All fine by who?

Charles Cowling

PENALTY NOTICE

 

Here’s something that’s been bobbling in my mind for ages. Finally, spurred by a newspaper story announcing that Grimbsy crematorium is going to fine funeral directors £159 if a service overruns, I sprang into action. I wrote to the crematorium manager:

I see that NE Lincs Council has announced a surcharge of £159 in the event of a service overrunning at Grimsby crematorium. It is my understanding that this charge is to be levied on funeral directors.

Inasmuch as it is the applicant for cremation who is the client of the crematorium, may I ask why the charge is not to be levied on applicants? A funeral director is, contractually, no more than the agent of the applicant, who is the lawful possessor of the corpse and responsible for its disposal.

Here’s the meaty part of the reply. The bold is mine:

It has been discussed with Funeral Directors and Service Users at meetings that the fine will be passed to the Funeral Director, as they are our client and it is their responsibility to pass it on to either the person taking the service or the family.

I consulted learned authorities in the industry. With whom does a crematorium have a contractual relationship, the applicant or the undertaker? There was no unanimity of response. However, it rapidly became clear that crematoria in general consider the undertaker to be their client.

This puzzles me. The undertaker doesn’t pay the damn bill.

Let’s go one stage back and examine an undertaker’s contractual relationship with the applicant.

This is where we need to get up close to the meaning of words. Specifically, does an undertaker act on behalf of an applicant for cremation or on the instruction of the applicant?

It looks like hairsplitting, I know, but there’s a difference. If the undertaker were empowered to act on behalf of the applicant, he/she would represent the applicant in the role of substitute.

But (and it’s a huge but) in all important aspects of an application for cremation an undertaker is not empowered to act on behalf of a client. An undertaker cannot assume lawful possession of a body, nor register the death, nor undertake responsibility for disposing of the body in accordance with the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This is why an undertaker cannot apply for cremation on behalf of a client — cannot sign the application form pp. The law holds the lawful possessor of the body (ie, the client) to be exclusively responsible for all these things.

This being so, the job of an undertaker is to attend to those parts of the process which the lawful possessor doesn’t want to do and is allowed by law to depute. The law does allow an undertaker to take the completed application form plus other paperwork to the crematorium, which amounts to no more than an errand.

Did I say that the undertaker doesn’t pay the bill? Of course s/he doesn’t. The undertaker merely advances the money from his/her own pocket before reclaiming it from the applicant for cremation.

Undertakers like to boast of how they voluntarily advance thousands of pounds of unsecured credit to their clients. Don’t feel sorry for them: it’s a rod they’ve made for their own backs. The reason they don’t require an applicant for cremation to write a cheque to accompany the application for cremation, and then drive out to the crematorium themselves and deliver it, is because their business model depends on relieving a client of all burdens, the better to create work for themselves and make themselves indispensable. In the matter of paying the crematorium bill it is a risk they run voluntarily. It is self-inflicted.

This suits crematoria, obviously. Minimal admin, no bad debt to chase. Has it made them lazy?

It has certainly led to anomalies. For example, why do cemeteries always send a grave deed direct to the personal representative? Ans: Because they don’t think it right for the undertaker to be given the deed and, potentially, retain it against payment of the funeral bill by the owner.

Let’s not get sidetracked. If crematoria were to recognise who their real client is and act on it, what difference would it make?

It would likely have a very great and wholly beneficial influence on their service culture. Bereavement Services staff tend to be passive hosts of funerals, yet they are the ones who play the greater enduring role by facilitating commemorative observances through the provision of memorialisation options — Garden of Remembrance, Book of Remembrance, plaques, benches, services of remembrance, etc. A crematorium carries on being of value to many bereaved people long after the FD’s work is done. A more proactive hospitality role at the funeral stage is both desirable and appropriate, together with a full and proper focus on the needs of the bereaved. Crematoria need to announce themselves to applicants as soon as they receive the paperwork.

I could develop this. Another day, perhaps.

A good cremation funeral depends on a cooperative relationship between the applicant, the undertaker, the celebrant and the crematorium. It’s important to say that.

But, sorry, any fine for overrunning needs to be sent to where the buck stops. The client. 

As is proper in a blog post I have presented an unbalanced and incomplete argument. Please put me right below.

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Mr XXX
Guest
Mr XXX

Similar sort of situation can arise when ordering cremation papers from the 2 lucky doctors. Family goes to undertaker “A” and arranges a cremation. Undertaker “A” then orders the certificates from the hospital bereavement office. Fine. Family then changes it’s mind and decides upon a burial instead – with a different undertaker. Hospital phones undertaker “A” to tell them that the cremation forms are complete and ready to go. Undertaker “A” ordered the now useless said forms, in good faith. Is the family liable for the costs of the forms (which the doctors will not waive), or Undertaker “A”? The… Read more »

Quokkagirl
Guest
Quokkagirl

What a corker of a post Charles. Well done. My interest in legalities is fully whetted and I would very much like to explore the other subject of Crematoria having a more direct approach with the client. Arrangers have to take some of the responsibilities here. Or the FDs who train or fail to train them. Arrangers are extremely important in the process. If celebrants get to the families first then we have a fighting chance of controlling the timings but if the arranger is not ‘switched on’ sufficiently to understand the potential of a funeral gathering tsunami proportions, then… Read more »

Ken West
Guest

Perhaps I can put a little perspective in here. The reason why the funeral director acts as agent and pays cremation and burial accounts is because that is the way they wanted it. From the 1960’s to the 1990’s I was involved with over 60,000 funerals and I never heard any funeral director dispute this. They had few bad debts and it suited their professional stance to be ‘in control’. If it is just bad debts that questions this arrangement now, then that may be due to the ever rising cost of funerals, much of this due to their upselling.… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

While unsurprised by now at your extensive knowledge, Ken, I’m still impressed by the way you can whip up such statistics from your store of knowledge. So, as I’ve been trying to work out a national average cost for a cremation with little success so far, I wonder if you’d be so kind as to help me if you happen to have an indication to hand? I’d be extremely grateful.

Jonathan Taylor
funeral organiser, activist and celebrant
jmtaylor55@yahoo.co.uk

Ken West
Guest

Jonathan,
The Chartered Inst. of Public Finance & Accounting (CIPFA) issue an annual summary of returns from crematoria and cemeteries. Although essentially public data, not private, these returns cover all fees levied throoughout the UK. If you have a local Bereavement Services Manager, ask them if they will loan you the CIPFA book, or at the very least allow you to read it at the offices. There is no reason why it should be confidential, and I certainly loaned my copy when I was working.

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

Thank you, Ken

Tim Morris
Guest

The CIPFA publications also reveal that the majority of local authority cemeteries produce a deficit. Escalating maintenance costs caused by building new cemeteries and their unsustainable nature need consideration. No other party involved with funerals has such a maintenance burden in perpetuity.

The press release from Royal London is interesting. Top of page 3 in particular.
http://www.iccm-uk.com/iccm/library/Royal%20London%20-%20UK%20funeral%20debt%20reaches%20142M%20GBP_FINAL.pdf

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

Thanks to you too for pointing this one up, Tim; top of page three answers my question precisely.

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

I’ve just checked the forms for a crematorium near me, and nowhere on either the Application for cremation or on the Notice of cremation is there a place for a funeral director to put her signature. The only written confirmation of a named funeral director’s involvement comes from the word of the applicant who, after all, could mischeivously name any old funeral director; her actual involvement is of course confirmed by her advancing the fee for her client and turning up with the corpse, but the point stands. Both forms are unambiguously a contract between the crematorium and the friend… Read more »

Mr XXX
Guest
Mr XXX

Not forgetting that the purpose of the “Application for Cremation of the body of a person that has died” form is purely to enable the medical referee representing the crematorium to satisfy him/herself that the cremation is lawful. No part of the statutory form forms any part of a contract – it is a statement of truth on behalf of the applicant.

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

Exactly, Mr XXX, which is why Mark’s suggestion (Thursday, 9.44pm) of the application form containing outlines of allotted times would unfortunately not have any standing – the two ‘elements’ are completely unrelated.

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

So, Andrew, it would seem that if an undertaker makes the mistake of using a crematorium chapel for a ceremony, instead of a sensible location such as her own chapel or A.N Other venue, she’s digging her own grave, to mix a metaphor or two!

xxJ

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

It’s an interesting concept though: make the medical referee responsible for policing the time a funeral is allowed to last…

Charles
Guest

Excellent point Mr XXX. What’s so frustrating about this is that a contract lawyer could sort it out in very short order, sparing us any more amateur blundering about. Perhaps the ICCM or FBCA would like to seek opinion on this? The GFG’s war chest won’t stretch.

vita incerta
Guest
vita incerta

For the most part by the time an officiant of any kind sees the family, the die is cast, especially at this time of the year. The slot after and the slot before at the crem will already have been filled. To then listen to the family say they want five pieces of music and the oldest son to give a tribute, but a eulogy as well, please and Chanelle – who is sobbing just telling me that she wants to read a lengthy poem…but it will be alright, won’t it, because the ceremony is at lunchtime and they do… Read more »

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

If all we used crematoria for was cremating, this problem wouldn’t exist.

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Nice one, Kingfisher!

David Holmes
Guest

I should have added that of course the 30-45 min slot suits the operational efficiencies of the large corporate funeral director. You know, the kind of FD’s who run a diary hub and spoke operation – they need and benefit most from those short time slots! The BIG FUNERAL CORP hearse doing a 10 am branch load-up, 10.30 house, 11 am crem needs to be away by 11.05 – to go on to its next branch to load up for job number two of the day. It may even then move on to job three.. Any delays or over-runs at… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

Great post Charles. I have never understood why we FD’s take on the role of crematorium or cemetery client. When a family fails to pay us – and they do – the disbursements, crem fee, Doctor’s, Minister or Celebrant fees always end up being paid by us, possibly just to avoid ‘making a fuss.’ To add insult to injury, occasionally a non-paying client will have ‘bought’ a new grave for two and still have exclusive right to a second interment. Now, doesn’t THAT make you feel sorry for funeral directors? As ever, I think families need to be more involved… Read more »

Charles
Guest
Charles

Tim, you say: “If the funeral director, as agent for his/her client, enters into a contract with the crematorium…” I would argue that a FD has no legal right to enter into a contract as agent of his/her and, in effect, buy a cremation on behalf of his/her client: that’s why the FD is not allowed to sign the application. The deal is done between the personal representative, the crematorium and the medical referee. The FD cannot subcontract a crematorium. By the same token, the client cannot hold a FD responsible for services performed by a crematorium. AD: I agree:… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest

Time for application forms to include explicit outlines of allotted times which I don’t think I have ever seen. That way the applicant (relative / Executor) agree to keep their ceremony within the agreed time.

Tim
Guest
Tim

This is a really interesting subject. Again, not a lawyer but what if the funeral director has told the client that he/she will pay the disbursements and include them in the overall funeral invoice and then does so? Is this a verbal contract?
Really good to see the response suggesting working together and putting the client in touch with the crematorium before the funeral.

Mr XXX
Guest
Mr XXX

Can of worms, this….. So, we arrive at the ‘crem’ bang on time, to find that the previous slot, is overrunning, due to poor old Mrs Miggins’ (the departed) lesser known cousin rambling on at great length about how he lost his false teeth whilst cleaning out a tank during world war 2. In fact it overruns by some 20 minutes, once everyone has left the chapel, and the catafalque is clear. It doesn’t help that the hearse and bearers have to be somewhere else 15 minutes later, and the minister has another service at the ‘crem’ in the next… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest

No mention here that the celebrant has been paid to take charge of the ceremony time and therefore should have the penalty deducted from their fee if they over run. Double times – fine – but getting two times back to back can be hard. Where a cremation is booked without a funeral director, such a charge would required to be sent to the applicant. Are we talking here just about the ceremony running over – or the transfer time when a large crowd take longer to exit the chapel – even though ceremony is concluded on time? Presumably the… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

I’m not saying it’s never my fault if we over-run but not everything is in the celebrant’s control because we don’t usually see the family until after the visit to the funeral director. Many’s the time I have told a family that we have 30 minutes to be met by disbelief – they were told they had 45 minutes and had already planned for that. For most crems ceremony time includes getting everyone in and out. So I could do a 20 minute ceremony start to finish but with 200 people to get in and out I would run over… Read more »

Girl on the Hill
Guest
Girl on the Hill

As I understand it the ceremony is not over till the last mourner has left the building. That has to be included in our timings.

A.D.
Guest
A.D.

We have regularly had this debate “in-house” regarding third party costs.Who is liable for these costs in the event of non – payment?
The crematorium naturally will chase the FD as they will have completed the paperwork and booked the time of the funeral. As pointed out previously, the FD does not sign the application form as the applicant but acts only as a facilitator. Surely, if you clearly state on your estimate, invoice and T’s & C’s that these are third party costs, the liability, including fines, should be with the client/family of the deceased?

Tim
Guest
Tim

I’m certainly not a lawyer but would ask where contracts lie? If the funeral director, as agent for his/her client, enters into a contract with the crematorium and pays fees on behalf of the client, the crematorium might claim any unpaid fee from the funeral director as a contract debt. If the funeral director enters into a contract with his/her client, as is likely, any debt owed by the client would be chased by the funeral director as a contract debt in the courts. So, what is the contractual position and obligation of each party?? In the above please substitute… Read more »

Charles
Guest
Charles

Bereavement Services at a crematorium not a million miles from me conducted a consultation earlier in the year. One of the findings was: “There is a divergence of views between Bereavement Services staff who are unsure about whether or not families are provided with the all the options related to cremation. The funeral directors’ input and questionnaire responses indicate that families are informed about the options. Some people attending the crematorium open day said they were unaware of some of the options and this would be beneficial for organisations working with people who are at the stage of wanting to… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

By sending the over-run bill to the undertaker, rather than the grieving family, the crematorium managers remove themselves from any potential backlash. Even when undertakers take great pains to tell their clients about ‘fines’ for running over, if the crematorium billed directly families could say, ‘no-one told us we only had twenty minutes.’ Some crems (most? only a few?) do not allow anyone other than a funeral director to book a cremation. Also, is there a reluctance by undertakers to tell the family they need to book a double slot (or extended time)? On the occasions I have advised the… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Entirely proper Charles, and very interesting. I entirely support the idea that if crematoria saw the possessor of the body as the client, it might change their view of what they do – make it less purely functional and occasional. In a way, big it up. Perhaps then , more of them would offer services based on their actual and potential longer-term role. They could become more of a focus for the families and friends of those they have cremated. As with some crematoria in Canada and the USA, I believe, they could offer more community functionality. Commemorative events. Refreshments.… Read more »