Council changes ashes policy after bereaved family complains

Charles Cowling

 

 

From today’s Oxford Mail:

A TOWN council has been forced to change its policy on interring ashes after a bereaved family took the authority to task.

Christopher Harris objected to Woodstock Town Council’s rule that said people must employ the services of a funeral director to oversee the interment of a loved one’s ashes.

Mr Harris’s father Richard, 79, who had lived in Woodstock for almost 40 years, died in May this year.

The family held a funeral service and cremation in June, and planned a small family service at Lawns Cemetery, Green Lane, Woodstock, for interment of the ashes this month.

But the family was told they would need to employ a grave digger and funeral director to oversee the interment.

When they obtained a quote they told it would cost £90 for a grave digger, £74 for the plot, a £105 town council interment fee, and between £135 and £150 for a funeral director.

Mr Harris decided to challenge the council as he did not believe a funeral director was needed. He said: “The council rule imposed people to use a professional firm, but they don’t have that right at all.”

Mr Harris raised the issue at a town council meeting. He even dressed as a funeral director at the meeting to make the point funeral directors are not regulated and anyone can be one.

Last night Woodstock’s mayor Brian Yoxall accepted the council’s policy was wrong and has agreed to change it.

He said: “The point about funeral directors being present is something which we firmly believed at the time to be correct policy.

“It has always been our policy to have an undertaker present and this was the first time case we had come across for a do it yourself funeral.

“That’s why we took the position we did.

“We have since taken advice about that subject and have now accepted it isn’t necessary for funeral directors to be present. “We are not insisting a funeral director has to be present now, but we are insisting a member of staff satisfies him or herself that arrangements are satisfactory.”

He said the council would look at including the cost of a staff member being present in the burial fee in future.

Mr Yoxall said the council has now been told by the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management that was unnecessary for a funeral director to be present.

But the council must satisfy itself of the checks it is required to legally make as a burial authority, such as checking the name on the death certificate matches that on the casket. Mr Yoxall said he understood the requirement for a funeral director had always been the council’s policy. He could not say how many people had been affected by it.

Elsewhere in the county there is a mixed policy. Oxford City Council, which look after four cemeteries, says at the very least a grave digger, who is employed by the council, must be present to confirm the name on the death certificate and casket match.

In Bicester, the town council requires families to employ a funeral director.

18 thoughts on “Council changes ashes policy after bereaved family complains

  1. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Following Christopher Harris’s awful experiences with WTC, I think it becomes very necessary to establish exactly how many local authorities in England & Wales is imposing the same unnecessary demands on other people.

    Might I put in a request to everyone reading this blog to establish what the policy is at the local authority for the district where they each live and report their findings on here, or alternatively email me at goodevans06@aol.com please? Advanced thanks.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Chris when discussing the ICCM Charter for the Bereaved you say that, “…them not adopting those principles which cost them nothing, is shameful”. Whilst I totally agree that it is shameful, it also shows ignorance and a lack of understanding of emotional needs and how they could and should be met by public services. Burial authorities now refer to what they provide as bereavement services, but rarely meet those who are bereaved before a funeral has taken place. Even if they did have personal involvement before funerals take place, staff would still not understand the psychodynamics of bereavement and how to respond creatively to urgent emotional needs.
    It appears to me that many local authority staff perceives the content of the Charter to be merely a guide to good practice guidance.

    I contend that until some public servants are brought to task about their failure to truly understand the legal rights of newly bereaved people and subsequently respect those rights, many people will continue having bad experiences when arranging a funeral, or when wanting as in your case, to later bury the cremated ashes of someone who has died.

    Public servants are bound by the Human Rights Act 1998. The rationale of the Act was to make some of the rights (known as the Convention rights) guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms available directly in UK courts. The UK has been a signatory to the European Convention since the 1950s. This means that the UK government has given an undertaking which is binding in international law not to act in a way which infringes the Convention rights of its citizens or other individuals under UK control. However, prior to the Human Rights Act the only way individuals could gain redress against UK infringement of their Convention rights was to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In short, there was no avenue to pursue court action in the UK. The Human Rights Act has altered this position so that the Convention rights can now be protected by UK courts.

    Article 8 of the Human Rights Act recognises personal autonomy. LIBERTY, the human rights organisation says that, “Personal autonomy means the right to make decisions about how you lead your life”. The courts may however recognise the right to bury a body or the cremated ashes of a relative in a public cemetery without interference or obstacles being put in their way.

    Though you have forced WTC to back down, if it happened to me I would seriously consider exploring the possibility of suing this council for breaching my human rights.


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Hats off to you for what you have achieved Chris! I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. The pain that you have experienced will not only reveal to people what their legal rights are, but prevent many of them from being taken advantage of at what will often be the most vulnerable time in their lives.

    When discussing reimbursing those that have been forced to hire undertakers in the past, Andrew Hickson says, “Why not see your successful challenge as a positive move forward rather than a reason to stir further emotion from the past?”. I disagree! Why shouldn’t the council reimburse all the people that it has placed unnecessary demands on? I doubt that being compensated for a payment that need not have been paid would evoke unwanted feelings. I would imagine that many people might welcome the council making this gesture and admitting it was wrong to make unnecessary demands on them. Yes it is likely that council tax payers will be affected, but then they always are. Should the council begin compensating those that are affected, then the council must be asked about where this money is coming from, and if necessary, challenged by the local tax payer.

    Chris you have provided me with evidence of a council that is a member of the ICCM, but like many members of the funeral industry, it does not support its Charter for the Bereaved. This is why it is crucial that new legislation is created. An Act is needed which makes obvious the legal rights of newly bereaved people. Councils would not be able to exercise discretion and opt in or out, and neither would undertakers. Everyone would need to obey rules which prevent causing additional harm to the feelings of the bereaved, and should those rules be broken, the penalty should be a heavy one. Failure to keep or falsify a register of burials carries a prison sentence, and the same sentence should be inflicted on those affecting the rules in the new Act if it is ever materialises.

    This country needs more people like you Chris!


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      CH ak 'The Prat In The Hat'

      Teresa – many thanks for your kind supportive words. Like John Rambo, I was pushed…

      Has the erudite Mayor got himself in a muddle here? Death certificate v Certificate of Cremation… One is issued by a Registry Office, the other accompanies the cremated remains from the crematorium. Or does the confusion lay with me???
      Why in the name of all things holy would I need to provide sight of the death certificate to the Council to inter??? If the Mayor says that’s what I need then that is what I shall take…

      Perhaps someone can create a template letter for us all to send to our MPs reflecting the need that Teresa believes there should be, preventing Councils, Registry Offices, and FDs – in fact all those connected with the £1billion Funeral Industry that we have choices instead of lamely informing the vulnerable bereaved that TOWIFD (like TOWIE…but substitute ‘Funeral Directors’ for ‘Essex’!)

      Woodstock Town Council is an ICCM Member but has chosen not to sign up to ‘platinum membership’ and adopt the Charter for the Bereaved. Having spoken to the ICCM myself, the requirements put upon ‘platinum members’ will be pricey and unrealistic for small tin-pot councils/burial authorities to implement. However, and this is an important however, them not adopting those principles which cost them nothing, is shameful.

      John Bradfield (funeral law guru) at the Alice Barker Trust, offered to assist WTC freely in writing its new Rules & Regs – and they have not taken him up on it, to the best of my knowledge. I suspect they’ll bluff and fluff their way through their writings but when they are published, I’ll be sure to go through them with a fine-toothed comb.
      References of leading equine quadrupeds to dihydrogen monoxide but being unable to make them drink spring to mind.


      Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    A body’s identity ought to be confirmed at the place of cremation or burial prior to the burning or burying — but it’s against all codes of practice to do so. How many mourners sit through a funeral over the wrong body? We shall never know.


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Andrew Hickson

    Yes Jonathan, agreed. Rules is rules and boxes must be ticked.

    I’ve often wondered quite why there is this checking procedure everywhere except at the undertaker’s premises. There is absolutely nothing that ensures the name on the coffin matches the person within it, and that is surely the most important place for the check to be made?

    There is a cemetery not far from me; the person in charge of it walks past my office on his way to work. If I’ve got a funeral in the next couple of days at the cemetery, he asks if he can check the coffin plate when he’s coming by. This is instead of checking it as we arrive at the cemetery, which he is supposed to do. What on earth makes him think that I will bring the same coffin he has checked, sometimes 48 hours earlier, to the cemetery, I really don’t know!


    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    “But the council must satisfy itself of the checks it is required to legally make as a burial authority, such as checking the name on the death certificate matches that on the casket.”

    Bearing in mind that this blog is about funerals and not local councils, can I backtrack to ask if anyone understands the reason to have a cremation certificate (assuming that’s what’s meant by ‘death certificate’ which, as any registrar will tell you, does not exist by that name) and a label, randomly or otherwise stuck onto an urn, in order to legally authorize a burial of cremated remains in a council cemetery? They are only presumed to be human remains inside the container – I’ve buried some dodgy-looking fine yellowish dust that looked to me nothing like cremated remains, and which was found on a bookcase and had a cremation certificate ‘found’ for it at a nearby crematorium by a conscientious sleuthing undertaker but with absolutely no evidence of any connection between the two – and you don’t legally need any such thing when you scatter ashes, say, in your garden (or do you in fact, strictly speaking?)

    And, though I take Andrew’s point about people opting for an undertaker et al regardless of reason, why do you need to pay a gravedigger to dig a hole no bigger than you need to plant a medium sized bush?

    All very thorough, I’m sure, but it seems to me like a case of… well, overkill.


    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    I think that wise old bird Ecclesiastes probably got it about right, for all that one might dissent from his views on the LGBT community:

    “There is a time to be nice and a time to be beastly; a time to persuade and a time to pull apart; a time to whisper and a time to thunder.”


    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Andrew Hickson

    Not knowing the full story, it would be wrong of me to say if I’d expect an apology. There are two sides to everything.

    Councils can be awkward, illogical, old fashioned and a whole host of other things.

    A client of mine went through (I guess) much the same as you regarding a memorial in our local cemetery. After 4 months of wrangling she eventually got her way. When the memorial was fixed, she wrote to the paper and thanked the council for allowing her to have it. There are now a couple of similar memorials in the cemetery, and everyone is a winner. She turned a horrible 4 months into a positive for everyone, including the council. If she ever needs anything from the council in the future, she will have them on her side before she starts.

    The part I played was to take a copy of the rules and regs to a council meeting and ask them to reconsider various rather silly paragraphs. I didn’t dress as an undertaker. The council listened to my 2-3 minute request, proposed and seconded the changes, and the next morning the rules were re-printed. No song and dance. No publicity. Everyone was a winner. If ever I need anything from the council (and I have, a couple of times since then) I just have to ask and it’s done.

    My point is that I believe it is much better to have people on the same side than to humiliate them publicly, no matter how much they have upset you. I know it’s immensely frustrating, and I feel for you, I really do. If the rule hadn’t been changed I’d have come and buried the ashes for you (for nothing). But if you had very publicly had a fool made of you, would you expect to apologise to the complainant? Had you not gone to the papers, do you know you wouldn’t have had an apology? Councils don’t work quickly, it’s only a few days since the meeting. At least give them a chance?


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      CH

      I acknowledge what you say…however…the Council had over one month to look into this and chose not to. One phone call to the ICCM (of which they are members!) and they would have known better. I told WTC on numerous occasions the law surrounding this issue and they chose to ignore it and me. Failing the crazy notion of the law, I asked them to explain why I needed to hire someone to watch (from 20 metres away) my brother and I lower a ‘wooden slightly-larger-than-shoe-box’ casket into an 18 cubic inch hole and get paid £5 per second for doing so.
      That these people cannot understand the illogic of their rule, let alone a basic understanding of the law, gives me grave concerns (pun intended) for any amendments they make in the future.
      I have little doubt that fools will rewrite the ‘very comprehensive’ writings of idiots.
      Had WTC offered to ‘look into matters’ 4 weeks ago this would never have appeared in the newspaper.
      The original post – my ‘Without Prejudice’ oration refers to the council doing all that it can to prevent me from speaking last Tuesday, citing it’s erroneous Standing Orders. They assumed only residents/electors in the town could address the Council at meetings. Wrong.
      My brother and I now are co-owners of our late-father’s home…and I even said I’d become a resident of Woodstock thus enabling me to meet the stupid (and wrong) criteria. The Mayor told me that he’d made his decision (by not permitting me to speak) and it was final. He then very rudely slammed the phone down. When I attempted to call back, six seconds later…no one answered. Must have been a fire drill/evacuation, or something…?
      He didn’t have the power to unilaterally decide who addresses meetings and who doesn’t. I contacted the Oxfordshire Assoc of Local Councils and they contacted WTC, informing them that their Standing Orders were wrong.
      All of this smacks of a cover-up by the Council. Is it any surprise that an official complaint regarding the Council’s, and especially the Mayor’s, code of conduct is to be written imminently by my family?

      In conclusion, Andrew, I tried to do things as no doubt you would have done, and failed. Perhaps WTC members are more incalcitrant than those of area you lived in a few years ago?
      Anyhow, it’s given us something to bicker over since this item was posted here! I respect your opinion and the way you did things. Though you may not agree that you’d have done the same, the result is the same…change of rules.

      Bernie Taupin was evidently right, sorry does seem to be the hardest word.


      Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    CH

    “I am damn sure there are more people aware of there rights now than before this story.”

    Apologies. I meant “their rights” not “there rights”.


    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    CH

    Maybe if you had encountered the arrogance of the Council, you may feel the same. This to me is similar to the whole ‘PPI’ mis-selling by the banks.
    I told them and they ignored me, putting my family through significant distress in the process. Why shouldn’t those whom have spent out UNNECESSARILY be reimbursed accordingly?

    I don’t want a penny from the Council – hell, if this was about money and effort I could have spent the 150+ hours I have dedicated to this over recent weeks much better and just paid the money. It was never about the money.
    By families now seeking financial redress it may make the Council realise the impact of their decision-making.
    These people are making decisions on the public’s behalf – shouldn’t the same public entrust those elected officials to make lawful decisions?
    All but one of the Council thought the old rule (needing an undertaker) was sensible, reasonable, and lawful. One councillor even described the Rules & Regs as ‘very comprehensive’! Perhaps the likes of him should not pass comment on a matter he blatantly knows nothing about?

    I hope this is a wake-up call for them and other Councils who think they can make bullsiht (is there a profanity filter on this blog, Charles?) rules and don’t know what they are doing.

    I won’t benefit from this (other than saving on the undertaker’s interment fee). Had WTC listened to me, or at least shown an ounce of humility during this entire saga, I may think differently.

    And yes…I still await the apology that my family believe we are due.
    Wouldn’t you expect one if you were me, Andrew?

    You say it isn’t the rules which are to blame. I agree – it is this urban myth which organisations (including public bodies) are wrongly perpetuating. And, as previously stated, I am damn sure there are more people aware of there rights now than before this story.
    This was never about showing up the failings of a council; it was about choice and the rights we as consumers have in making those choices.
    Please remember, they chose not to listen to common sense and reason. They chose to ignore what I was saying. I guess they regret making those choices now but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
    I have always had a dislike for bullies and that is what WTC are for the most part: arrogant, ignorant bullies.


    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Andrew Hickson

    “I sincerely hope others who have been forced to use an undertaker by Woodstock Town Council now seek some financial means of redress for the unnecessary expenditure they have been put to.” … Who do you suggest foots the bill for this, if it happens? The good folk of Woodstock, via their council tax?

    Sorry though I am that you have been through this, I can’t help thinking that wishing this sort of thing is not really constructive.

    The sad fact is that the vast majority of people choose to use an undertaker. Take that as gospel from an undertaker who has been trying to encourage people not to use an undertaker for ages! It’s not the rules that are to blame, although I agree they are not right.

    Why not see your successful challenge as a positive move forward rather than a reason to stir further emotion from the past?


    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    CH

    You may say that but I couldn’t possibly comment!!!! 😉


    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    Vale

    Well, after all the harsh things that have been said about the Councillors, they have actually rolled with the stunt (not hard, people get up to far worse things in council chambers) listened, taken advice and changed the policy as a result. Hats off to them I say.


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      CH

      As I have previously posted the Council knew before my ‘top hat theatrics’ that they had little choice but to change their rules. The Mayor was more willing to speak to the journalist on this piece than he has been to speak to me.
      Should the Council overhaul its Rules & Regs it will undoubtedly to do without discussing them with people knowledgeable in these matters.

      You will all note that there still remains NO apology to either me or my family for the way we have been treated.
      I sincerely hope others who have been forced to use an undertaker by Woodstock Town Council now seek some financial means of redress for the unnecessary expenditure they have been put to. Perhaps, when they realise they are liable for the rules they make, they will make sure those rules are reasonable and lawful.
      For those detractors who have criticised the theatre of my actions, I suspect there will be more attention to this story as a result of the photo than without. I guess we will never know, however I stand by my actions.
      I imagine more people in sunny Oxfordshire will be more aware of their rights now than they were yesterday.
      And I suspect it has made uncomfortable publicity for WTC and, should any other councils be following suit, changes may be made to their Rules & Regs with haste.
      I will not be taking my hat off to them. They have been shamed into submission on this matter. Perhaps instead of dismissing me out of hand they should have listened and investigated then got back to me. Ignorance I can accept as people can always learn; combine it with arrogance and it becomes unforgivable.
      For those that have seen their Rules & Regs will understand why they need overhauling. Of course, WTC disagree believing only the requirement of an undertaker to be their only faux pas.

      Just to reiterate – Bicester Town Council do NOT insist an undertaker is present at interments of ashes.


      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Charles Cowling

        Do I discern a time bomb in there, Christopher?

        “I sincerely hope others who have been forced to use an undertaker by Woodstock Town Council now seek some financial means of redress for the unnecessary expenditure they have been put to.”

        Any NWNF lawyer reading this?


        Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    We understand that Bicester does not actually require families to employ a funeral director.


    Charles Cowling

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