Unregulated funeral sector leaving some families traumatised by bad business practices

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

Families are being left traumatised by the actions of rogue funeral operators, and industry representatives say it’s a growing problem.

"What we're seeing with these new operators coming into the market is they're driven by business opportunity, the opportunity to be a disruptor in the market, the opportunity to just run a business without understanding the vulnerableness of families at that point,” Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand chief executive David Moger told 1 NEWS.

He said it’s been an issue he’s seen for the past 20 years, but recently has received more calls from families wanting to complain about funeral directors without realising they are not FDA members that have to follow set standards.

“We think those numbers are going to go up substantially and our members just can't keep shouldering that burden and that's why I think the Government need to change to a central registration that needs to have a set of standards,” he said.

The Ministry of Health is reviewing the unregulated funeral sector, along with outdated burial, death and cremation laws.

Submissions on the review close on Saturday 31 October at 5pm.

The Ministry’s 2019 consultation document states "we do not consider there is enough of a case to warrant government regulatory intervention" for the funeral industry, but evidence from public feedback could change their position.

Naomi James, the aunty of the late Meadow James who died in a car crash in 2018, is among those urging the Government to regulate the industry after suffering because of how a "rogue" funeral director handled the funeral arrangements of her niece.

“Us that are left behind are traumatised by experiences that almost are unbelievable that they happened,”  James said.

“It's disheartening that in a country like New Zealand this is happening.”

She said the director failed to advise that Meadow’s facial injuries were too extreme to view, instead saying the whole family should see her in her casket.

James said she had an uneasy feeling and stepped in to view Meadow first before having to tell her family they could not view her.

“The minute that I pulled up at his home address and saw Meadow's casket sitting in his hearse in his driveway, I felt like someone ripped my heart out,” she said.

“When I looked in, I honestly thought that it was someone else’s loved one, I stood there and stared and the more I stared at this girl I realised it was Meadow, her injuries were extreme and all I could think about was how she must have suffered.”

James said she doesn’t know why the operator would “want to do that to someone’s family”.

She said it shouldn’t have been her job to advise Meadow’s mother she couldn’t say good bye to her daughter and that she couldn’t view her.

She said the director also shared private details with the public about preparing Meadow for the funeral and service details, displayed that he worked for a funeral company that he did not and was unable to meet technical service arrangements, before the family switched to another director for the funeral 24 hours before.

Funeral directors only need to register with a local council, with no grounds for refusing an application.

It’s estimated around 80 per cent of funeral operators are a member of a voluntary membership organisation.

The Ministry of Health states in its consultation document there are "limited mechanisms for dealing with disputes".

It’s something Michelle Bishop, mother of the late Sharnae Mclean, has experienced with Police telling her there was nothing they could do after multiple breaches with the funeral director handling Sharnae’s funeral, she said.

“I always assumed that funeral directors were there to take up that burden from you and they did all that side of things, I mean obviously with our input but they took that pressure away, but in this case it wasn't like that at all,” she said.

Sharnae was not properly embalmed, she said.

“I'll live the rest of my life remembering the way I saw my daughter.

“We were each given a compact and we were actually just asked to just keep dusting her face as it was changing colour,” she said.

Bishop said the director promised to provide an urn for Sharnae’s ashes and register her death, but she never did.

She also said the funeral service space arranged was too small for the number of guests that would be attending, and there was significantly less food offered than the amount paid for.

“I've been to the Police, and to Births, Deaths and registers, to MPs to try and get some sort of law change, I started a petition.”

“I think that regulation and registration is absolutely necessary,” she said about the funeral industry.

Bishop said she feels like she’s let her daughter down.

Funeral Directors Association’s chief executive David Moger said it would be dangerous for the Government to not intervene.

“We know that a meaningful funeral is such an important part of the grieving process and we're just beginning to really understand the impact of a poor farewell into that mental wellbeing, and the grieving that can cause,” he said.

“We've got to stop problems building up before they get to that point,” he said.

Moger advised families to use a funeral director that’s a FDA member, find out how much a funeral will cost up front and have a contract detailing what will be included.