Are we spending too much on the dead?
...rather than the livingSunday, August 01, 2021
Several years ago I asked my husband for a very special favour. I needed him to represent me at a funeral for a staff member's relative as I had to travel on ministerial business. If you know anything about rural funerals then you know that they can last up to five hours or more depending on how popular the person was in their community. I told him, however, not to worry, as this one would only take two hours at most, and he could leave right after the sermon, if necessary. He agreed.
He arrived on time for the 11:00 am service and sat in the front pew. At approximately 4:00 pm I received a message from him which read something to the effect: “Lisa, never again; it is now five hours and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. I just listened to someone give a tribute on behalf of a man who died 10 years ago…” He did stay until the end, but needless to say, I knew it was the last constituency funeral attendance favour I could ever ask of him.
A big part of our Jamaican culture is giving those we love a proper “send-off”. In rural communities, we begin with friends and family selflessly helping to dig the grave for the deceased, followed by the staging of a nine-night at the 'dead yard' with 'duppy band' music merriment, rum, mannish water, and curried goat. The funeral is the last event.
For Members of Parliament (MP), the role and responsibilities extend far beyond voting in Parliament, as the expectations from our constituents are wide-ranging and most times personal in nature. High on the priority of our obligatory duties is attendance at these weekly grave diggings, and 'set-ups'. Our families and friends have learned that they cannot expect to see us on any given Saturday between 10:00 am to 5:00 pm as those times are reserved specifically for one or multiple funerals in our constituencies. But it is not only the attendance at these events which is required from an MP, so too is a financial contribution to help offset the associated high expenses.
Funerals are expensive in Jamaica, and many are unable to meet the overall costs. On average we receive 15 requests monthly through my constituency office from individuals who need financial help to bury a loved one or family member. They bring the invoices from the various funeral homes which may range from a low of $190,000 to a high of $550,000. The most basic funeral package includes 50 programmes, a casket, storage, preparation, and transportation of the body.
The Constituency Development Fund (CDF) has mandated a five per cent allotment of $1 million out of the $20 million allocation towards welfare assistance. Since March 2021 we have spent close to $600,000 in St Ann South Eastern assisting 20 people from this allocation and, based on the levels of requests coming in for funeral assistance alone, once again we will have to increase welfare to $2 million.
Holding funerals in Jamaica is big business. With an annual death toll of 22,500 people, and an average funeral cost of $280,000, it means funerals in Jamaica are a $6.3-billion industry of direct expenditure. When we include the food, entertainment, travel, and fashion it could easily contribute $10 billion to the Jamaican economy.
However, even though the funeral home business is so significant, it appears that it is one of the easiest to incorporate, because it is unregulated. Currently, there is no legislation in place for the establishment, licensing, training, and certification of operators and the operations of funeral homes in Jamaica. “It comes across almost as a free-for-all, where every and anybody can be a funeral director,” Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton was quoted as saying in April 2019.
There are approximately 20 certified embalmers in Jamaica, compared to nearly 250 funeral homes now operating in the country. “In this industry in Jamaica now what you see happening a lot is that many funeral homes are operating via cellphones, and then they store the bodies with multiple different funeral homes' storage facilities, and they are not following the protocols of a tagging system so they don't know which bodies they are sending out for which purposes…They don't have a place of business that they operate out of, so they outsource everything… so they never really have a face-to-face interaction sometimes with the actual customer,” Scott Roman of Roman's Funeral Home said in January 2019.
There has been pressure since 2014 from the industry for new legislation to replace the old Burial and Cremation Act (1963) based on known breaches by some of these untrained operators. The Ministry of Local Government presented a list of 60 known and established funeral home operators noting that there could be many more.
There is no doubt that I enjoy the events leading up to a funeral and I have spent my fair share of time, with both personal and State resources, assisting many of my constituents with these expenses. However, I have been thinking, are we spending too much money on the dead rather than on the living? Wouldn't this allocation of tax dollars be better used for training and job creation?
A casket on the world market costs between $30,000 to $45,000. The way to reduce cost is through standardisation and production volume. Therefore, it may make more sense to establish a factory to make standardised caskets and coffins at an economic cost to the poor. If all MPs and councillors pooled their allocated resources, the people would benefit from reduced costs through economies of scale. This would free up money for productive use in our constituencies, as well as lessen the financial burden on poor households.
The ministries of health and local government should work together and urgently pass modern funeral home regulations this year to ensure consumers at all levels are protected while getting value for money.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.
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