The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Habeas corpse

Friday, 1 November 2013

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Bristol undertaker Thomas Davis has been branded a “‘Burke and Hare’ operation” by MP Caroline Noakes after her constituent Peter Williams accused the undertakers of taking his mother-in-law’s body from Bristol Royal Infirmary and keeping it for ten days without asking.

She said: “Thomas Davis acted unlawfully, because all that had been requested by the Williams family was for them to provide a quote for their services and make provisional inquiries with a local crematorium. There was no contract, no formal quote and at no time were the family informed the body had been collected. Furthermore, at no time was any of the paperwork, required under Department of Health or hospital guidelines for the release of Mrs Pugh’s body, handed over by the family.”

A spokesperson for Thomas Davis claimed that the family had instructed the firm to carry out the funeral, and that the mortuary had released the body owing to “high standing and well-respected reputation” of the undertaker.

The NAFD sided with the undertaker: “The board believe that Thomas Davis acted in good faith, on the understanding that they had been given instructions from Mrs Williams to proceed with the funeral arrangements and have therefore agreed not to take the matter further.”

The hospital apologised to the family and blamed a member of the mortuary staff. (When big things happen, it’s the little guys who get it in the neck.) 

Full story in the Bristol Post here

5 comments on “Habeas corpse

  1. Jonathan

    Tuesday 12th November 2013 at 9:13 am

    There are more than one versions of the facts here, and it appears a lot of unthinking assumptions were made on the grounds that ‘this is what always happens’, and I think Georgie has hit the nail on the head about that.

    The Easter break doesn’t last ten days, but no-one is giving any other reason why the fd failed to contact the family to arrange the funeral once they had the body. What posessed them to keep silent about a corpse in their mortuary? Why on earth didn’t they pick up the phone and say, ‘your mum-in-law is safely in our care from today, we’ll look after her and see you Tuesday, call any time of day or night about anything that concerns you’ or some such? What affords them their enviable reputation if they can’t even think of a family’s grief, let alone if they exacerbate it with their presumptions and lax procedures?

    It’s still around 90-something percent of people who only even approach one undertaker, who assumes the funeral ‘belongs’ to him from then on because, almost always in practice, it does. But it shouldn’t, and assuming control from the rightful moral owners of the body and the funeral is something no funeral director, celebrant or anyone should ever do, at any stage of the process from beginning to end, much less do it as a matter of routine from the outset. Dealing with a body, creating a ceremony around that, being involved in the funeral in some way are all about healing, and according to this sorry story you couldn’t accuse Thomas Davis, or his professional association, of contributing to that vital process.

    What, then, is an undertaker for? Why do we need them?

  2. Georgie

    Monday 11th November 2013 at 1:29 am

    Thomas Andrews FDs may have acted in good faith but this is not necessarily the same thing as acting on the family’s instructions. I think that it’s important to be precise about what went wrong. If the family did instruct the FD to collect the body, why did they later complain about it?

    In regard to Nick’s comment above, why would any family instruct more than one Funeral Director to collect the body, that makes no sense at all. A more likely scenario is of more than one Funeral Director assuming that he or she has been instructed (perhaps because more than one FD has been asked for a quote) to collect a body – not the same thing. For me, one of the problems here is that families are expected to surrender control to the professionals and this surrender is assumed even when a family wishes to retain control.

    Also, hospital mortuaries and hospices are under pressure to have the body removed to commercial premises and this too is a part of the problem and one that most families would have little awareness of. In fact, the reality is that a family has very little time to think about what they want or to shop around. Many if not most families would benefit from having longer to think and process what they want – how do we address this issue given the current constraints caused by pressure to relocate the body? How can this issue be addressed?

  3. Monday 4th November 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I agree, the process is often deeply flawed and we FD’s just want to collect the deceased with the minimum of fuss and frankly, time.

    Some families will give verbal instructions by telephone – often asking you to collect the family member ASAP. Some hospitals require too much paperwork, others still accept your word that a particular person can be taken into you care.

    Coroner’s officers are sometimes unavailable to provide release instructions or forms. Some mortuaries, even at large hospitals only open from 1 pm until 4 pm making collection ridiculously hard. At St Peter’s in Chertsey Surrey sometime five vans are queuing at 1 pm – clearly a poor system?

    On the balance of probabilities, in this case, I would give the FD the benefit of the doubt and thank God I’m not collecting from that hospital in the weeks ahead! Procedures will be followed to the letter.

  4. Sunday 3rd November 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Without directly referring to the above post, it has to be said that the whole process of collecting a body from hospitals and public morturies is becoming somewhat of a nightmare.

    Yes, there have to be safeguards and protocols in place to prevent the “incorrect” removal of someone’s nearest and dearest, but it’s about time that everyone in mortuary provision started singing from the same hymnsheet.

    Hospitals appear to be getting so afraid of litigation, that each location seems to have it’s own local “take” on exactly what paperwork is needed or accepted.

    The same appears to happening with Coroners’ paperwork, with multiple local differences. Protocol gone mad in some areas, where in London, it can take upwards of half a day just to collect one item of documentation.

    Obvious political situations have developed between some hospitals and Coroners, which to be frank, might remind you of childish disagreements in the playground, with some Coroners refusing to send release notes to hospitals, and some hospitals refusing to release the body without them.

    Stuck in the middle, is the poor old undertaker. With mortuary opening hours decreasing, and some families appearing to instruct more than one firm of FD’s at the same time…. what IS the poor old dismal trade practitioner to do?

  5. andrew plume

    Sunday 3rd November 2013 at 1:11 pm

    yes…..fwiw, in my previous (professional) capacity I instructed Thomas Davis on numerous occasions, some years ago. The business was then owned by the Davis family, prior to it’s current ownership by Alderwick’s. Based on those experiences, any question of ‘improper conduct’ is hard for me to believe, they are after all the largest independent in Bristol and why behave in such a suggested manner? andrew

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