Habeas corpus

Charles No Comments

I was emailed last night by someone who wants to visit their dead parent at the undertaker’s. The undertaker won’t make an appointment. The client thinks the undertaker is prevaricating. The undertaker tells the client that the customary time to visit a dead person is the day before the funeral. This is not soon enough for the client. The email concludes with the client asking me what their rights are.

Leaving aside the matter of rights (it’s quite clear what they are), anyone who knows how the funeral industry works will know what’s probably going on here. Let’s hazard a guess.

The undertaker is part of a chain operating out of a satellite branch. The dead parent is not, as the client may fondly suppose, at that branch. No, the parent is in a central mortuary some distance away with, perhaps, a hundred other bodies from other satellite branches. It’s difficult for the undertaker to arrange for the body to be brought to the satellite branch because businesses of this size operate with the fewest staff they can. At this busy time of the year it is impossible to find spare manpower to bring the parent out to the satellite.


The bigger the business, the more incapable it becomes of flexibility and, therefore, of personal service. There ought to be a trade-off here. The big businesses, with their car pools and central mortuaries and staffing rotas to keep everyone frantically busy, enjoy economies of scale which ought to enable them to undercut their competitors. But that’s not the way it works. Economies of scale are not passed on to the consumer. In the case of, say, Dignity that’s not surprising. They’re in it for the money. Their shareholders expect. In the case of Co-operative funeral homes, however, there’s a case to answer.

Let us not deplore this state of affairs too loudly. It is because the big beasts, the Dignitys and Co-ops, charge so much that the little independent businesses are able to thrive despite their higher overheads. Not only are they able to thrive, they are even able to undercut the big beasts. The law of the jungle is not working here. Long may it not.

I decided to find out how widespread is this practice of deterring people from visiting their dead (‘viewing’ as they call it in the trade, a peculiarly repellent word). I made some phone calls and asked undertakers how much notice they required. Here are my results.

Co-op Funeralcare, Aylesbury: Later the same day.

Arnold Funeral Service, High Wycombe (independent): None. Walk in off the street. If the chapels of rest are full you may have to wait for up to an hour or so.
Midlands Co-op, Stirchley, Birmingham: None, but best to ring first.
Henry Ison and Sons, Coventry (independent): None – unless busy.
R Morgan, Dudley (a satellite branch of Dignity): Will try to make an appointment for you to visit when you make your funeral arrangements. All bodies stored in a mortuary in Birmingham where they are embalmed (optional), washed, dressed and coffined. You can visit before the body goes to the mortuary: they will put a dead person on a trolley and make him or her as presentable as possible.
T Hadley, Halesowen (independent): None – unless busy.
T Broome and Sons, Baguley, Manchester (United Co-op): Prefer appointments but around an hour’s notice usually enough.
Haven Funeral Services, London (independent): None
Co-op, Hammersmith: None, but prefer you to make an appointment when you make arrangements and hope that’ll be the day before the funeral.
AW Lymn, Nottingham (many satellite branches): None. All bodies kept at city centre mortuary, or at Long Eaton. Either pop down there, or the body can be sent up to the satellite. They have a bed with quilt if you prefer that to visiting your dead person in a coffin. If they’re really busy and no one’s available to drive a body out to a satellite, “management will step in and do it.” Oh yeah? “YES!”

I stopped ringing. The picture is clear enough. Small, independent funeral homes are very responsive. Members of chains aren’t, with the exception of Lymn’s, quite so willing: most would rather tie you down to an appointment made when you make funeral arrangements. That’s a heck of a lot of big decisions to make in a very short time!

My emailer’s undertaker would appear, thankfully, to be a rare exception.

While ringing round I made a discovery I ought to have made ages ago about transparency of ownership. This is a debate which rages and will go on raging. When a big beast buys out an independent it goes on trading under the old name in which all the good repute is tied up. There’s nothing unusual about this. No one demands that Harrods change its name to Al Fayeds. But in the case of a funeral home it can be misleading to those who are looking for an independent funeral director.

Here’s a scenario. Someone has died and I am looking for an independent, family undertaker close to me in Moseley. What do I do? I google funeral director birmingham moseley. What do I get?

Funeralsearch.co.uk tell me about N Wheatley and Sons. Good-oh! So does zettai.net. And fastfinders.co.uk. And 192.com. And uk.local.yahoo.com. And yell.com. And businessclassified.com. And cylex-uk.co.uk. And sheriffratings.com.

That’s only for starters. There’s oodles of help on the internet. But what none of these sites tells me is that N Wheatley and Sons is, actually, in the ownership of the Midlands Co-operative Society.

I need to know that.

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