Funeral home legislation still on ice
Lack of laws makes it difficult to monitor self-regulated industry amid allegations of operational breachesSunday, September 19, 2021
BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT
AS allegations about untrained funeral home operators transporting COVID-19 bodies in public passenger vehicles swirl, the long-promised legislation to govern the funeral industry remains on ice, making it difficult to proceed with prosecution when breaches are observed.
Calvin Lyn, president of the 24-member Jamaica Association of Certified Embalmers (JACE), disclosed last week that he received reports from members of JACE that bodies were being removed from their premises by unqualified funeral directors, operating without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate vehicles.
Lyn said reports reaching him were that these so-called funeral directors were coming with minibuses with passengers in them, and in some instances taxis, to remove bodies and take over the burial arrangements as directed by family members.
The JACE president said it has been happening for months, particularly in Clarendon, St Ann, and St Catherine. He called on the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) to quickly intervene.
But, with no legislation to govern the funeral industry, Everton Baker, director of environmental health in the MOHW, says his hands are most times tied as the JACE membership cannot be used to separate those trained and untrained.
“That would be discriminatory as there is no legislation. When you don't have an established law you can't come down on the people. You have to realise that, if I want to establish a funeral home, I would get my business licence and documents from the municipal corperation and establish a funeral home. There is nothing stopping you from putting up a sign and say you sell funeral home materials, but you're not handling bodies or you're doing both. The issue is that, until a law is there to say what a funeral home is, and what it constitutes by law – if you breach that the police, the public health officer can prosecute you – until that happens, it's very difficult. Even though some of the people form membership, it's not readily easy to push people out of the trade,” Baker said.
The Ministry of Health in 2014 created guidelines for the operation of funeral establishments and mortuaries. Since then there have been promises of more regulations in the form of legislation to apply structure to the self-regulated industry. The 2014 guidelines were intended to mirror the legislation for what would be known as the Public Health Funeral Establishment and Mortuary Operations and Regulations to be reviewed by Cabinet.
Baker, however, said the ministry is far advanced with the regulations and said the health and local government ministries have met with funeral directors is various sessions to get their feedback to move things forward.
Notwithstanding the legal issues, Baker said public health inspectors strategically monitor and deal with such issues, and the funeral homes are a priority as it falls under the institutional health programme – school, nursing homes, lock ups, penal institutions, funeral homes – which are inspected from time to time. However, COVID-19 has resulted in the routine inspections being scaled down.
Further, Baker said the ministry, in its examination, has not come across anything where it sees a body being transported in a public passenger vehicle, and explained that funeral homes, too, have hustlers who are often aided and abetted by the established homes.
“You have people who probably hustle and sometimes they are hard to find as they know how to slip through the cracks. Some will keep bodies for the unestablished ones. The suitcase people, who are like brokers to the main people, may have a vehicle but no established place or refrigeration, but they do all the ground work for the bigger men,” he said. “But we have not had any complaint relating to this [bodies being transported in public passenger vehicles] to set up a sting operation. In all my years working in public health I've never heard of it. It may be happening but I've not got any reports.”
Moreover, Baker said that, where any establishment is found to be in breach of public health requirements, the Public Health Act can be applied.
“Before any law or anything else there are standards of practice regarding what we know would create a problem, and we have certain authority under the law. So any entity – it doesn't matter what it is – that is operating contrary to public health practice, then we can take action under the Public Health Act. It says we can take any action that is deemed necessary in the interest of public health. When we go to these establishments anything that is out, we deal with it. It ranges from giving a verbal order, serving a notice to correct a breach, close down the establishment, or prosecute,” he said, pointing out that in the past funeral homes have been closed for operational breaches.
In relation to the health risks the alleged practices might pose, Baker explained that it would depend on how old the body was.
“Once you die the organisms start dying, as they rely on your body to live. If you have to transport the body in taxis – depending to where and when you pick the body up – if the car is disinfected you have no problem, but if the body is a few days old and has certain blood borne pathogens or fluids you may contaminate the taxi. If the body is fresh, usually there are no problems, but when it's a few days old, you may have a problem. But the biggest risk is to the pathologist and mortician and those who may go to funerals and want to kiss the body,” he said.