Whose job is it anyway?

Charles Cowling

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?


12 thoughts on “Whose job is it anyway?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Agree, Stephen. And, yes, we reflect that the industry has many unsung heroes.

    Thank you for dropping in an adding your point of view.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Stephen Rutherford

    I have just been reading all from above and just today, I find that sadly the local Co-op here in the south of England had conducted a major error at a funeral where the wrong coffin was placed ready for cremation.

    The trouble with todays funerals in my view are that many of the firms with whatever name is above the door are bought out by these larger multy magnet firms, like dignity, Co-op etc. The small independant family firm can sometimes find it hard to compete in what is a highly expensive buisness which we should be reminded covers 24 hours a day, seven days a week 365 days a year!

    we should take heart in the knowledge that not every firm whether they are large or small, family run or not. That these companys do not or try not to make mistakes!! That their best interests are for the family concerned over this sad period of time in their lives.

    Only last week, I was at a friends mothers funeral. The care and perfection of professionalism in both the conductor and hearse driver were of high standards.
    We the family have a funeral, the funeral director and conductor helps organise and guides us through the service during this time of need.

    it with sadness that some funerals do not go well and serious mistakes have happened.


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    (reluctantly) Anonymous

    Co-op’s slogan is: “Because We Care”.

    I can’t answer your question ‘Where the hell was their caring?’, Gemma, any better than you can yourself, and I can only say I’m sorry to hear of your mistreatment, and that I wish I could feel surprised at your misfortune at such cavalier hands during such an upsetting time. I believe you are not the first, alas, but I admire your family’s courage in taking on those you feel aggrieved against.

    As others have said, the fact that some in the funeral trade are working, from a belief in their role as carers, to improve standards overall may be of small comfort to you, but here goes:

    The funeral arranger in the corporate undertaker’s, with whom I am working at the moment as a celebrant to conduct the ceremony, will receive no recognition from his bosses for his having called me to check with the family that the version of their chosen music he has found is the one they wanted; nor for having asked me to take the ceremony in preference to the branch’s usual choice of retired minister, who boasts to his friends about the ‘absolute fortune’ he is making from churning out over a dozen, indistinguishable funerals every week. Nor will I, for taking the work in his stead at a reduced fee while putting in five or ten times the hours writing a meaningful tribute to the person everyone is acutely grieving, and liaising with the family over who enters and leaves the chapel in what order, and so on. The family will appreciate the outcome, and that’s all that counts.

    There are countless other funeral directors’ employees who go out of their way just to show care, working for a measly wage for an aggressive firm run by men in suits who have never thought about the value of the product they are selling beyond the profit it brings. And, thanks in part to people like your family, the public are waking up to the fact that the funeral belongs to the family and not to the undertaker, minister or crematorium; it is of course too late for you to take control of Leslie’s funeral in light of your painfully gained understanding, but if it is any consolation to know, you will have helped others in the future, so thank you for standing up for something that matters so much.

    My apologies for remaining anonymous, which I’m doing to protect the privacy of the family I mention whose interests I’m serving at present.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    … anyway, what’s ‘Deadpan’? Sounds like a chain of kithcen equipment stores for cannibals – chaps like that have their rights too!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    You bastard, Rupert!!

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Jonathan, that was meant to goad you to further obscenity. Does nobody do deadpan anymore?

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Dear Rupert,

    My sincere apologies to you and others offended my obscenity in the caption competition, let out in an unguarded moment of building site humour.

    Thank you for your rebuke; I was wrong to press ‘enter’. It won’t happen again.



    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    The number of ways a funeral can go wrong are legion. This is not a job for anyone who can’t cope with huge surges of adrenaline, or respond appropriately when mistakes happen, as they inevitably do.

    Any legal position is largely irrelevant, it is there as a last resort when all else has failed, a decent FD should be able to settle a complaint long before recourse to the law.

    I am always astonished how in the face of disgruntled customers many funeral directors present an unchanged bill as if nothing had happened, without even making a token adjustment. Contract or not, the buck should stop with whoever has taken responsibility, financial and moral for the funeral, although it is easy to see that with the larger chains placing that responsibility fairly and accurately won’t be easy, the disconnect is just too profound. Perhaps if the person who arranged the funeral, invariably the nicest person the family meet in the whole process was also the person who saw them all of the way through it then something like this would be less likely to happen.
    I am curious as to who told the family to remain seated. Most Co-Op fd’s I see at the crem are nowhere near the actual ceremony, so I wonder if that was celebrant error? Seems by then things were increasingly adrift, easy to panic and make more mistakes.

    Incidentally Charles, welcome back. It’s all well and good this caption competition malarky, but it’s not ‘the work’ and we were lucky that Jonathan’s tendency towards the obscene stopped where it was. Don’t be afraid to let your occasional silence mutely rebuke us…

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Thank you Kingfisher for your comment, he was a truly great man.

    I would like to say I’m not tarring the whole profession with the same brush here and as a family we wanted a local funeral director as my grandad in particular was one of those men who wanted to help the local independent firms – hence why we used J Sheards Ltd.

    I’d also like to thank Charles and for a gentleman called Liam for all the help they’ve given my Aunty Carole in making our case – which unfortunately failed – but not their fault.

    If by making our case public it can help someone else out there who is suffering from the grief and loss of a loved one – make a better decision then we did, then it can only be to the good.

    To people like yourselves who are trying to continuously improve standards in this profession is truly commendable and hope it long continues.

    Thank you.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    My sympathies to you Gemma and your family. Yes, a funeral is the only time to say goodbye, to remember, to celebrate, to mourn the passing of a loved one. There are a growing number of people operating in this area who are trying to raise standards and to make sure people have a good ending.
    I started the My Last Song website to make it easier for people to choose the right music and understand the funeral choices they have. The Good Funeral Guide is another source of excellent information.
    Unfortunately, and understandably, people who are shocked and grieving are rarely able to research properly. It means that, sometimes, the funeral is not of the highest standard, nor appropriate…for instance religious funeral service to mark the life of a non-believer.
    Hopefully, a few more people will have learnt from your experience with the Co-operative Funeralcare…it’s little consolation to you, but perhaps something to grasp.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Hi Gemma

    I am sure I am not alone in telling you that my heartfelt sympathy goes out to you very, very deeply at this time. Your Grandad was clearly hugely respected and loved by all.

    You hit the nail directly on the head when you say that a funeral is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event. That is something on which we small independent funeral directors thrive, and something against which we constanly battle with corporate undertakers. It’s why we work so hard to ensure that mistakes don’t happen.

    Although it might not help your feelings right now, be assured that the likes of Charles are campaigning tirelessly to improve the standards of funerals in this country. The fact that he travelled to be with you, and to hear the outcome of the hearing, should tell you that.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    Hi, My names Gemma and I’m Ian’s daughter (in the article above).

    I would just like to say my Grandad (the deceased) was the ultimate gentleman, a friend to the people he met and an all round great man. He lived and breathed working hard and looking after us, his family right until he’s end and ultimately after his death. Without him personally, I could be in a very different position in life.

    If anyone deserved the best send-off and respect it was him.

    I don’t want to go into too many feelings I have towards the Co-Op’s care towards us from the day of contacting them about my Grandads funeral to the end of our assocation with them on the 4th March. But I would like to say, funerals are obviously a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event and you only get to do it once. All mistakes have to be left behind and remember the person your grieving for.

    But answer me this? If they confess to be a professional service, who ‘…offers a genuinely local funeral service backed by the strength and reassurance of a unique, caring organisation.’ Where the hell was their caring for us in our time of grief?

    Charles Cowling

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