ages for the space for the witness to sign, before realising it was no longer required.

  14. Thursday 12th May 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Dreadful, and admirable of the couple to seek to ensure it could never happen again.Mrs Lau, it’s not repetitive, it’s a generous public service.

    Two more general thoughts: according to the BBC website, there was a £15 “victim surcharge” imposed on the FD. What??? Dreadful term, derisory sum.

    And those useless words “I know how you feel.” Oh dear. How often do we want to make a gesture of fellow-feeling, so we say that? But it isn’t fellow-feeling, because further thought and sensitivity – surely the stock in trade of any good FD – would show that it is literally nonsense, easy and patronising nonsense.

    I don’t know how the Laus feel, but I feel for them, as I’m sure all of Charles’ readers do.

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