Not in front of the family

Charles Cowling



The removal of Amy Winehouse


Funeral directors have strong and varying views on what families should and should not be allowed to see — in the families’ best interests of course. Some undertakers are heavier-handed than others in the way in which they express their advice. The law is perfectly clear: the dead person belongs to the family, not them. They need to be sure not to infringe this right. 

I remember being hurried out of the room when my Mum died by a policeman who wanted to ask questions and chide me for having lifted her up from the floor and put her on the bed. It was a gambit to allow the undertaker’s men to take her away without upsetting me. Whether or not it might have upset me was not discussed. The assumption seemed to be that no bereaved person wants to witness this or lend a hand. 

Different undertakers have different ways of talking through with families what they need to do when they come to take someone ‘into their care’. With a home removal there’s a big, stark contrast between a comfy dead person (Mum, Dad, Nan) tucked up in bed… and a bagged, zipped corpse being trolleyed out into the 2am rain. It’s not a good look. For those who were gathered round the deathbed, it takes some taking in. Some undertakers address the aesthetics better than others. 

Is this sudden status adjustment something families need to be spared, or is it something they would benefit from witnessing and even assisting in? 

There’s an analogy here with CPR, around which a similar debate swirls. Is it better for families to witness CPR, or should they be hurried away where they can’t see? Some new research seems to show that those who stay and witness suffer less psychic distress afterwards. 

Responses from doctors are as polarised as would be those of undertakers. If for CPR and ‘resuscitation’ you read ‘removal’, the responses below might have come from undertakers: 

I would have hated to watch CPR being performed on [my mother’s] frail body, and I know she would not have liked me to watch either.

It would have been extremely traumatic to have been required to leave her when she needed us the most, as she left this world … I will forever be grateful for not being forced out and for knowing that everything possible was done and done well.

In most cases, I advise that the family leave the room and be attended to by a member of the medical/nursing team.

I believe that there are a lot of people out there who could handle being in the room … On the other hand, there are many who could not … I think that the physician should discuss it with the family and loved ones. This way they will know what is best.

I don’t think family members should witness CPR on relatives first because of my personal experience and second because I think it might impair the performance of the caregivers at some level.

We have offered family presence during resuscitation at our institution for seven years now, and the experience for providers and family alike has been overwhelmingly positive.

In my experience … the family can only be harmed by witnessing what we have to do

Family choice must be determinant.

I don’t find any single reason for the family to be present at that stressful moment that could be of benefit to the patient or themselves.





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Edward Cutler
8 years ago

This is a very important part of our job. I would personally never use a vehicle without privacy glass or curtains. We currently use a Silver Mondeo Estate with limousine tint to the rear windows. We are actually considering removing the tint and replacing with burgundy curtains. I feel that it’s important to distinguish the removal vehicle from just being an estate car. Many estate cars have tinted windows, so when you arrive to collect someone’s loved one, families may feel they’re just being placed into any old vehicle. Our estate is used for removals only. I believe curtains present… Read more »

Jamie b
Jamie b
5 years ago
Reply to  Edward Cutler

We use a Vauxhall vectra estate, it’s silver and black, very distinguished from a normal one with the thick silver band on either side of the vehicle and personalised registration plates, and privacy glass

Gregory Michael Taylor

Gents, 2 very good points raised, with reference to the dark windows we all have our views and im sure this will be a good talking point for some time. i can understand a van being used for the removal of several deceased from local Hospitals, but Im a strong believer of showing discression.
I have been lucky in this profession by starting with Coronors removals, for 18 months It was a learning curve, each day had its own problems to throw at us, never a dull moment when your working for your local coronor.

james showers
8 years ago

The only reason NOT to invite the family to watch/participate is that I might be a bit clumsy, and huff and puff as we lift or negotiate steep cottage stairways! That concern is always there – but a fair warning to the family ……… something like, “this may not be the most dignified part of your farewell ceremony, but we’ll be very careful, and we can do it together if you’d like”, is the best I have come up with. Then we can try and look bright while we grunt, and it’s not all so very strange.

David Holmes
8 years ago

I have used a van (always posh and very clean) and estate cars. I have heard families complain that their FD used both.. as in ‘they took mother away in the back of an estate car/van.’ As for the house removal – these days, I use a Mercedes Vito people mover with a fixed deck. It has a collapsible leg trolley with a ‘mountain rescue’ stretcher for upstairs/awkward spaces. I always ask family present if they would like to ‘wait in there’ eg kitchen, sitting room etc while we remove the body. If they insist on being present, why not?… Read more »

Gregory Michael Taylor
Reply to  David Holmes

Good Morning David, People still shy away from the subject when they loose a loved one, I held a coffee / Tea morning at my shop (office does sound far to formal) on Thursday in aid of our local Charity St Elizabeth Hospice, and also to highlight National Dying Matters awarness week, I was pleased to see some youngsters that asked some decent questions, may be its because I advertised the event as a very Informal Coffee /Tea Morning with Hot Chocolate, Cappuccino with whipped Cream, Biscuits and sweets. what ever the reason the youngsters did leave with a little… Read more »

David Holmes
8 years ago

My sister (hospice nurse) has ‘vehicles without dark windows’ on her hit-list of wrongs done by FD’s. I have a Volvo XC70 4×4 in black myself, without tints. I bought it for winter use – we operate in rural areas.

It only goes to prove that some people obviously have definite views about the right and wrong way to do things – we FD’s just have to live with it!

Nick Gandon
8 years ago

Surely, such an important part of the funeral process. I think that there has to be a distinct psychological difference though, between removing a body following a sudden death, and effecting a removal when that person has been nursed at home for possibly some time. With the latter, the family, in my humble experience, often express a wish to to be involved, if only by sight, in that process. It’s the first real step to accepting that death has actually taken place, swiftly followed by the sight of an empty, stripped bed. Whereas, years of watching TV has taught us… Read more »

8 years ago

Really interesting – this week I watched a TV programme about emergency services and it showed a farmer being given CPR in front of his friend – to no avail. The friend was devastated but seemed to appreciate that everything possible was done – he saw that the ambulance crew worked really hard. He had a few tears then gathered himself to go and tell the new widow…. It seemed that he had a kind of confidence from observing the whole scene and realising there was nothing more that could have been done. I guess it’s the same if ‘they’… Read more »

James Hardcastle
8 years ago

Some interesting points raised…

The whole removal process and the effect it has on families – is it right that some / most funeral directors use vans for taking the deceased away?

My personal view is that you wouldn’t put the individual into the back of a van in life, so why cart them off like a battered old table in the back of a van in death?

Surely a car is more dignified and causes the family marginally less heartache?

andrew plume
andrew plume
8 years ago

entirely agreed James unless I’m way off course, the wholesale use of the removal Ambulance (aka a van), which wasn’t a major feature, say 25-30 years ago, has ‘developed’ because of the high costs of using a hearse, depreciation/fuel costs etc etc for Coroner’s work, Hospital and NH removals they’re (imo) definitely the way to go for expected death home removals, personally I would prefer to see ‘a closed hearse’ such as is shown on Nick Gandon’s website or a Galaxy and (in passing (sic)), Leverton’s again grace these pages (in the above photo)………(I really should stop being such an… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  andrew plume

Andrew, you must most certainly NOT curb your anoraxic ways. We all delight in your eye for fine detail and fine undertaking.

andrew plume
andrew plume
8 years ago
Reply to  Charles



best indeed


Gregory Michael Taylor

personally I agree with the second to last statement, Family choice must be determinant, very little wording but means so much.
A great talking point im sure.

gloria mundi
8 years ago

As Poppy says. The link between removal and CPR, and the way the post raises the emotional and practical realities running through both – such valuable insights.

Poppy Mardall
8 years ago

This is SO interesting Charles. Excellent blog!