When tickety-boo = tangled web

Charles 12 Comments


This blog doesn’t go looking for trouble, but it occasionally splashes into a little local difficulty. Can’t be too careful what you say, that’s the moral. Actually, the only entity that ever threatened to sue us was Promessa. You can’t be too careful of your friends.

We got into perhaps our hottest water when surveying the way regulation of the funeral trade works in the US, back in January 2009. It concerned a law in Michigan which requires a family to engage a funeral director to supervise the handling, disposition and disinterment of a dead person. We got our information from Thomas Lynch (yes, the Thomas Lynch). He told us: “In our state of Michigan the occupational group charged with collecting and registering these vital statistics and medical certification is licensees in mortuary science … an occupational class which it licenses and regulates.” He added: “In Milford we can’t burn leaves in the autumn, bury our trash in the back yard, drive an unlicensed vehicle or tend to the duties of our toilet in public.  Nor can we hunt squirrels, coyotes, deer or dogs in town.  “We the people” have made our laws, on these and a million other matters.  Including the dead.”

While this was going on, Lynch was busy suing Josh Slocum  of the FCA  and Lisa Carlson of the FEO, for libel. Both had vigorously attacked his defence of this law. When Lynch’s suit was thrown out we asked him to comment. He did so, on this blog, and was immediately counter-sued for costs by Slocum and Carlson on the strength of what he had said. It was embarrassing to be caught in the crossfire of people we admire greatly. Rupert Callender still writhes at the memory.

And so it came to pass that the GFG became Exhibit A in Case No. 08-CV-13949 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN SOUTHERN DIVISION: “The primary bases for Defendants’ motions for attorneys fees are certain statements Lynch purportedly made in the weeks following the disposition of the case. In Charles Cowling’s blog entitled “The Good Funeral Guide,” Mr. Cowling made a post on August 17, 2009 captioned “That Tom Lynch libel case.”  (See Def. FEO’s Mot. Br., at Ex. B.)  In the comments following the post, Mr. Cowling stated that he received the following in an email from Thomas Lynch…”

You can read the email here.

It was a learning curve that left a nasty taste in the mouth. It probably converted all who followed it into militant non-regulators. Regulation is only attractive to people who are ignorant of unintended consequences.

Over in the US there’s an interesting case developing right now. Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is suing the Pennsylvania board of funeral directors because it insists on supervising his funerals. In the words of his lawsuit, Wasserman “is now being threatened with civil action and criminal prosecution … for conducting religious funerals in place of licensed funeral directors who, under color of state law, interfere in purely religious observances for no other justification than personal profit.”

Wasserman’s case is that, under Jewish law, the care of the dead cannot be delegated – and rabbis cannot become licensed funeral directors because embalming is anathema to Jews.

There are no public health issues, no dangers to wider society. The Department of Health agrees that Jewish custom abides by all health laws.

Regulation and licensing are clearly desirable in areas where public safety is concerned. It’s why you have to employ a Gas Safe registered person to work on your boiler so that you do not blow up your neighbours.

Anyone in the UK who favours licensing funeral directors must answer this question: Should the law compel you to engage a contractor to do what you can perfectly safely and competently do for yourself?

It really is that simple.





  1. Charles

    Interesting stuff, is it really that simple though? Charles, as you know, I am very much in favour of licensing funeral directors, mainly for continuity in levels of care the deceased receive. The Law does not and should not compel you to use a Funeral Director if you can care for someone yourself. This would undoubtedly cause prices to rocket beyond belief. However , surely any registered business has a duty to act within an appropriate manner and this quite clearly isn’t the case for some at this time. Licensing registered business’s on the grounds of good conduct and suitable facilities is definitley a sensible option in my eyes.


    1. Charles

      Hi Davey – I’m glad someone read this. I felt it was an important thing to say, but I also knew that most people would glance at it and think, Boring.

      I’m not sure to what cause you assign rocketing prices.

      I agree that there is a moral duty incumbent on a service provider to discharge a contract appropriately. But responsibilities cut both ways. There is also the principle of caveat emptor: the duty of a buyers to do their due diligence.

      There is a difficulty with funeral service because a funeral director is, in fact, no more than an event organiser – the equivalent of a wedding organiser, if you like. They are agents of an executor/administrator merely, there to do, essentially, what their employer does not want to do.

      This being the case, and public health being the principal concern of the state, which is already supervised, it is impossible to determine what actually needs to be registered or licensed, particularly as that would inevitably impinge on the rights of the bereaved.

      The trade bodies have shown themselves wholly powerless to influence the debate, let alone act, in the wake of Undercover Undertaker. I think the way forward is some sort of accreditation, whereby the best submit to external scrutiny in order to differentiate themselves, and stand apart from, the rogue traders.

      It’s a knotty problem, I agree. The bereaved deserve protection and, yes, I’m sure we all agree that there are standards that need to be abided by. The debate goes on and together we find a way – I hope.

  2. Charles

    Regulation and licensing would mostly suit the major players and put off new entrants. Prices would rise (faster than they already do)

    Generally FD’s do a an excellent, good or reasonable job. Those that do not deserve to be admonished. It is a great pity that the trade associations do not enforce their own rules and use existing disciplinary measures – but I suppose that’s what happens when any industry or body (!) regulates itself.

  3. Charles

    I’ve had some limited experience of consultation with government departments – with a view to regulation change / accreditation – not in the funeral field though…..

    The first requirement seems to be that someone with absolutely no knowledge of the topic is put in charge of the consultation.

    A pool of academics is then hired, at no small cost, to act as professional advisers.

    There are several meetings over the period of around three or four years, to which some (but not all) parties are invited. Sandwiches and refreshments are provided.

    A code of practice or draft regulation is drawn up, and circulated for comment. At this stage, it seems common practice for the person in charge to be replaced by someone with even less knowledge of the topic than before. The whole process starts over again.

    The only people that seem to know what they are talking about get sidelined.

    Consultation then either gets shelved, or passes into the most hopelessly written piece of regulation – needing revision as soon as it passes into Law.

    Get the drift?

  4. Charles

    I agree with quite a bit of what you have said Charles, the funeral director is essentially an event organiser, but also they provide a care facility. Rogue traders will out in the end as word of mouth spreads, this kind of person surely could not last on a local level within the profession, whether it be a whole business or an individual employed by someone.
    I used to work in a small restaurant when I was still in school and the manager would constantly reiterate the need for a high quality all round service by saying, ” if someone has a good meal they will tell 4 people, if someone has a bad meal they will tell 18 people” I doubt these figures were accurate but it made a valid point. I think this would also undoubtedly be the case within the funeral world regarding front of house work.
    I personally feel that the main concern should be focused on the bits the outside world does not see.
    When you talk about the current trade bodies not being able to influence the debate, surely this is because they are “bodies”…….plural. The only way anything could be properly enforced is by government legislation with input from all sides or the amalgamantion of all into one panel . (And before someone brings it up, I’m well aware of how the coalition government has worked out!)

  5. Charles

    You say the world does not see, Davey, but this is only because the world chooses not to look. On the one hand, it is incumbent on the bereaved to ensure levels of care for their dead of which they approve. For some, Co-op Funeralcare-style open racking will be just fine. Others will want something rather more upscale. If it’s important to them, then they owe it to themselves to check it out and make sure it’s right. The dead don’t mind, we can be sure of that. But if it matters to the living, then the living need to do rather better than depend on the blandishments of a plausible undertaker.

    Consumer scrutiny can go a long way to putting things right. So can proactive marketing by funeral directors. They can incorporate into their contracts a commitment to satisfy the requirements the bereaved specify.

    So also can accreditation by an independent body that knows what to look for and what questions to ask.

    I think that even if the trade bodies came together they would fail to put their house in order. They comprise too many warring factions. I’m sure you are aware of the multitude of clashing interests and egos in the industry. Take the NAFD response to the recent Funeralcare expose, for example. Yes, exactly, what response?

    The industry will, if I’m not mistaken, soon suffer further reputational damage when ITV screens its own documentary about the industry. Good FDs are soon going to be desperate to differentiate themselves from the mediocre and the downright awful. Watch this space, we’ll see what happens.

    I don’t see that the government is under any sort of pressure to do anything. It can (rightly, in my opinion) retort that people get the funerals they deserve.

    In short, I believe there is much that bereaved people can do to help themselves.

  6. Charles

    Charles, you said:

    “Good FDs are soon going to be desperate to differentiate themselves from the mediocre and the downright awful”.

    I am in the process of adding the following message to all our websites:


    “Simplicity Cremations were the first UK undertakers to offer a dedicated Direct Cremation service.

    We pride ourselves on our quality of care, our friendly professional ethos, and our modern facilities. Our format for this choice of service was devised in 1991, and has since, arguably, become the UK’s industry standard.

    Over the past few months, there has been a concerning influx of internet sites, offering various levels of direct, or simple cremation. Many of these sites offer only a telephone number as means of contact, and the location and standards of their service and facilities are undisclosed.

    We feel that even the most simple service deserves to be provided in a dignified, caring manner, and we would ask anyone who is arranging a Direct Cremation, to select their provider most carefully.

    Ask your chosen undertaker if you can view their mortuary facilities. If they decline, ask yourself why? Question the level of service they are actually able to provide. Is it appropriate? Does it meet the most basic levels of dignity you expect?

    A recent television programme illustrated the “behind the scenes” approach of one of the UK’s largest undertakers. Many others also use these methods. We do not.

    Simplicity Cremations offer the UK’s “benchmark” for direct cremation. Our service is both professional and friendly. Our charges are transparent and fair, and our entire facilities are open for inspection by clients at any time, by prior appointment. ”


    I hope that everyone involved in providing direct cremation services are in a position to be able to give a similar commitment and reassurance to their clients.

    If not – why not?

  7. Charles

    Who would want to look?? I can’t see the majority of the population wanting to visit a mortuary at any time, let alone when they have lost someone close to them. There needs to be something in place to make sure every single registered business is providing adequate facilities to store and care for the dead.

    I agree that different people require different levels of service, this is the case in any walk of life.
    The majority of the time this is dependent on the available finances of those concerned.
    Some people like to dine at swanky restaurants, for some a wetherspoons may suffice, and then some are happy with a romantic meal at McDonalds. If the kitchens in these establishments are found not meet a basic standard, then they will be punished and business will suffer.
    I’m well aware the analogy above is a world away from caring for the deceased, however from a consumer point of view it is not that dissimilar.
    Do you ask to see the kitchen whenever you go for a meal? Highly doubtful. You place your trust in the restaurant staff and assume that everything is above board. As do the public when they pass their family member into the hands of a funeral director.

    People may well get the funerals they want (or deserve as you put it?) but I just can’t help feeling that the levels of care given to peoples loved one’s are somewhat lacking within parts of the industry.

    Obviously you have a far greater knowledge of most matters regarding funerals than myself Charles, but in the short time I’ve been researching the subject (which as you have probably guessed has become a more of a personal interest to me than just means to acquire a grade), care and respect for the dead is being overlooked in the media in favour of gritty politics and the odd horror story.

    It all seems to have gone a bit wayward somewhere down the line and will no doubt carry on this way unless mandatory regulation regarding facilities and care are introduced.

    I realise you cannot restrict peoples personalities and the characteristics that make their business’s unique, but rules and regs can be implemented to ensure that basic levels of care are achieved.


  8. Charles


    I think you miss my point – perhaps I did not make it very well.

    What I’m trying to say is, there should be no part of the “behind scenes” that is so “unacceptable” that it would perhaps “shock” any reasonable member of the general public.

    Could you allow a member of the public into a open racked coldroom? Absolutely not – but access to a conventional “doored” fridge storage facility would surely be acceptable. There would have been no “shock” factor on the recent TV programme had this simple rule been followed.

    There is a point of unacceptability that should be recognised. Many FDs are, I suspect, not quite as aware of those boundries as they should be…..

    I was not suggesting that clients should routinely ask to perform an inspection of the premises – more that should they ask to do so, there should be no area of the premises that is not acceptable. Any FD that is uneasy or unable to allow access, for whatever reason, should look very carefully at their own facilities, and ask if they are appropriate in this day and age.

    The thought that a client could wish to inspect all of your premises at the drop of a hat should be a far better incentive to maintain a “tidy / acceptable ship” than the threat of a once-a-year NAFD premises inspection. THUS, raising and maintaining higher standards.

    I am of the personal opinion that families should have the confidence that everything is as it should be throughout the care of their recently departed.

    What would it honestly say to you if you asked to inspect an FD’s facilities, and they had to refuse?

    FDs should have every confidence that their facilities are of a standard that will “pass this test”. A bit like the MOT on my car. A vehicle should be able to pass the MOT test on every day – not just on one day a year.

    Please note though, that my post was more aimed at those organisations that are offering direct cremations, often over the internet. Some of these websites do not instil confidence.

    It has been suggested that a small number of these operators actually have no professional facilities available to them at all – simple or otherwise. I am aware of one or two such operations, and it worries me. Neither the NAFD nor SAIF appear interested in addressing this area of funeral provision – it just doesn’t seem to appear on their radar. It most certainly should.

    Hope this clarifies….

  9. Charles

    Sorry Nick, I missed the whole response completely. The last comment I posted was started before your previous comment and finished between bouts of the Olympics and Family Guy. :),

    I wholeheartedly agree with your open approach and the reasoning behind it. Over the past 6 weeks I have visited several funeral homes and was welcomed to both the public areas and also behind the scenes. Two of these were at the GFG’s dreaded Co-op, (In different areas I must add) I was very pleased with what I saw, the way I was treated and the wealth of information I was given whilst visiting all these premises.
    I also contacted several other funeral directors who were not so keen to allow me to enter the doors marked private. I obviously jumped straight to my own conclusions as to the reasons why.

    Although I agree that your method is an excellent way to instill a level of trust within your customers, the question has to be asked… What percentage of people will actually take you up on this offer?
    Perhaps you could give us a figure over the coming months?


  10. Charles

    Now that this Law Commission project on a Modern Framework for Human Corpse Disposal is possibly on its way, it would be really good to understand the pros and cons of regulation of corpse “processing and disposal”. As a member of the public, it’s really hard to grasp what it could mean at both a micro and macro level. A guide for beginners would be really enlightening plus some balanced discussion amongst people who understand it all well. Please!

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