What would a regulated funeral industry look like?

Charles 12 Comments



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.




  1. Charles

    Cats are living beings in need of immediate protection from human cruelty. Corpses, on the other hand, are beyond suffering and their perceived needs are actually the emotional needs of those inclined to deal with their disposal. If any kind of regulation were under consideration, catteries surely would present the more pressing case.

    However, the way we do funerals is already so dysfunctional it urgently needs rebuilding from the basement up, or what’s this blog in aid of? It needs the careful thought, understanding and experience of those on the inside, as well as of informed observers, to invoke a fundamental change in the design, with its inbuilt economic and emotional compromising of vulnerable people in the throes of a distress purchase.

    To involve an unwieldy, partially-sighted government department in the process, with licences and qualifications and other irrelevant preoccupations, would only straightjacket many of the genuine contributors intent on improvement, and favour commerciality and officialdom over humanity and understanding. If anything the funeral world needs protecting from itself, to preclude any disastrous attempts to impose regulation; that is why the likes of some of us turn our attention there.

    But if the government wants to regulate something in the land of funerals (which it doesn’t so far), let it look first to the impossible costs of disposing of a corpse. Regardless of your circumstances, the bureaucracy of cremation or burial itself means your relative’s last breath immediately commits you to the best part of a grand, before you even start thinking about how to transport and store her body or involve commemoration of her life in the process. Corpse disposal is, among other things, a public health issue, and surely it is wrong that bereaved individuals’ emotional vulnerability and demolished self-assurance be taken advantage of in order to require them to meekly arrange it and pay the health service’s own bill for them.

    But that’s only part of the story. Frequently, the urgent problem of death is that the nursing home or hospital harasses you to deal with its own body storage issues, forcing you to make a premature decision to engage a commercial firm that almost always in practice, if not in theory, commits you to a white-water ride with them whose purpose and consequences you won’t even grasp until long after a huge invoice hits the doormat, if ever.

    So, for customers, storage and disposal seem to me the two problems in a nutshell, as both create unnecessary stress. Bad or inadequate practice in a funeral firm is only possible because of the ridiculous opaqueness and secrecy of a perfectly respectable profession, and it’s simply professional maturity and public scrutiny that are needed to address that.

    As these NZ commissioners say; “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.”

    Now THAT’s the thing that desperately needs regulation, and it needs to be done by anyone who is capable of being bereaved.

  2. Charles

    Jonathan has it.

    The necessary changes in attitude and understanding are surely happening, but very slowly. Sometimes that gets “us” a little downhearted, perhaps, but the way “we” talk to bereaved people, care for the dead and help with funeral ceremonies is a big part of this very big and very slow change. Who doesn’t get impatient sometimes? But can we imagine Jonathan’s comment above being written 15 years ago?

    Down with regulation, up with education, ceaseless efforts to improve our practice – and of course the GFG.

  3. Charles

    While I think legal legislation is a bad thing for this industry, it should surely be the industry that has to change itself?

    For too long now it has been extremely closeted and it has only been in the last few years that the general public has begun to change it’s thinking. They want to get a couple of quotes before they commit to a funeral director. They want to know the eco credentials of a coffin….all of that is fantastic and I actively encourage it.

    How many funeral directors in the UK state on their website, that there is no legal obligation to have a funeral director? It can’t be that many, but I am one of them.

    I don’t recommend people should do it themselves, because often emotions take over and they may overlook something pretty important. If they do feel that they want to do it themselves, I would never talk someone out of it. It is a hugely personal thing to want to do so instead, I have an hourly rate if they want me to undertake part of the process for them.

    It is up to funeral directors who want to change the industry to change it. I think the general public expect this level of honesty and they should get it. Legislation would possibly put some people off opening their own companies and that may well be a good thing, but I think we have been too self regulated for such a long time that the government wouldn’t know where to start with us.

    I think the bigger companies will have more influence on any proposed regulation but they are also the problem. They have encouraged a closed system within the industry and I feel many funeral directors are reluctant to be more open about what we do.

    I want to change all of that. For a while now, I was ashamed of what the funeral industry had become so just by sticking to what I believe in and stating that on my website, I hope to create a culture of honesty and integrity within the funeral profession that government legislation wouldn’t be able to cultivate.

  4. Charles

    Barbara Terry sounds everything that is wrong with the funeral establishment. For ‘dignity’ read appearance or rather visibility, those moments when the public see the undertaker and the coffin and, as far as the funeral establishment are concerned need to be moments of risible pomposity; mournful face, shiny car, silly hat and cane. Bad theatre, bad ritual, seeds of disfunctional mourning deeply sown. A pox on their protectionism.

  5. Charles

    Regulation would very much be in the interests of the big boys. They would point to their £130,000 hearses and enormous hub facilities and say ‘only we can do it properly.’

    As the rest of us know only too well, funerals are not really about flash cars and equipment. Any barrier on entry to the grim trade is unwelcome and unhelpful and certainly is not in the best interest of the bereaved. Education and enlightenment is desperately required, not new legislation.

  6. Charles

    Of course regulation of any industry has its drawbacks but that doesn’t mean we should allow anyone to just set up and start a fd service. A friend of mine bought a ‘franchise’ and was left on his own for weeks with nothing but a handbook.
    As for do it yourself funerals, I have lost numerous people over the years and the only comfort is that I had a good funeral director, most funeral directors do an amazing job, but like anything where there is money to be made there are scammers, surley its worth a bit of bureacrecy to stop these evil people form taking advantage of the bereaved.

    1. Charles

      John, one person’s ‘a bit of bureaucracy’ is another’s ‘disastrous meddling’. When I lost my mother, my only comfort was that I didn’t have to use a funeral director at all, but if I ever need a funeral director I’ll pray it’s not a regulated one.

      1. Charles

        Jonathan I could not agree more. In the US, regulated funeral directors mean embalm and then embalm some more. They have a lock on every step of the process and even try to prosecute people who want to keep grandma at home for an old-fashioned vigil. I fear regulation, though it may be well-intentioned, is a means for the haves to shut out the have-lesses. I choose your flawed system over our fatally flawed one in the States.

  7. Charles

    ‘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’

    Very true, but it is getting better.

    For members of the public who don’t have knowledge, it is a matter of listening and really hearing what is said. That means suspending your own opinions of what is right and wrong. Giving honest information and being a facilitator in keeping with their requirements.

    Regulation leads to the implementation of rules and boundaries. People who are faced with arranging a funeral should have a way of being assured of care, compassion and a funeral director who will help them as much or as little as they need, but how, I wonder could regulations be introduced that still gives families complete freedom of choice?

    As far as funeral directors are concerned, how do you regulate helping a family to create a service that meets with their unique needs and wishes whatever they are, without imposing on them an agenda of what is respectful or dignified? Regulation would need to have open mindedness to everything, be that simple, traditional, alternative or any other term being thought up for a particular ‘type’ of funeral.

    The other day I saw an article which said ‘traditional or unique’. Both things can, and should, be achieved in a service. Surely the only ‘categories’ that need to exist for funerals are personal and meaningful? The interpretation of what those terms should be and the resulting funeral lies with the family, not with us. We have no right to make that judgement and should work in the realms of fact, not opinion, when helping families.

    The answer to the question ”Who is setting the standards ensuring there is dignity in death?” is simple. The family set the standards for their loved one. Yes, there is regulation in burial and cremation practice, but when it comes down to what is respectful, dignified and ‘appropriate’ that is for the family to decide.

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