Free until the point of death

Charles 16 Comments



Click the letter and you’ll make it bigger and readable.

It’s from Angie Gunn, Mortuary Services Admin Co-ordinator at Stockport NHS Trust. It’s been sent to all local undertakers.

“From 1 Oct, once all paperwork regarding the release of a body has been received, you will be contacted by a member of the Mortuary staff to inform you that everything is ready and that you may collect. You will be required to collect by 1630 hours the next working day … Any delay in collection will now incur a charge of £25 per day … no exceptions … should this date be a Friday and you do not collect by 16.30 hours … you will be charged for Saturday and Sunday … Families who wish to view their loved one following receipt of all relevant release paperwork will be informed that they can no longer come to the mortuary and that they must contact their funeral director to facilitate this.”

So: there you have it. You pay through the nose to use the car park and now they want money for the cadaver park too.

We can wonder why a NHS hospital might feel provoked into sending such a letter — and why this letter may prove to be typical of letters to come from elsewhere. It could have something to do with the recent cost-cutting consolidation of coroners’ mortuary services  in fewer hospitals, leading to overload. It may be because a cut-price undertaker without refrigeration is taking the mortuary for a ride. It may just be a nice little earner.

Whatever the reason, the letter misses the mark. The lawful possessor of a dead person is their personal representative, not an undertaker, who is simply the agent of the personal representative.

If you really feel you have to charge, Ms Gunn, here’s where to send this letter and your invoice: your families.


  1. Charles

    Pure speculation on my part so may be completely off-base: could it be that the corporates are waiting until they have a number of bodies at one site? If the FD is leaving them at this hospital to suit their own business convenience, they should be paying not the family, surely?

  2. Charles

    I was told by a local mortuary attendant that they were aggravated to learn that a corporate FD left bodies for free at the mortuary, but charged families over £700 for ‘care of the deceased’. I think the hospital should write direct to the families, and include a DIY funeral guide. Sad to see the expectation is that the funeral directors are still in control. £25 a day becomes reasonable … if families realise they can avail themselves of the facility and cut out the FD altogether.

  3. Charles

    I’m afraid I think this is completely fair. It is quite common for my Mother (who is the manager for two different hospital mortuaries) to get calls from new funeral director’s wanting to “rent” fridge space from her because they either don’t have their own premises and effectively work from home, or don’t have the space for fridges.
    When they are told this simply isn’t possible, the funeral director then leaves the deceased at the hospital for as long as they can instead.
    This then causes a problem at the hospitals because they are forced to operate with less fridge space. With more hospital mortuaries being closed to coroner’s cases or post mortem’s all together, this is putting a huge strain on the operating mortuaries that are left.
    Larger companies usually go to the mortuaries every day. Because they undertake a large amount of funerals, they have hubs that can accommodate large numbers of deceased people.
    I’m afraid it is more than likely the smaller funeral directors who leave the person at the hospital until the last moment or people who have set up as a funeral director but operate without a premises that these letters and charges are probably aimed at.
    Removal from the hospitals are usually at the funeral director’s convenience, and this is just reminding them that without removing them as soon as they can, they will get charged.
    While I understand that some people need more than the usual week it takes to arrange a funeral, I have recently had a woman who didn’t even speak to a funeral director until her husband had been in the hospital mortuary for twelve weeks. I understand she really needed time to come to terms with everything and deal with her grief in her own way, but looking at it from the hospitals point of view, that was twelve weeks they were unable to use the space.
    Some funeral directors are going to pass this charge on to the family. They certainly aren’t going to pay for it out of their profit, but if it was for my convenience, I would happy pay and I wouldn’t pass it along to the family.
    No, I’m afraid seeing it from the other side, I do think this is fair and it is just the start of things to come.

  4. Charles

    Oh, and Jed is absolutely right. Families are expected to pay the “removal charge” which most people would see as reasonable.
    However, when I personally know of companies who charge for “washing and dressing of the deceased” or “viewing in the chapel of rest” (and lets face it, that also includes having the deceased on the premises) and they are charging around the £500 mark for this service for a week, £25 a day is completely reasonable.

  5. Charles

    Angie get your Gunn?

    I think she will need it, people won’t take this lying down..

    The tone is all wrong. If she has an issue with a specific funeral director then she should address that funeral director. The NHS – free at the point of delivery should not mean right up until the moment you draw your last breath!

  6. Charles

    I can see the point from both sides but what if they call at 4.30pm on the Thursday to say the papers are ready? You have less than 24 hours to collect the deceased or a £75 charge. Fridays are always busy for funerals and if the FD has to travel any distance as well they probably have no alternative but to pay the fee..

    Eastbourne has a similar system but allow 3 days before charging. I think that is much more reasonable.

  7. Charles

    If the bereavement offices, doctors and coroners were more on the ball and completed paperwork more efficiently, and mortuaries operated a 24 hour service, funeral directors could bring the deceased into their care at much shorter notice. I find it unbelievable that a hospital can take 10 working days to complete crem papers, the bereaved family eager to view the deceased, then once the hosp have completed the paperwork expect funeral directors to drop everything to meet their deadlines, within their ridiculous opening hours. Hospital porters who work 24 hours a day should be able to release the deceased at any time upon reciept of a letter from next of kin or a copy of the green cert. doctors should also sign med Certs on the ward and if necessary and if possible, complete part 1 crem.

  8. Charles

    It isn’t realistic for the porters to release bodies. Would you let your cleaner conduct a funeral? That is basically what you are asking.
    While funeral directors often moan about hospital mortuaries, their opening times etc, their job is a highly skilled one. More so than any funeral director I know.
    They are often the ones who take the brunt of a families anger over their loved one’s death, help those who are so bewildered they don’t know what to do next and answer all the funeral director’s calls about when they can collect a certain person and is the paperwork done…..all this on top of what they should be doing.
    The majority of funeral directors have never worked in a hospital mortuary and just see everything from their point of view. It is frustrating when there are limited opening hours. It is frustrating when paperwork isn’t completed in time. I completely agree with all of that.
    However, I also know how much more pressure the mortuary staff are under to complete ordered post-mortems not only from their own hospital but from often closed surrounding ones. With ordered post mortem figures up by an average of 30% on last year and funeral directors taking longer to collect people, I can see where the frustration sets in.
    I have undertaken a fair few funerals in London over this past year and every single mortuary I have visited have bent over backwards to accommodate me. My local mortuary are fantastic and can’t speak highly enough of them. No reasonable request is ever refused.
    In my experience of talking to mortuary attendants around the country, they are willing to help if they can, but it is how you ask that will make the difference.

  9. Charles

    Lucy – I agree that it makes sense to make friends with mortuary staff. They are usually under pressure in a seemingly forgotten under resourced part of the hospital. That said, they can be very inflexible with release times. I know of some who open at 1 pm and close at 4 pm, often meaning they enjoy a queue of up to six private ambulances!

    That you believe they are more highly skilled than any funeral director you know is unlikely to win you any friends in funeral service. They are very different skill sets. Each to their own and all that. In my experience, at many hospitals Porters do release bodies, they are trained to do so.

    I do think from the tone of her letter that Ms Gunn appears to have some problems with her local FD’s, both in the mortuary and bereavement office!

    1. Charles

      One hospital in my area opens from 12pm-1pm, but it has been this way for quite some time. I am sure if you were travelling any distance, they would do what they could to help. Yes, sometimes there is a queue, but this could happen at a mortuary that was open 9am-5pm and you happen to turn up at the same time as another funeral director.

      “That you believe they are more highly skilled than any funeral director you know is unlikely to win you any friends in funeral service.”
      I am not that fussed about “winning friends in the funeral service” if it means I can’t voice an opinion on something I know about.
      I do believe that really good mortuary technicians are extremely skilled in what they do. More skilled than funeral directors I know….well, yes. I have seen what they do. Like you said, each to their own but if you want to discuss it further, do drop me an email.

      I don’t know of any hospital local to me or in Surrey that lets porters release bodies to funeral directors. Personally, I think that is asking for trouble. Would be interesting to know which hospital you are talking about though.

      The tone of the letter is someone who has probably had problems with funeral directors leaving people in their mortuary for far too long and the mortuary itself may have very limited space.
      I do think within 24 hours isn’t reasonable and I don’t think it is fair to charge over the weekend, but I don’t think this will be the last hospital to impose such charges or time limits.

  10. Charles

    Just an observation but how can they charge a fee when there is no contract in place? As Charles says the body belongs to the personal representatives of the deceased i.e. family or executor. Not the funeral director.

    How can this be enforced? An FD may not even be appointed until after the paperwork is done, what happens then?

    1. Charles

      As far as I can see, that’s the sanest observation so far, David. Whose body is it anyway? Not the undertaker’s, not the hospital’s, certainly not Ms Gunn’s.

      And not even the family’s, unless they actively choose to adopt it. If anyone has first and last responsibility to dispose of a corpse, according to public health law, surely it is the NHS or the District Council? If a third party, such as the family, has the option of relieving one of these bodies of that duty… well, that is merely incidental and should not be exploited by even a stressed-out mortuary administration co-ordinator.

      In my admittedly amateur opinion, Ms Gunn appears to be on shaky ground with her assumptions about how to dictate responsibility, for all that she may be perfectly justified in trying to prevent others taking liberties. For sure, she might have received a more sympathetic response had she worded her letter less officiously, but perhaps she was having a bad day. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if everyone worked together in harmony over solving our hospitals’ urgent storage problems for them?

      But what really exercises me about this is that the only available mortuaries belong to commercial concerns with an interest in selling an expensive product, to people who are often in a very vulnerable (and even financially compromised) position. That there are no public mortuaries, where families could rest their relatives’ corpses while they chose whether or not to even engage a commercial firm at all, is the real issue here.

  11. Charles

    Good post Jonathan. I think part of the problem – as with all else in modern life – is the bean counter.

    Some years ago I was told by a coroner that each body passing through a certain hospital cost him X pounds. He passed this cost on to the local authority. The figure arrived at by the hospital accountants was the total cost of the building, the space and providing the mortuary, staffing it and depreciating the equipment needed, divided by the annual total of bodies, the throughput!

    From memory, the cost per body was around £110. At the time I felt this was all a little daft and a ridiculously high sum. The real problem was that the hospital in question had to cost every area of activity, as if it were a supermarket chain deciding which products to place where for maximum return. I suppose what was really going on was they were trying to maximise the sum recieved from the council! This has become a modern sport in inter-government finance, and guess who really pays?

    1. Charles

      £110 is indeed a high cost, David; but when you consider the physical as well as administrative work done by a coroner’s team in looking for evidence to establish the cause of death with a view to authorizing disposal of the body and determining the need for any fuirther investigation, and compare it with the cost (to the family, of all people) of a cursory glance by a medical doctor to confirm a brief report by the person’s own physician, I’d say when it comes to value for money the coroner wins hands down.

  12. Charles

    Another great idea from the “one size fits all” brigade. In my humble opinion, and in it’s suggested format, this will never work.

    Yes, most of us understand that hospitals don’t have unlimited fridge space, and yes, some undertakers could do with investing a little more cash on their own mortuary facilities – instead of relying on the local hospital to store their clients, but common sense should prevail somewhere in the middle.

    As David Barrington rightly points out, no contract exists. What is the hospital to do to enforce this? Resort to Law? Black list the undertaker?
    Refuse to release a body? Hold it to ransom? Exercise lien?

    The hospital in question (which from my personal experience has some of the most helpful and professional staff working in it’s mortuary) is putting itself on very shaky ground legally, and shooting itself in the foot.

    With many hospitals now only offering a part time mortuary service, ever more restricted removal times, fixed appointment times, mandatory “local” release forms etc etc, they themselves are making it far more difficult to collect bodies in a timely fashion. One or two appear to want to hold the body to some sort of bureaucratic paperwork power struggle between themselves and the local Coroner.

    The fear of releasing a body to the wrong undertaker has perhaps forced most hospitals into defensive mode. Not only would it help if they all sang from the same hymn sheet, but it’s time that some realized that they are taking their duty of care a little too far.

    The person who has taken this particular decision may not have considered that it could be suggested that they (the hospital) are “bending the rules” in favour of their local “traditional” undertakers, who may well themselves be trying to thwart the operations of the up and coming low cost offerings. I am sure that this is not the intention, but whoever has devised this money-orientated scheme has left themselves open to that possible interpretation.

    My own operation, which provides a direct cremation service, would find it difficult to adhere to Stepping Hill’s new draconian requirements without substantially increasing the costs to our clients – something we do not want to do.

    And yes, we do have our own mortuary and refrigeration facilities!

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