Dying for attention; ‘Fly-by-night’ homes cause public health risk

Funeral directors' association says unregulated 'fly-by-night' homes cause public health risk

BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter hamiltonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 10, 2013

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UNSAFE embalming practices at many of the island's funeral homes could ultimately pose a threat to public health if the Government waits much longer to introduce long overdue regulations, some top local funeral directors have said.

Members of the Jamaica Association of Funeral Home Directors are dying for State intervention in some of these homes, which they claim are operated by underqualified persons without regard for industry standards.

Over a year ago, Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson promised sweeping changes to the funeral services industry. Promises were also made by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to introduce regulations to clean up the sector.

However, some funeral directors complain that to date, nothing has happened, resulting in a free-for-all characterised by unprofessional and unhealthy practices that have serious implications for the health and well-being of members of the public.

But nearly a year after the minister's pronouncement, little, if anything, has changed.

"The sector is unregulated and people are handling bodies that have all kinds of health issues, without any training in how these bodies should be handled," complained the head of the association, Milton Mason, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer last week.

"What I saw the other day was some people leaving KPH (Kingston Public Hospital) with a body on a stretcher with blood all over it, just dripping, and I am like, what in the world is going on? This is barbaric. And that's the problem, no form of regulation, and all these people who say they are funeral directors, are not," he charged, adding that it is too easy for just anyone to set up shop.

He said that he recently went to one such funeral home where members of a bereaved family were being attended to in a cramped space which also housed the cold room where the bodies were stored.

According to Mason, the living can contract dangerous airborne diseases from corpses, hence the need to observe proper safety guidelines governing the preservation of bodies.

"If you are having a public viewing with the public being invited to the viewing, you should do embalming, because in doing that you retard the (toxic) compositions. You know when someone comes into a funeral home they will hug the remains, they will kiss the remains, and remains can be highly contagious. When you come into the funeral home and kiss and hold that body, what you do is squeeze the body and in the process dispel stuff from the lungs. You breathe it in, you can catch diseases. If a body is properly embalmed, you don't have a problem," said Mason.

He also pointed to the horrific practice in which the operators of some funeral homes return lipstick and other intimate items that were used on the dead to the families, asserting that this, too, could contribute to the spread of deadly diseases.

He was also concerned about the popular practice of parading bodies in transparent carriages on public roadways. Mason said the sight can perturb some members of the public and can also result in mayhem if the corpse is accidentally dislodged en route.

Mason's claims were supported by a Manchester-based funeral director who opted to speak on condition of anonymity, but who told the Sunday Observer that the situation has reached crisis proportions as the industry is being overrun by what he called "fly-by-night" operators.

He described how these operators employ touts who congregate outside public hospitals waiting on medical personnel to complete autopsies so they could immediately grab grieving relatives by offering low-cost funeral packages.

The funeral home director, who said he has been in the business for more than 30 years, maintained that such practices are unprofessional and unethical, and suggested that staff at some public hospitals are in collusion with these cheap funeral set-ups as they seem to get business directly from hospital morgue personnel.

The director said that he has been approached on several occasions by relatives of deceased persons and by the operators of other funeral homes whose poor storage techniques resulted in the deterioration of bodies.

In highlighting the urgent need for regulations, the funeral director pointed to what he cited as the increasing reports of congregants being forced to leave funeral services due to the stench emanating from caskets.

According to him, the problem stems from improper embalming techniques or from the failure to embalm the bodies, the funeral home opting instead to take bodies straight from the refrigerator to the church. Naturally they begin to thaw, particularly in instances where the funeral services are lengthy, or where the bodies have to be taken on long journeys.

Both these established directors said that proper training would be among the basic elements of any regulatory framework for the industry.

"You work in a morgue today as a sweeper and tomorrow you decide that you going to become a funeral director, and there is nothing to prevent that," lamented Mason.

"For me, I went to Miami Dade Community College for a two-year programme. We serve one year's internship and then you take the national board examination, and then whatever state you decide to work in you take a state board test. I am licensed in New York and Florida. That's the normal training in a well-run country. In Jamaica it's like, just, 'mi nuh fraid of duppy', that is what qualifies you," Mason said, highlighting the need for local universities to offer programmes in the mortuary sciences.

But these sharp criticisms emanating from his 30-member-strong association are being countered by the operators of lesser-known establishments who contend that the "big guys" in the business are upset that they are losing control over the larger share of the pie. They also rubbished claims that their operations are unhygienic.

The Sunday Observer went to Charles Street in downtown Kingston -- which has far more funeral establishments than any other single area in Jamaica -- given its proximity to the Kingston Public Hospital.

One operator, who declined to give his name, acknowledged that he is aware of calls for the sector to be regulated, but dismissed them as coming from the owners of big funeral homes who are determined to prevent "the small man" from entering the industry.

"Is a big man versus small man thing, and is a false argument that we not running our business properly," said the man, who declared that he has been in the business since 1980 when his father started the operation.

Asked whether he has any formal training, the funeral home director said his training had been gained over the 30-years he has been in the industry.

"Nobody don't complain 'bout how we fix-up people. We are one of the best 'round town," boasted the man, although he agreed that the Government could do more to ensure that the industry is operated in accordance with established safety standards.

Mason feels successive administrations have dragged their feet on the issue because Jamaicans don't like to discuss anything to do with death.

"Death in Jamaica is still a taboo subject; no one wants to talk about death unless their family member is involved, as a result, we are 30 years behind the time," he lamented.

The Sunday Observer encountered difficulties in its efforts to get an update on the promised regulations from the Ministry of Health.

However, in a comprehensive response to our queries, NEPA spoke to its mandate under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act.

But NEPA also redirected the Sunday Observer to the Ministry of Health and local parish councils, which also oversee funeral homes.

Among other things, the regulatory agency said it has responsibility for processing applications and making recommendations to the NRCA Board for approval or refusal of Environmental Permits, for the construction of cemeteries and crematoria and for the storage and transport of hazardous waste.

"If the funeral home involves the operation of a cemetery or crematoria, or if hazardous waste is generated in the preparation of the bodies for burial, then we could take enforcement action against the funeral home operator," NEPA explained.

It also said it could seek compliance where breaches of permits are identified by either administrative means (dialogue or warning letters), or by legal instruments such as a Cessation Order, Enforcement Notice or the Suspension/Revocation of the Permit.

"In cases where persons are found to be operating funeral homes and the exposure of the chemicals represents a danger to, or serious threat to public health and/or natural resources, then we can issue an Enforcement Notice compelling the person to stop the activity and to remediate the area. Whether enforcement action will be taken or not will be dependent on the scale of the activity and the imminence of the threat to public health and/or the natural resources. For instance, if the chemicals are being disposed of by discharge into the environment, then we may decide to issue a Cessation Order (which would instruct the person to stop the activity), or an Enforcement Notice (which would instruct the person to stop the activity and to take steps to remediate the environmental harm. NEPA may also prosecute the person should they disobey either the Order or the Notice.

"In addition, where we have a Cessation Order in place the minister for the environment may order the police to shut down the facility," the agency explained.

"If the funeral home operates without the permission of either the TCPA (Town and Country Planning Authority) or the Parish Council, either body or the Government Town Planner (who is currently by law designated as the CEO of NEPA) can issue a Stop Order and Enforcement Notice under the Town and Country Planning Act. Such legal instruments, if disobeyed, carry significant legal consequences, including a fine of up to $1,000,000 and a term of up to six months' imprisonment. The government bodies can also seek an injunction to stop the continued activities of the funeral home.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to written queries about the issue up to press time.




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