In December 2006, Boyd Evans, 20, a talented, stylish, popular hairdresser, died after a car crash along with his partner, Nathan.
Boyd’s mother, Teresa, set about trying to get his clothes and things back: “I had wanted every last thing close to Boyd in his last moments.” The hospital prevaricated, then told her they had been disposed of. Later, after Boyd’s funeral, Teresa discovered that the undertaker had stuffed a bag containing Boyd’s bloodied clothing, together with she knows not what else, underneath him in his coffin. Thus was he buried.
Outraged, Teresa sued. Eventually she prevailed. The experience has forged her into a campaigner for consumer education, consumer rights and funeral reform. She is an unstoppable force, a thorn in many sides. She is presently laying down challenges to an array of government bodies, demanding a joined-up approach to consumer education and empowerment. She is challenging the status quo where funeral directors – whom she implacably calls funeral undertakers – may ply their trade unregulated and self-policed – this in a country where you have to have a licence to run a cattery. In any case, she says, ”Should it not be the bereaved that ‘direct’ the funeral?” It is the bereaved who are the funeral directors. The undertakers – “labourers in suits” she calls them – are their servants.
Teresa says: “Whilst I hope that there are many funeral undertakers that serve the public well, there are also many, I am sure, that forget that they are a service to which they are paid and depict an arrogance that I was presented with…There is an apparent reluctance to explain to a potential client that they may conduct a funeral independent of a funeral undertaker.” I feel very proud when she goes on to say: “To date I have sourced one that is content to do so!” That one is my esteemed friend James Showers.
The law allows consumers far more rights than they may suppose. Teresa would have liked to collect the body of her son herself rather than give him up to strangers. All mothers, in particular, will know how she felt: this was her boy. She was given to suppose that only an undertaker can do that. Hospital bereavement staff customarily tell the bereaved that they must engage a funeral director.
Fact is, there’s nothing in law to compel you to acquiesce in surrendering the body of someone who has died to strangers. There is nothing to stop you, if you are the next of kin, from taking the body home with you, there and then, in your car, if you wish, yes, propped up in the passenger seat — so long as the coroner is happy. And, of course, you can conduct all the funeral arrangements yourself.
But I didn’t know until, earlier on this week, I talked to doughty campaigner John Bradfield, green and home burial pioneer, and learned that you don’t even have to dispose of that body. All you have to do is prevent it from becoming a public health hazard. The law is much, much more permissive than you might think, something officialdom would really rather we didn’t know.
Funeral professionals will, mostly, reckon Teresa a pest. Not all of them. Other people may be alienated by the intensity of her singlemindedness. But no one ever brought about change without possessing Teresa’s species of singlemindedness. I applaud her. She is a hero.
Find out more about Teresa’s experience and her campaign at her website, here. I’m pretty sure she’ll leave a comment, too.