Exploitation is rife in death care - here’s what needs to change

There’s been another grim article demonstrating how funeral directors are failing to care for grieving people and the dead. The article in The Telegraph alleges Co-op Funeralcare staff in south London manipulated bereaved people into buying things they neither want nor need. Staff were apparently observed ‘mocking corpses’, making derogatory comments about miscarried foetuses and suicide victims.

Knowing how important it is to get a gentle and human experience with death care, it makes me feel ill to think these practices have been happening not far from Poppy’s HQ in Tooting.

Perhaps even worse is knowing how common these practices are. Sam Tyrer, Co-op’s managing director, responded to the allegations with, ‘we do not recognise the picture of our professional and caring business’. This feels like a real misstep to me.

Having joined the funeral sector eight years ago, I would say this kind of behaviour is not at all uncommon — not just at the Co-op or in the funeral sector, but in hospitals and amongst cemetery and crematoria staff too.

I have heard funeral directors and hospital mortuary technicians refer to the dead as ‘a smelly one’, ‘a big one’ and often as ‘it’. I have seen funeral directors laying people who had died head to toe on a tray because they were running out of space. I have heard cemetery staff making racist and sexist comments and jokes about bereaved people attending a funeral.

The CMA’s reforms are not enough

It’s behaviour like this that anyone on the side of good practice is hoping will be challenged by the Competition and Market Authority’s current investigation into the funeral sector. Their provisional report proposes reforms including a requirement for funeral directors to be registered and inspected, and pressure to be much more transparent in their pricing.

But the CMA’s reforms won’t solve the wider cultural issues that stand in the way of good death care. If we, as a society, continue to close our eyes to the subject of death, we simply cannot expect death care to improve.

At the moment, we do everything in our power to avoid thinking about death. We don’t talk about it in our families or in our communities. We don’t develop instinct or knowledge about what we’d want or what would be right for us. Then, when death comes, we hand this important and vulnerable life experience over to ‘experts’ like funeral directors who tell us what experience we should have and how much it will cost.

Ultimately, capitalism plus taboo makes for a pretty unpleasant marketplace in the funeral sector.

What needs to change?

We need to completely overhaul the way that we think about death. Death isn’t a niche subject that affects the few, it will impact every single one of us, multiple times. As a society, we must accept that death is here to stay. We must face it, talk about it and plan for it.

Gentleness, consciousness and thoughtfulness need to be a prerequisite in the design of any process involving bereaved people or the dead. Hospitals, hospices, coroners, register offices and, of course, funeral directors need to ensure their services for grieving people are kind, responsive and easy to navigate. Schools and workplaces need to have individuals who are able to support bereaved people.

We need to alter the way we consider the dead. Whatever your religious or spiritual views, the dead body, which carried us through our lives, is worthy of gentle treatment. We need to bust the myths surrounding the dead body, which has become such a symbol of fear and horror.

There is nothing inherently dangerous or disgusting about somebody who has died. You have only to come and spend a few hours in our beautiful, light-filled mortuary at Poppy’s to have your eyes opened to how normal and acceptable it is to be dead.

We also need much better training for those in the funeral sector. We need to move aside modules on selling expensive coffins and bring in education around the value of empowerment and choice. Funeral directors must support people to get what they need from the experience, rather than selling expensive packages with eyes only on profit margins.

Above all, we need to accept that death is here to stay. Better we get to know it well and equip ourselves to care for one another when our time comes. Keeping our eyes shut only allows bad practice to run rife.

P.S. to my colleagues in the sector. The more you refuse to accept the work that needs to be done to improve death care, the longer it will take to build a sector we can all be proud of. Please get with the programme ASAP.

Poppy Mardall, Founder and Director, Poppy’s



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