The Good Funeral Guide Blog
The report into the Mortonhall ashes scandal was released yesterday.
To refresh your memory: from 1967 until 2011 parents of babies who had died antenatally or perinatally in Edinburgh were informed, on the authority of Mortonhall crematorium, that there would be no ashes after cremation.
All the while (since 1934, actually) two privately-owned Edinburgh crematoria, Seafield and Wariston, had been managing to achieve ashes from foetuses as young as 17 weeks.
There’s a useful summary of the findings of Dame Elish Angiolini’s report here.
You can find the full report here.
Here are some extracts of the report that interested us:
* Most meetings between managers at the crematorium and with their line managers appeared to focus on budgets and finance rather than policy or practice. The issue of the cremation of foetuses and babies and whether or not remains were recovered and returned to parents does not seem to have been discussed even though Mortonhall was operating so differently to the other crematoria in Edinburgh over so many years.
* There was little by way of formal training at Mortonhall other than in general cremation practice. When it came to the cremation of foetuses and babies, staff learned from their more experienced peers or supervisor. Likewise, notions of policy and practice were derived by word of mouth with very little other than operators’ manuals committed to writing.
* Despite the complexities and difficulties of this particular aspect of cremation operations, there has been little by way of any local or national written guidance for Cremator Operators at Mortonhall. The absence of any practical formal training to attempt to support staff in recovering remains from infants or foetuses is a significant concern given the misgivings expressed by some of the staff involved. The absence of such training is all the more surprising since the difficulties have been recognized within the professional organisations and discussed by senior members of the profession over many years.
* The official ICCM direction: “The hospital must inform parent(s) that ashes may not be recovered from cremation.”
* The official FBCA direction: “In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of foetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed. This is due to the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”
* Dr James Dunlop, witness: “Crematoria are occasionally asked to cremate non-viable foetuses. Many doctors, especially those associated with crematoria, believe that there will be no cremated residue. However, if the cremation technique is modified, cremated remains are produced. These remains can form a focal point for the parent’s grief. Crematoria are urged to ensure their technique yields a residue … [When cremated gently] the outline of a foetal skeleton (it has been described as resembling the skeleton of a bird) can be discerned quite clearly on the base of the tray amid the ashes of the coffin.”
* It is not whether ashes can be recovered from foetuses but the degree of care and modification of the adult processes applied to the cremation of the baby which profoundly affects the outcome.
* Anne Grannum told the Investigation she had always believed there were no ashes from babies. She was not alone in that belief. This understanding was, until very recently, also held by the Chief Medical Officer, pathologists, midwives, medical referees, senior members of the professional associations and Funeral Directors. Her belief was based on the assertion that ashes were the calcined bones of the cremated individual and nothing else. Any residual remains from the process were simply refractory dust and coffin ash.
Mrs. Grannum’s failure over many years to make any enquiry about what was happening at Seafield, where she understood it was said ashes were being recovered, is also very difficult to understand. As business competitors it may have been seen as inappropriate to make a direct approach to Seafield but the matter could have been referred to her senior managers or to one of the professional organisations to pursue. She was not alone in this apparent inertia. NHS staff and Funeral Directors, amongst others, were all aware of the assertions by the staff at Seafield Crematorium of recovering ashes yet no one investigated these claims until the writer Lesley Winton visited Seafield in 2012.
* The contrast in the working practices and the approach to the cremation of babies at Mortonhall with the approach at Seafield and Warriston is stark. The obvious care taken at Seafield and Warriston to provide the very best possible outcome for the parents of the foetus or baby is exceptional. As a consequence of misunderstanding and poor advice in the NHS leaflets, many parents were led to believe that there would be a charge made for a funeral at these private crematoria where ashes were being recovered for parents. Neither of these crematoria have ever charged for such cremations.
Bastards. That’s what we used to call them. Next, illegitimate. We don’t call children born out of wedlock anything any more because we don’t feel we need to make a distinction.
Britain would be awash with bastards today if we still used the word because 4 out of 10 children are raised by unmarried parents. Happily the stigma of bastardy has entirely vanished. Some people get married, some don’t – whatever works for them. Some opt for a public, ceremonial plighting of troths, others for private, personal undertakings to each other. Neither the marrieds nor the cohabiters are judgemental of each other, and no one talks about living in sin any more – or shotgun weddings, remember them?
A feature of social change is that, no matter what birth pangs attend its arrival, it immediately becomes a non-event. The lead up to the gay marriage law was marked by much hullabaloo. As soon as the law passed, gay marriage become yawnsville – unremarkable. We absorb and carry on.
Direct cremation and direct burial were once reckoned astonishing and, more to the point, injurious to the emotional health of those who opted for it. It would deny them closure, leave them with all manner of unresolved grief issues. But they just keep on coming, and there is no evidence that bereavement support groups are swollen by their number.
Here at the GFG we get more and more people emailing to say thank you to us for giving them ‘permission’ not to have a ceremonial funeral after reading this: Do you really have to have a funeral?
And we meet and talk to more and more undertakers who get it — who respect direct disposal as a positive choice.
There’s been no discernible rearguard defence of the public ceremonial funeral from the conservative, traditionalist wing of the industry in Britain, and this is puzzling. You have to go to America to hear the case made:
“A good funeral involves facing the fact of death and not dispatching someone like [an undertaker] to get rid of the bad news—by removing the body from sight—but embracing the fact we have a corpse in our midst. It attends to the task of consigning this person somewhere, not in some perfunctory way but doing it with attention, ceremony, and some quest for meaning.” [Source]
Mark Higgins, the man who said that, is exactly the sort of funeral conservative you might expect him to be. What drew him to undertaking?
“I loved the pomp and circumstance, the drama, the dignity, if you will, the “black” of the event affected me. The vestments of the clergy, the black cars … We put ourselves in a posture of reverence and respect.”
It’s Thomas Lynch, together with Thomas Long, both of whom have written the best books out there on funerals, who are leading the die-hard traditionalists. Here’s Lynch:
“…. the presence of the dead so ups the existential ante that people generally feel the increased gravitas, the broadening of the emotional register, the increased sense of purpose and duty, the sense that we are somehow at swim in deeper water where the range of possible conversations and outcomes is broadened. The presence of the dead embodies, in utter stillness, the raison d’etre for the gathering, for the nervous laughter and the tears, for the wailing and belly laughs, for the entire spectrum of of responses and conversations — some holy, some hilarious, all of them focussed on the dead and the ones to whom the dead matter most.”
And he quotes Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under: “once you put a dead guy in the room you can talk about anything.”
Lynch and Long’s belief in the vital importance of having a dead guy in the room is unquestionably sincere. They have the best interests of the bereaved at heart. But it looks as if they are beginning to lose the argument.
This is a state of affairs for which the traditionalists cannot blame the ‘progressives’. Both camps, ironically, believe strongly in the importance of spending time in the presence of the dead. It goes without saying that this belief is in no way the product of commercial considerations.
No, direct disposal is something that has happened to undertakers and celebrants. Already it is already becoming unremarkable. It’s not for everybody, of course. But it’s the new normal. From now on, some people are going to want the dead guy in the room, others aren’t. Whatever works for them.
The impact of this on the professional status of funeral directors is likely to be profound. We’ll deal with all that in a follow-up post.
NOTE: Views or opinions presented in this blog post are those of the NFFD and should not be construed as being the views or opinions of the GFG. What follows is a response to comments made on this blog post.
We would like to extend our gratitude to all commentators for showing such a keen interest in the National Federation of Funeral Directors. We are delighted that the Good Funeral Guide, by bringing your attention to the NFFD’s cause, is arousing such strong interest. When I first approached Charles to inform him of developments at the NFFD, I felt that his blog would provide a conduit through which the NFFD could finally connect on a meaningful level with that somewhat closeted section of the industry whose attitude, generally, is to automatically reject any organisation (not just ours) whose ambitions could possibly unsettle the status quo that has been serving some operators just a little bit too well, for too long.
Formed in 2010 by a group of new, ambitious, and forward-thinking funeral directors whose modern approach and highly-competitive pricing saw them stonewalled by the wider industry ‘community’, the NFFD’s aims from the outset have been to aid and encourage new business, promote transparency, increase value for money, and streamline working practices – all of which ultimately help safeguard the independent industry at a time of mounting pressure from the corporate giants. We believe that if the sector is to survive and prosper, then new firms, concepts, and ways of working should be embraced – not derided and dismissed.
It is our belief here at the NFFD that the funeral industry is poised for some level of reform. Though the notion of the traditional ‘family funeral director’ still exists, the fact is that current economic pressures combined with greater choice and universal internet access, means the modern consumer is much more willing to shop around for best value when tasked with arranging a funeral. There was a time when funeral directors enjoyed a certain level of guaranteed business. Frequently, a single firm might have served an entire community, and though the majority of funeral directors were then, as now, fine, upstanding characters, such a lack of competition meant those who perhaps weren’t so scrupulous didn’t have to worry that over-charging, or under-performing, would result in diminishing business. But those days are well and truly over. We all know that there is currently a huge influx of new funeral directors, all of whom come into the industry believing, quite rightly, that it is possible to provide the exact same standard of service (or better) that traditional, established, funeral directors do, but at a fraction of the cost. For any funeral director to believe he can continue making 2, 3, or perhaps even 4 thousand pounds in profit per service, when another down the road might accept less than 1, is fool-hardy in the extreme. It is perfectly true that the quality of the cheaper services will sometimes be poor, but as countless disgruntled consumers will attest to…you can pay top rates and receive even worse.
It is telling that the vast majority of NFFD funeral director Members are relatively new to the industry. They routinely tell us they have been shunned, and in some cases had their businesses and reputations subversively sabotaged by their more-established peers within the trade. Why should this be? Is it because their attackers think it’ll cause the competition to fail and disappear, thus restoring the old order whereby they can continue charging more or less what they want without fear of being challenged? The theory the NFFD prefers is that these incidents are borne out of a genuine, heart-felt, concern that cheap services, conducted by relatively inexperienced operators, might damage the reputation of the wider, established, funeral industry. If that is indeed the case, then wouldn’t it be far better for established funeral directors, using the NFFD as a link, to offer the benefit of their skills and experience to actually help these new firms? That way, the established, traditional, slightly more expensive providers could make a good living catering for the element of the market that is willing and able to pay for a bit more luxury, while the cheaper, newer firms could cater for those on a more limited budget. The whole effect would be to increase standards at both ends of the spectrum, and lower costs for those poor unfortunates who currently can’t afford to give their loved ones a respectable send-off.
Though we applaud the work of the NAFD and SAIF and understand the public credibility both bodies bring to firms displaying their logos, we realised that the NFFD’s comparative lack of history means we must instead offer our Members something useful in a practical sense if we are to distinguish ourselves and move closer to our ultimate goal. Contrary to the opinions of some commentators here, the NFFD is, currently at least, a not-for-profit organisation. For a nominal fee of just £25 a month to cover running costs, our Members enjoy exclusive access to a range of tools and services, all of which are designed to help them stay as competitive as possible without compromising the values and traditions that must always be the independent funeral director’s most marketable features. Our services include:
- Free funeral management system (including automated invoice generation)
- Low / 0% finance facility on all funerals and funeral related products (subject to status)
- Free use of our ingenious online ‘Candle Memorials’ service.
- Free, enhanced, advertising on the Funeral Directors Register
- Free service stationery
- 10% discount on all Funeralstore products (including body-bags at £1.99 each postage paid!)
- Rights to sell SafeHands Funeral Plans (admin fee just 1%, plus you can draw down an instant deposit of anything up to £500!)
But we’re not just here to help those within the funeral industry. We receive countless calls from members of the public concerning issues of funeral quality and affordability. There is clearly growing consumer awareness that many funeral directors’ fees are wildly disproportionate to their costs. It was in response to this that we created the Fair Price Charter. In essence, it is a database of independent funeral directors who, by subscribing to the Charter, confirm that they are willing to conduct a standard cremation (hearse / 2 bearers / service) for a fee that we
agree is ‘fair’ both for the funeral director and consumer alike. We do not publicise the fee, as that could compromise the director’s ability to charge more on other occasions when it is perhaps appropriate to do so. However, to learn what the fee is please click here. to complete a contact request form. Fair Price Charter subscribers are provided with a web-link and enhanced advertising on both the NFFD and Funeral Directors Register (www.funeraldirectorsregister.com), plus certification to display in their premises. But most usefully, we will signpost to them any enquiries we receive from members of the public seeking the most affordable services in their local areas.
It was for similar reasons that we created the Funeral Directors Register (www.funeraldirectorsregister.com). In addition to being a simple public information service, the Register acts as a single point of reference where members of the public can leave feedback about the quality and value for money of the services they receive. The same concept works brilliantly in the travel and hospitality sectors, so just imagine its potential in the funeral industry where it’s even more important to consumers that they make the right choice first time! We are currently investing heavily to bring the Funeral Directors Register into the wider public domain, so make sure you claim your company’s listing today so you can replace the generic filler text that currently populates your entry. To register your company, or to claim your company’s listing click here Contrary to what some commentators have suggested, it is completely free to appear on the Register. You do not have to join the NFFD, nor do you have to subscribe to the Fair Price Charter, but if you do, then your company’s listing will appear towards the top of the search results in your local area.
The question has been asked ‘who are the NFFD?’ For the record, our team comprises a non-executive Managing Director (David Latham), an executive director (Malcolm Milson), an Operations Manager (William Eccleston), two IT specialists (Peter Bennett and Emran elBelushi) and an Administrator (Mandy Peters). Our registered headquarters is in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, although for logistical reasons we are based primarily at offices in Wakefield. As a not-for-profit organisation, our success is owed, in part, to our ability to deliver our services digitally and provide our ongoing support and aftercare remotely. For £25 a month, you won’t get Chairman’s Balls I’m afraid, but you will get a suite of practical, useful, no-nonsense services and 24 hour support, which, if properly utilised – will more than pay for themselves!
We also enjoy a close working relationship with SafeHands Funeral Plans, who, thanks to our support and influence, have become the UK’s fastest growing funeral plan company. SafeHands operates on exactly the same premise as the industry’s other leading plan providers in so much as their plans can be allocated to any independent funeral director. Funeral directors who sell SafeHands Funeral Plans are at 3 distinct advantages: 1) SafeHands plans are proven to be the least expensive on the market, making them more affordable for the client to buy 2) because SafeHands charge an admin fee of just 1%, it means the funeral director receives a bigger sum at the point of death than they do through other plans 3) funeral directors can draw down an instant deposit of anything up to £500.
One anonymous commentator on the GFG has implied, libellously, that SafeHands plan-holders’ investments aren’t secure. In response, the SafeHands Trust, which is held by the HSBC bank, is managed by Pitmans (PTL) Trustees – a firm of specialist pension trust managers based in Leeds, and is administered by Gordons LLP. Drawing on the NFFD’s expert knowledge of the industry, its growing bank of ambitious members, and ability to present a sensible, reasoned, unarguable, case when offering business to the few independent funeral directors we encounter who do initially consider declining, SafeHands enjoys a 98% first-time plan acceptance rate. Even better than that, to date, there have been no complaints whatsoever from plan-holders or their families regarding the services they have received.
Another commentator asks why SafeHands Funeral Plans are not registered with the Funeral Planning Authority. There are numerous reasons: Firstly, despite the FPAs claim that it is “staunchly independent and impartial in all its dealings”, due-diligence reveals clear conflicts of interest between members of FPA’s executive board and members of the boards of the funeral plan companies that the FPA currently endorses. Also, because the FPA (just like the NFFD) is a self-regulatory body there is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any funeral plan company to be FPA registered. Lastly, though the NFFD and SafeHands recognises there is some merit to FPA registration as a means of providing consumers with ready confirmation that a funeral plan company adheres to a certain set of standards and values, given SafeHands is a professionally run and managed organisation, they feel perfectly capable of demonstrating their adherence to those same standards and values themselves, without having to resort to 3rd party assistance.
If you would like to learn more about SafeHands, the SafeHands Trust, or the Trust Managers, then please go to http://safehandsplans.co.uk/trust-us.php
I hope there is enough here to satisfy any doubters that the NFFD’s mission is entirely honourable and that everything we do is in the best interests not just of ourselves, but the wider independent funeral industry and its consumers.
The NFFD is currently offering all prospective new members a FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL of all its tools and services. To apply, please click here or call us on 01937 919045.
Thank you for your kind attention and we hope to serve you soon.
4/6 Bridge Street
In the good old days, death happened before we were ready for it. It struck untimely. Now, it creeps up, perhaps getting to us long after we have timed out.
Which raises the question: when is a timely death?
Journalist Matthew Parris is not alone in contemplating old age with trepidation. In a recent article he asked “How long do you want to live?”
It is a question my generation are the first in modern history to be asking ourselves in very large numbers. We ask it because we are among the first to expect — again in very large numbers — that our lives may be prolonged past a point when we may want or think we ought to live.
We will ask it, too, because we are the first generation among whom a majority no longer believes that suicide is a mortal sin.
I’ve decided to write myself a letter to be opened at the age of 75 and thereafter revisited annually. It sets out my criteria for carrying on. These are the criteria for me alone and I don’t apply them to others, who must frame their own.
To the following eight questions a box is to be ticked, “yes” or “no”. The answer to some may obviate the need to ask some others. If the answer to either of the first two questions is “yes” then brush this letter aside and live on. If the answer to both is “no” then read no further, and reach for the razor blade.
1 Do you still, on balance and taking good times with bad, enjoy being alive?
2 Is there anyone else whose life would be devastated by your death?
The final six questions are not critical, but they may help you to decide in case of doubt:
3 Are you still of any practical use?
4 Are you more or less of sound mind? — in which case who is the prime minister, and multiply two by nine then subtract seven.
5 Are you more or less in possession of your physical faculties?
6 Are you still curious about the world? Can you get on a plane?
7 Behind your back, do people pity you?
8 Can you justify the cost to others, to the NHS and to your country of staying alive?
Full article here.
The National Federation of Funeral Directors, “a professional, self-regulated body, committed to increasing consumer choice and cost transparency within the funeral industry,” has become very active lately.
It has launched Funeral Directors Register, which claims to be “the UK’s only comprehensive funeral care resource … a single point of reference for consumers seeking funeral directors reviews, reputable, qualified, and approved funeral director services.” It has ambitions to be the industry equivalent of TripAdvisor and will be backed by television advertising.
It is also “leading the way in revolutionising the independent funeral industry”. One way in which it is doing this is through its Fair Price Charter, which it invites funeral directors to sign up to. Those who agree to charge “a fee that the NFFD confirms is fair and reasonable” will get “a web-link and enhanced advertising on both the NFFD website and our new Funeral Directors Register stating that your pricing strategy aligns with the principles of the Fair Price Charter, but we will also signpost to you enquiries that come in from members of the public seeking more affordable services in your local area.”
The Co-op’s stated aims
- To be a commercially successful business
- To meet the needs of our customers and the communities we serve*
- To respond to our members and share our profits
- To be an ethical leader
- To be an exemplary employer
- To inspire others through co-operation
Co-operative Group results 2013
Overall loss: £2.3 billion
Funeralcare sales for 2013 £370m – 3.4% up on 2012.
Underlying F’care operating profit increased 3.3% to £62.1m.
In 2013, F’care opened 16 new funeral homes, invested £3.1 million in crematoria development and £9.5 million in its fleet of vehicles.
In December, a new website was launched to allow customers to purchase, as well as manage, a pre-paid funeral plan online.
More whitewash here.
“Those directors are now locked in a defensive mindset which makes intervention by the Bank of England and the Treasury all the more likely in the end. The walk-on part of Lord Myners is, I fear, no more than a sideshow in the slow procession towards the crematorium of this once great institution.”
Martin Vander Weyer in the Spectator.
*One in five people struggle to pay for a funeral
In Winwick Churchyard by Josh Ekroy
blotching their honourable faces. Seated in uneven
rows in their auditorium they note church-goers
squinch the gravel path to the embossed door.
Some lean backwards in mock amazement,
others forward, study the half-mown grass
or slap their thighs, whisper behind their hands —
only one stares in vertical — at man that is born
of woman, a joke they refuse to explain.
But the upright rectangle between the medlar
and the lych-gate, marbled in its twenty-first
century is excluded from the pleasantries,
is bullied after lights-out by the listing seniors,
its jar of wilting pansies the butt of scorn.
A much missed mum and nan? Don’t
make them lurch. Get real: become obscure.
An ancient resident is so amused he’s face down
on the turf and you can hear the subterranean
echo of guffaws, no sleep allowed in this dormitory.
Better have a witty answer when they taunt:
got any pubic moss yet? Wm. Blott, born
Oct 3rd,1756, died it’s not clear when, affects
a desire to know. So does his wife Mary
or is it Maura. Sissy Sally Evans, d. 2006,
has years to go before she stoops to see the joke.