Dark ops or what?

Charles 33 Comments


We’ve had a lot of correspondence here at the GFG since Dispatches flung that stuff about Co-operative Funeralcare in our eye (5 mins of telly souffléd into half an hour with a dollop of unleavened ombudsman).

It’s been complaints, mostly, and of course I can’t go into detail about any of them. But almost all of them  illustrate systemic problems in the funeral industry.

One of those problem areas is the conduct of funeral directors who hold a local authority contract for coroners’ removals.

The specific problem here is the way these contracts work. They are often awarded to a funeral director who pitches below the viable commercial rate for the job. The protocol that contracted funeral directors must observe, often, is that they must not solicit for business but they may leave a business card with the family.

Which looks a bit like soliciting for business, yes?

More important, how do councils suppose that undertakers carrying out removals at a loss are going to make it pay? Isn’t there only one way they can make it pay?

How much oversight is there? Do procurement officers ever get out to check up on their contracted undertakers?

Does a failure to find out how contracted undertakers make it pay amount to tacit collusion in questionable practice? We’re not suggesting that council officers are getting backhanders.

How could an undertaker who keeps to the rules hope to win one of these contracts, and why would she want to?

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, nor do we want to jump to conclusions before getting all the facts. We rely on you to fill us in, if you would be so kind.

What’s it all about?


  1. Charles

    The fairest way to organise Coroners’ removals is arguably the rota system. This is where a family is first given the choice of nominating their favoured undertaker to remove the Deceased. Where they have no preference, or their choice of firm is unable to accommodate, then the police refer to a local rota of participating undertakers.

    This has been the chosen method that has stood the test of time – but is vanishing fast.

    My understanding of the mostly unwritten rule of performing a Coroners’ removal is that an undertaker (chosen from the rota) must not identify themselves, and under no circumstances must “tout” for business or leave a business card.

    If asked who they are, their first reply should be that they are “working on behalf of the Coroner”.

    I doubt that in the real world, every firm is quite that ethical. I am proud, however, to suggest that when we were involved in such requests, some years ago, that was our ethos.

    The changes have perhaps been driven by the reluctance by police control rooms to spend their time “ringing round”. Far easier, perhaps, to have a “one-stop-shop”.

    So, goodbye to a yet another system that was not only fair, but was seen to be fair!

  2. Charles

    I don’t see the need for an undertaker at all in this circumstance.

    The body may be removed to the Coroner’s mortuary, or hospital mortuary, by anyone with a van (eg: an undertaker, a Man with Van, the family of the deceased), and from there it can be returned to, or left at, a hospital mortuary until the bereaved family has deciced, from impartial information given by, oh, say, an independent funeral advisor like me, what to do with it next; whether to leave it where it is (with the cooperation of the mortuary) staff until the funeral, or to take it away themselves in the back of the Ford Focus, or to ask a funeral director to put it in his mortuary for them, and so on.

    All this jobs for the boys stuff smells worse than a rotting corpse with its brains and guts taken out and sewn back inside.

    1. Charles


      I too have to agree with Nick. How many Deceaseds have you handled? how many funerals have you “Advised on?” how many crime scenes have you attended as an FSO or FD? no lets strike FD-Would I be right in thinking you work for a multi national rather than an “Independant”?

      You most certainly would never work for me with your attitude towards the Deceaseds, they are not an “it” or a “mangled one” and this is not how a “professional” should act, making quips and joking about what type of removal you have attended, they are someones loved one!

      A lack of respect is a sure way of finding out that some people have no experience nor the common sense to deal in such matters.

      As for preserving evidence, if in doubt ask a police officer at the scene; Otherwise a Paper Coverall, Gloves and Shoe Covers should be worn. These items can then be removed before you leave the scene and placed in a forensics bag if required and sealed. It is always better to be aware of the environment you are entering and keeping your colleague and yourself safe; not to mention being questioned later as to why your DNA is on the Deceased! I would like to think that if you are a funeral worker (funeral advisor)you are fully aware of your responsibilities at crime scenes?

      One Hopes your Ford Focus was the Estate Version at least? :-/

      BLOG ED’S NOTE: The above was posted in the name of someone else. I can’t take it down because that would mean taking down many other comments, rendering the threads beneath two blog posts incoherent. Because it seems to represent a sincerely held point of view, and is credible, I have decided to keep it up even though it sought to shelter behind someone else’s identity.

      1. Charles

        Nor would I wish to work for you, A. N. Imposter, with your assumptions about my relationship with the person who died. Dorothy was not a ‘Deceased’, as you call her, she was a friend of mine, but her mangled dead body was not.

      2. Charles

        …oh, and your assumptions about ‘multi-nationals’, for all my own dislike of them, is quite distateful to me, too.

        Keep your job.

  3. Charles

    I have to agree with Nick on this one. The involvement of the coroner in a death is different from other circumstances. They are a uniquely independent figure in this world, answerable to the Queen and not easily intimidated by the police or any other interested parties. Their responsibility is towards the deceased, and to the truth. Any body taken into their care needs to be done in an exact manner, often to preserve evidence. Much as we approve of the man in a van approach, this is one circumstance when it is not appropriate. Of course, none of this means the current system of contracted pick ups is right. The funeral director should be paid the appropriate going rate for the work, and the contract should be rotated, as it usually is. It is grim work, often involving waiting in laybys in the middle of the night for the emergency services to finish their work. Far from easy money.

  4. Charles

    Yes, Nick, I have experience of handling bodies (as well as being fairly qwerty), including a mangled one after a bus had run over it and the Coroner had dealt with the case. I drove it back to Devon from a London hospital mortuary in my Ford Focus, as it happens.

    However, I take Ru’s point about preserving evidence – but not the implication that this may be presumed to take place just because an undertaker is the one entrusted to preserve it; what assurance against contamination is there? If I were making the rules it’d have to be the Coroner’s employed agent who invariably collected the evidence. But, as you seem to imply, if I were making the rules I’d better learn the game first!

  5. Charles

    A rota system seems very fair,
    Its interesting that a number of tenders for Transportation, removal of bodies and some called coroner removal of bodies and fluctuating prices associated with these tenders such as:

    Devon County Council = 300.00 awarded unknown
    Cumbria County Council = Lowest offer 500 highest 750 GBP awarded to Dignity Funerals
    Suffolk County Council = 550 GBP awarded to Dignity Funerals
    London Borough of Camden value of contract 280 GBP – awarded to Floyd & Sons
    Northamptonshire County Council = 275 – 800 GBP – award to The Co-operative Funeralcare
    Stoke on Trent City Council = 175 GBP awarded unknown
    Oxfordshire County Council = 160 GBP awarded to The Co-operative Funeralcare
    I have to say that looking at tenders there does not seem to be many that have a number of FD’s awarded in the procurement process – and with self regulation – who knows what goes on behind closed doors

    1. Charles

      Are you sure these figures do not relate to pauper’s funerals? Undertakers doing Coroner’s removals usually charge nothing or a nominal sum, often pence. That is how they get the contract that excludes all others.

  6. Charles

    I’m going to try again (last time I tried to post on the new look site it vanished in the ether..Charles, have you installed a filter to keep me out? 🙂

    I can remember, not long after meeting Keith, being amazed to discover that it was fds who collected the dead from rtas and scenes of violent/unexplained death. For some reason I had always assumed it was the police or the ambulance crews, and I still think that that (or a council employed team) would be a good idea. They would be trained in preserving evidence and so-on. Jonathan, I take your point entirely, but I find it very hard to believe that many families would wish to take their family member from the scene of a violent death to a hospital mortuary. Some, yes, I don’t doubt it, but not many.

    That said, the system is very odd. We were invited by the council to tender for the contract to do this about 8 months ago. After some discussion (admittedly not very much) we decided not to. It involves, as Ru says, a great deal of unpleasantness, almost always at unsociable hours for not enough money to make it worth the unpleasantness. Also, as a small firm we didn’t feel we had the necessary resources. One of the requirements was that the dead would be collected in unmarked vehicles (ours have a very small company logo) and business cards were a definite no-no. So we didn’t tender.
    Oddly enough, though, we did get a Coroner’s Removal about 2 months ago. Just the one…so goodness knows what’s going on there! I assume they know what they’re doing…….

  7. Charles

    In my previous business we held the Coroner’s contract for about 6 years. We carried out the removals for free but charged for body bags and transfers from one mortuary to another. The only reason we put in a nil bid was because the contract stated that we could tell the family who we were and leave not just a business card but also a brochure. On that basis it made good business sense and we picked up around 1 in 5 funerals. However we always told families that we were operating on behalf of the Coroner and they were free to choose whoever they wished to carry out the funeral.

    When the contract came up in Worcestershire we decided not to bid – mainly because we don’t have a large full-time staff and didn’t want to have to provide the cover 24/7. However when they received no bids for 2 areas we did put in a bid that would have paid us and the staff a reasonable amount. Fortunately we didn’t get the contract as from what I understand it’s been a nightmare for those who did get areas.

    From what I understand in Birmingham, unless there are suspicious circumstances, the family’s choice of FD removes the deceased back to their premises and they are then collected by a contracted team the next day.

    This seems the fairest way of doing it to me.

  8. Charles

    I have just been called by the person whose identity was hi-jacked by A. N. Imposter, who assures me someone else is posting in his name. It happens, just thought you all should know, so as not to judge the man unfairly.

    1. Charles

      How did we ever come to accept that it is permissible to adopt an alias in order to evade taking personal responsibility for what we say? I get fed up with engaging in debate with people wearing virtual balaclavas. Fortunately, this sort of thing rarely happens on this blog – and I know the real identity of those with alter egos and noms de blog.

      I need to explain that I have had to redact the name of the person whose identity was hijacked in this case and substitute A. N. Imposter. I couldn’t take down all the comments which name him because that would have made nonsense of two lots of comment threads.

      When I took my laptop to the police and explained what was going on I was surprised how interested they were in taking it further. They are currently following up the traces left by A. N. Imposter.

  9. Charles

    A Celeb is confused but then Charles and Jonathan won’t be surprised by that! I have done several arrangements where the family told me that the funeral director was lovely, friendly and chatty when he arrived to collect the body. (‘Oh, he was in the Army was he? I used to be in the Army.’) It nearly always worked and the families would ask him for his business card.

  10. Charles

    I do love reading the comments on posts on this (very funky new look) blog Charles, although I have to agree with a comment by Claire Callender recently when the commenting pigeons were getting their feathers all a’fluster after the Dispatches half hour – it does indeed get very weird in here at times…

    Personally I find it a bit odd that those with strong views one way or another want to air them without adding credibility to their opinions by backing them up with their real identity – is Big Brother really watching everything that is posted here? And if so, who he?? And why would standing up and being counted in your own right with an observation on something that stirs you be so bad?

    Maybe you could colour code those little people shapes that appear against the comments Charles, to sort the wheat from the chaff for the rest of us who don’t know who’s real and who’s virtual – pure white for those of us who don’t give a hoot about who reads what we think, and a shady grey (one of the fifty perhaps?) for the others who type behind the veil of anonymity / noms de blogs. That might make being part of this superbly subversive world of looking in on / out of the dismal trade even more entertaining!

    1. Charles

      A very good suggestion, Fran. How good to be talking to a Real Person, not one of these duckers-and-divers.

      I’ve a certain amount of sympathy with those commenters who wish to separate their personal views from their professional practice. A celebrant’s life is precarious enough and prey to vindictiveness. Funeralworld is unused to a free and open exchange of views. These are early days in the Deathcare Spring and here in Tahrir Square numbers are not yet high enough to see off the secret police. But they’re growing. Always look on the bright side of death!!

  11. Charles

    I was hoping that the penny would eventually “drop”, but I still can’t quite get my head around whether A.N. Imposter is a genuine poster who has been hi-jacked by someone else posing as A.N. Imposter, or, whether an original, genuine poster called something else has been “overwritten” by Charles as A.N. Imposter.

    Would some kind person elucidate, please?

    1. Charles

      Nick, A. N. Imposter hijacked the identity of a perfectly genuine, bona fide person who has never before posted. Mr/Ms Imposter has been given a wigging by the owner of the email address, Mr/Ms Bona Fide, from which said Imposter posted. Inasmuch as Mr/Ms Imposter has become integral to the comment threads of two posts, it seemed impossible to pull the posts without pulling all other posts referring to the comments of Mr/Ms Imposter. Furthermore, inasmuch as Mr/Ms Imposter clearly spoke with the voice of a credible industry insider, it seemed useful to preserve their comments at the same time as destroying their personal credibility as the owner of the name under which they posted, which has quite properly been redacted.

      Pleased to clear that up.

  12. Charles

    I used to do coroner’s removals many years ago – not in the area I currently work I must add. We did them on a rota basis in some areas – in others the coroner’s officer would use a firm who I know paid him a little gratuity. I was not allowed any removals in this London Borough. I assume because I complained. Where we did do removals, my firm was paid. around £42.50 daytime and £100 or so out of hours. Mostly we got the funeral instruction and did present cards if anyone was present to speak to. As I understand it, Coroner’s recover their costs and expenditure from the local authority, so when some enterprising large FD offered to do the job for 5p, the council’s obviously thought Christmas had come early. And so now in my area – the removals are done 24/7 for virtually nothing. The tender is too large and complex to interest most little firms, even if we combine resources. The large business that operates the contract in my locale allegedly presents a business card in the name of the firm they own nearest to the deceased. This appears to be against the contract rules. Mostly I assume they get the funeral instruction – which pays for the removals. The council, coroner nor consumer seem not to be bothered by any of it. I am!

    As far as forensics were concerned. Anything of that nature was always bagged and sealed prior to our arrival. Scenes of crimes lads and lasses had always finished ‘working the scene’ as they say in the best cop shows. No possibility of contamination by blundering undertakers 🙂

  13. Charles

    You would think that the procurement process, and the way that the service was instructed and delivered, would be near as dammit similar across the UK.

    The truth is, that everyone appears to do their own thing. There is a wide difference up and down the land.

    The Coroner has the power to instruct that a body is recovered into his (or her) custody until such time as the cause of death has been established.

    In order to do this, in bygone years, he would instruct his officers to recover the body. Since the inception of the constabularies, his officers were police constables, and even to this day, all police officers are automatically coroners officers (although this title now has morphed to mean individual dedicated constables – or civillian police staff – with sole responsibility to the Coroners procedures).

    Until the 1980s, some Coroners areas still used public ambulance services to remove bodies, and latterly, only from public places.

    There are still the odd removal shells (thick with dust) waiting to be placed into action in the back of a trusty police landrover in selected parts of the country.

    Funeral directors have only fairly recently, within the last 25-30 years, been involved with first removals for deaths that occur outside residential addresses. Now, the police and public ambulance services have better things to do, and the onus has shifted to FDs.

    Contracts or arrangements outside the rota systems, appear to have been awarded in a very hap-hazard fashion. Some go out to tender every now and then, although this is obviously not a legal requirement. It is my understanding that the Coroner can in fact stipulate exactly who he/she wants to act on his/her behalf to carry out this duty.

    I refer to the arrangements within my local area, where up to the late 1960s, the borough ambulance service removed all coroners bodies. This function then became the duty of the public mortuary attendant (as a means of boosting his meagre wages). A man-with-van situation.

    This local arrangement remained in place even after the public mortuary function was transferred to the local general hospital, and some years after the event, the Coroners removal service is still operated by the original (now funeral directing) firm. It has, to the best of my knowledge, never gone out to tender in at least circa 30 years.

    I’m sure that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this situation, though it would at first appear to be somewhat out of step with more acceptable contractural process.

    I wonder if this particular method of removing bodies in the Coroner’s name is duplicated anywhere else in the UK?

    1. Charles

      Fascinating, Nick. Thank you for for this — I bet it’s what a lot of people didn’t know. This being a largely unvisited area, all manner of ‘quaint’ practices are possible. I hope what you have said may spark other insights.

  14. Charles

    I had been doing coroners removals for around 5 years and I am on call as I type this.
    Whilst I can tell a family who I work for if I am asked, I would never tout for work at the scene of a coroners removal as I think it is immoral to do so when a family is still in a state of extreme shock and a body still warm.
    Too many funeral directors these days are self centred, greedy and exploit families in their greatest time of need.
    You do not need to exploit people, the work will come to you as there is always a need sadly.
    My personal goal is to ensure that deceased is treated with care and dignity and that the family are told I will be gentle, respectful and treat their loved one like it was a member of my own family.

    Sadly I am not paid at all for the coroners removals I do as the company I work for is, like a lot of funeral firms, plain greedy. (Yes it is the co op)

    I was initially taken on on the basis of “regular” removals being one or two a week.
    The Co op then accquired the coroners contract solely in the hope of “converting” removals to funerals, but I refuse to tout families for work as I do not think it appropriate to do so when they are in a vulnerable and distressed state.

    We have never been paid any extra for what is now mostly coroners removals and often I am out all night for far less then the minimum wage.
    Sadly it is all about money now with the co op and the focus is not what it should be – people.

    1. Charles

      Interesting reading 5 years on. What’s changed? Not much, although some of the Group FD’s seem to have given up doing free removals in some areas – because they cannot ‘convert’ enough families to use their (usually expensive) services.

      The other issue seems to be that PM’s are no longer routinely carried out in the nearest mortuary. This means the free service provider FD is now often using a dedicated crew all day every day, just to remove bodies from PM venue to venue. Perhaps several times, all without getting the paid job. Several I have spoken to have concluded that this daily free provision of two men and an ambulance cannot be justified.

      I tendered for a (local to me) part of a contract several years ago, but the large group firm already doing it retained it, even thou my tender price offer was 5p. Frankly I was very disappointed to lose out, but watching them now do so many movements without any payment has made me glad I’m not contractually obliged to provide the service.

      Happily many local families who wanted to use us as their funeral director, still do. The contractor – who may have turned out in the middle of the night or Sunday afternoon, is definitely wasting a lot of time and money.

      That said, I would still rather the Coroner’s reverted to the old rota system. Where a family does not have a firm in mind, the nearest takes it in turns to be called. What could be fairer than that?

      1. Charles

        I work for the co-op and whilst I find the co-op an odd business to work for in very many respects, I have to give my hub the due when we had the coroners contract we never touted for business, we actually followed the coroners instructions in how we interact with families to the letter. We still have a very good working relationship with the police and the mortuary staff. The hope was, yes, to convert coroners removals to funerals because we would do them for free but we never pushed and were actively told not to push. I can tell you that the current contract provider leaves business cards around where they have removed a loved one, told to me by a family in my limo

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