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Is it time for regulation of the funeral industry?

Yet again another scandal has rocked the press about the funeral trade. Dame Elish Angiolini’s report on the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal revealed staff at the crematorium buried babies ashes in secret and, shockingly, the ashes left in the crematorium overnight would often be mixed with adult remains. Angiolini’s report accused funeral directors of failing to question the practice. Reaction to the findings suggests that an investigation into the industry is eminent.

This isn’t the first time that scandal has hit the industry hard. In June 2012, the Channel 4 programme Dispatches uncovered less than dignified work at a Co-Operative Funeralcare hub in Hampshire and the following September, ITV Exposure aired The British Way of Death, which exposed bad practice, despicable treatment of bodies and an overriding concern for the bottom line at Gillman Funeral Services, part of Funeral Partners Ltd.  Further to this, in 2013 a mortuary worker was accused of removing identification bracelets off bodies.

All this begs the question, should the industry be regulated? Currently, the industry is self-regulating but many outsiders feel this isn’t working. An OFT report commissioned in 2001 found that 65 per cent of those in the trade wanted tougher regulation. And in 2002, the industry raised eyebrows when it axed its independent complaints ombudsman. Since then there have been several calls for government intervention, including an e-petition brought to HM Government calling for the regulation of the funeral industry in 2012.

Dame Angiolini’s report will no doubt trigger an enquiry as to whether or not government should intervene. Conservative MP Caroline Nokes brought the issue up in Westminster Hall debates last October over what she believed to be the alleged unlawful release of a body to Thomas Davis of Bristol Funeral Directors group. Nokes claims that Davis was aware that the family wanted to use the services of another funeral director but took the body anyway. She believes this practice could be far more widespread then reported and is calling for the industry to be regulated because as it stands Mr Davis’s actions are not even considered a crime. She insisted at the debates that, ‘The Post Office would appear to take more care in the release of a parcel than the BRI did in the release of a body’.

While the issue of body release has more to do with the hospital than the funeral director, it was Davis’s actions that warrant intervention. The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), which the firm Davis represents is a member, states in its code of practice that members, ‘shall do nothing liable to bring the funeral profession into dispute’ and then adds, under section 9 concerning Professional Conduct:

‘The choice of funeral director to carry out a funeral should always be the prerogative of the family concerned. When two funeral directors are called at the same time to attend bereavement both should show a willingness to withdraw leaving the choice with the family’.

With all the issues brought to the press, it seems that self-regulation has functioned as more of an option than a tool of restraint. In a statement issued by the NAFD, in response to the Mortonhall crematorium, they stated that, ‘[T]he NAFD regularly audits the performance of our members, which provides an effective self-regulatory mechanism. We also provide training to members in assisting bereaved families through our diplomas and client service programmes’.

There are no laws that currently regulate the industry, the only laws are consumer and public health legislation that state a body has to be disposed of decently, in a way that does not cause offence. According to a 2001 Office of Fair Trading report, funeral directors and embalmers are not legally required to have any qualification in the UK. This amounts to one third of workers in the sector lacking any qualification. However, despite this, many in the industry feel that stricter regulation would not allow the trade to evolve. They cite problems that have occurred in the American funeral industry due to what they feel is overregulation.

A representative from the Natural Death Centre stated they wouldn’t want to regulate the industry through government intervention. ‘The best way to regulate is empowering the public about choices. Supply and demand, the public would chose the best funeral directors and those would get more customers and the old school ones, the ones who are messing up, will slowly disappear. Currently 98 per cent of people use the first funeral directors they walk into and spend between three and seven thousand pounds, they’ve no other consumer comparison. You wouldn’t just walk into the first car showroom and say that’s a nice car and buy that, so we want to empower the public that they have choices. That’s the best way to regulate the industry we believe; the public leading by demand.’ They feel that regulation, ‘would increase costs to the consumer, increase costs to the funeral directors and the winners would be the big trade associations who would then try and regulate it.’ They have created to try and empower the public through a rating system similar to TripAdvisor.

But would regulation be such a bad thing? The New Zealand Law Commission looked into regulating their funeral industry, an industry and legal system very similar to the UK’s. Their proposal was to implement transparency in pricing, listing the cost of each individual element of a funeral, as well as introducing a mandatory license that demonstrates to the local council an understanding of legal obligations regarding funeral services. According to a 2013 article written by the Good Funeral Guide, regulation in the UK isn’t the issue. They think that implementing such regulation here would, ‘put UK funeral homes on par with UK catteries.’ They find fault not with industry behaviour but with the public’s, ‘ignorance [that] prevents them from arranging really meaningful funerals’ not their ‘ignorance as negotiators. Whose fault is it that bereaved people seek information too late?’

Worth around two billon pounds a year, death is big business. Like it or not the profession has moved beyond a few mom and pop shops, with two major corporations, The Co-op and Dignity Plc., dominating the scene. Could implementing regulation help the independent firms that remain as many of the recent scandals are imitating from the larger corporate firms who seem to act as though self-regulation is merely a suggestion rather than good working practice.

The NAFD declined to comment on this story.

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