When people discover that you need a licence to open a cattery in this country, but not a funeral home, they are astounded. You’re kidding; surely they’re all qualified? Er, nope. Actually, some undertakers do sit an exam set by the undertakers’ trade associations, but it’s not compulsory. No, you can do a long sentence for cannibalism in Britain, and set up as an undertaker the day you’re released.
This may not seem right, but it doesn’t mean to say it’s necessarily wrong. The object of any legal framework must be to protect citizens from predation by bad people, not to protect them from themselves. If funeral shoppers make bad choices, whose fault is that? How many bad guys actually are there out there?
Over in New Zealand the Law Commission, a body which reviews areas where laws might be reckoned necessary, has turned its attention to the licensing of undertakers and the regulation of the NZ funeral industry. Because New Zealand shares most of its DNA with the English and the Scottish legal systems, the deliberations of its Law Commission are extremely interesting to us over here.
The proposals the Commission has put out for public consultation take account of the diverse needs and wishes of bereaved people, including those informed by religious dogma or a desire to go down the DIY route: “Ideally, the public would continue to be able to opt out of using a funeral director … we are mindful of the risk of creating barriers to alternative styles of funeral preparation.”
The Commission has tried to be careful not to make recommendations which would incur compliance costs and, therefore, put up the cost of funerals. That could be wishful thinking.
Their recommendations give us a pretty good idea of what regulation of the industry might look like in the UK.
The industry in NZ is presently similar to that in the UK. It’s self-regulating. Their NAFD is the FDANZ and their Saif is the NZIFH. Some 60 per cent of undertakers are members of trade associations, and between them they arrange around 85 per cent of NZ funerals. As in the UK, they report very few complaints — which are dealt with in a very similar way. There is a growing band of boutique undertakers, greenies, empowerers and the like, many of whom are not members of a trade association. FDANZ membership is declining. One big difference from the UK is that in NZ most people are embalmed. Another is that in NZ it is very hard for a funeral shopper to buy a coffin whereas in Britain it is very easy and becoming commonplace.
As in the UK, funeral shoppers are supported by consumer protection laws. But the Commissioners worry about consumers’ lack of information, which handicaps their bargaining power:
“the lack of general public knowledge about funeral practices is a defining feature of the sector. Individuals are unlikely to seek this information until they need it urgently, by which point it is difficult to assess the options available.”
Whose fault is it that bereaved people seek information too late? How could a law alter New Zealanders’ eyes-shut-tight relationship with death?
The Commissioners also worry about “the potential for serious emotional distress arising from unethical or inappropriate behaviour over the handling of the dead combined with the unique vulnerabilities of the clients.” The case they have in mind is this one; I’m not aware of any others.
The Commissioners get behind 2 proposals in particular, proposals which would inconvenience a good many of our best British undertakers. First:
a) a requirement that all funeral service providers proactively disclose on their websites and other promotional materials the prices for the separate elements of the different services they offer; and
b) a requirement that they disclose to potential customers the qualifications held in relation to the different services provided, and inform customers of their affiliation or non-affiliation with an industry body that has a code of ethics and a complaints system.
Their second proposal is that:
a) a mandatory requirement would be introduced for all those providing funeral services to the public to be licensed by the appropriate local authority;
b) before obtaining a licence the applicant would have to demonstrate to the local authority health inspector that they understand the health risks associated with handling deceased bodies, have access to suitable premises and transportation methods, understand the legal obligations regarding death and cremation certification, and are a “suitable person” to be providing such services to the public.
This would put UK funeral homes on a par with UK catteries.
If legislation were to be enacted it would be unlikely to stop there — it never does. Regulation creep would likely infringe the ancient right of New Zealanders to care for their dead themselves. Consider this response to the Commission proposals: Cremation Society of Canterbury general manager Barbara Terry said there were also issues relating to families who wanted to bypass a funeral director and go “DIY”. She had 10 calls a week from people wanting to do their own organising and even had one who called up wanting to drop his mother off in a sleeping bag before “popping” her in the crematorium. “Who is setting the standards ensuring there is dignity in death?” she said. There needed to be more guidance for families on the issue and what it entailed.
Dignity. What on earth is that? How do you define it? How do you legislate for it? How, for example, does an undertaker ensure that bearers bow to a coffin with complete sincerity?
Here at the GFG we incline to the libertarian view: we’re against regulation. The public needs to get real about death. The big issue here isn’t their ignorance as negotiators, it’s the way their ignorance prevents them from arranging really meaningful funerals. Consumer scrutiny and information websites like this, combined with the GFG accreditation scheme, are enabling more and more people to equip themselves with the knowledge they need. Caveat emptor, we say, and leave well alone.
You, though, may well think otherwise.