Andrew Hickson, owner of Kingfisher Independent Funeral Services in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, has very kindly and usefully offered us these thoughts:
As an ardent follower of Charles’ excellent blog, and more recently his tweets, I couldn’t help being drawn to a recent entry which linked to an article in The Huddersfield Daily Examiner reporting on a family (‘decent folk’) taking on the Co-op (‘Satan’s Undertakers’) over errors which occurred at a funeral.
Now, I’m no great fan of the Co-op. Well, that’s not quite true, as my own very small business is thriving on their mistakes, and I understand that the reporting in the newspaper is probably quite sensational, but it does open up questions as to where the responsibility for certain elements of the funeral lies.
“An unknown version of Pie Jesu – a song specifically requested – was played at the service” says The Examiner. In fairness to the Co-op, that was probably exactly what was requested. Pie Jesu. It’s a popular enough ‘song’ to be requested at a funeral, most of us have heard it umpteen times. Or have we?
Fauré? Rutter? Lloyd Webber? (Those are, I would guess, the three most famous.) Mozart? Duruflé? Verdi? (A fair few of us will recognise those ones.) Schumann? Berlioz? Jenkins? (You’re starting to get the gist …)
I’m lucky, I’ve got a huge interest and a solid background in music, but is it really fair to expect a Funeral Director (or arranger, or whatever) to be responsible for selecting the correct version, or to know that there are different versions and therefore to question it? Even when we do make the enquiry, the answer is likely to be “the one off X-Factor” or similar.
My pet hate is spelling mistakes in printed service sheets. The process of the production of these goes something like: officiant provides rough order to FD, FD sends to printers, printer produces proof and sends back to FD, FD shows to client, client says yes (eventually), client passes back to FD, FD passes back to printer. Where does the buck stop? Does it really matter if there are a few spelling mistakes? Does it matter if one of those mistakes happens to be the name of the deceased?
My hazy memory of the NAFD Manual of Funeral Directing from c.1970 recalls the definition of a Funeral Director as “a man[!] who can enter a house where a death has occurred and take on the entire responsibility for arranging and conducting the funeral.” That definition sticks with me, as I believe that ultimately we, the Funeral Directors, should be the ones who carry that responsibility, because that’s what we are being paid for. But the ruling of this court seems to imply otherwise.
With the emergence of a far more open attitude to funerals, and with families choosing, quite rightly, to play an active role, of course we have less and less control, so are we inadvertently opening ourselves to court actions such as the one described above when something goes wrong? And if the mistakes don’t equate to breach of contract, do we need to worry anyway?
You can read the article in the Huddersfield Examiner here.
Unknown to Andrew, I actually attended this hearing. I first heard from the claimant, Carole Engel, some 17 months ago, shortly after her father’s funeral. She rang to ask my advice. I advised her to go to the Funeral Arbitration Service, which she did, and her complaint was rejected. She was offered arbitration, but chose instead to go to law. I was interested to witness this final outcome, and to observe the workings of a court of law in such a matter.
Carole and her brother Ian, who represented her, are both very nice, decent Yorkshire people – not, I would have thought, the complaining type. They were so exasperated by what they perceived to be serial incompetence followed by (again, perceived – I’m being very careful here) offhandedness on the part of Co-operative Funeralcare that they came to the dogged conclusion that the Co-op did not deserve to be paid. Whether or not the Co-op was in breach of its contract with Mrs Engel was the matter which the judge was called upon to decide. Because much of this case pitched claim against counter-claim, I have to be very cagey in reporting it.
The music played at the funeral was by Faure. Carole and Ian wanted the setting by Lloyd Webber and knew of no other settings. I would expand on how this muddle came to pass but I am unwilling to risk it. Suffice to say that the crem and the funeral director exchanged recriminations. Carole and Ian wanted family members to put posies on the coffin, but the funeral conductor, standing in at the last moment for the funeral director with whom Carole and Ian had made arrangements, may not have been briefed about this; there was, allege Carole and Ian, a brief and upsetting moment of muddle. At the end of the funeral the family, sitting in the front row, were, alleges Carole, directed to sit down and wait for everyone else to leave, a most unusual practice. By the time the family got out some people had left, and Carole and Ian were unable to thank them for coming – or even to know who they were. Next day, there was a mix-up over who could collect the ashes. Later, when the bill was sent, there were inaccuracies. Ian and Carole felt that their complaints were not accorded due seriousness. The funeral conductor offered a version of events, in the form of a witness statement written to the best of his recollection, which differed on almost every point from the version of events recalled by Carole and Ian.
The judge also considered the matter of transparency of ownership. Had Carole and Ian known that Joseph Sheard Ltd was not independent, as it appeared to be, but owned by Co-operative Funeralcare, they would not have used it. Correspondence was produced bearing no statement of Co-op ownership. Finally a right-to-cancel document was discovered, at the foot of which was a declaration of ownership. That was enough to satisfy the judge.
For all that the Co-op won hands down, I speculate that the reason for the very sympathetic account of proceedings in the Huddersfield Examiner derived from the reporter’s perception of Ian and Carole as people who deserved sympathy.
I came away reflecting that transparency of ownership is a very distant goal, and that it takes a catastrophic error to breach a contract. This was not a great day for funeral consumers.
To recur to Andrew’s point above, because it’s a very good one indeed: “are we [funeral directors] “inadvertently opening ourselves to court actions such as the one described above when something goes wrong? And if the mistakes don’t equate to breach of contract, do we need to worry anyway?”