Bristol undertakers criticise new fines for late collection of bodies

Undertakers have criticised plans to impose finesUndertakers have criticised plans to impose fines
Undertakers have criticised plans to impose fines | PA (Press Association)
Bristol City Council wants to charge funeral directors £100 to £200 every day they are late collecting a corpse

Undertakers in Bristol have criticised plans to impose fines if they leave dead bodies for more than three days at the region’s public morgue.

Bristol City Council wants to charge funeral directors £100 to £200 every day they are late collecting a corpse once it has been released by the coroner amid an increasing lack of space at Flax Bourton Mortuary.

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The authority says some businesses in the death sector are unfairly taking advantage of free storage at the facility instead of investing in their own, with the rise of “no-frills funerals”, and that the cost then falls on the taxpayer.

So it has launched a six-week public consultation into a proposed new bylaw introducing fines in a bid to speed up the process and free up limited space as more people are dying.

But the UK’s biggest funeral directors organisation has criticised the plans and says many delays are outside their control because of a huge backlog in the system caused by a lack of pathologists and death registry staff, restricted collection times at mortuaries and a shortage of crematoria slots.

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the proposals would punish good operators as well as those who abused the system.

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A spokesperson said: “Responsible funeral directors would never want to leave someone who has died in the mortuary for any longer than is necessary.

“It is a fundamental part of the role of a funeral director to care for people who have died and provide an opportunity for their loved ones to grieve and say goodbye.

“However, if there are some funeral firms that are habitually using public mortuaries for storage rather than investing properly in their own facilities then we would support the council in the need to address the problem by targeting the actions of the firms concerned.

“We do not think this is best achieved, though, by introducing a blanket charge which will also affect funeral directors who cannot meet the council’s deadline due to delays that are outside of their control, or because the bereaved family has not engaged their services in time.

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“There are chronic delays affecting all parts of the death management system, including in Bristol, and including in council-run services.”

The NAFD published a report into these delays in May calling on coroners, mortuaries, registrars, cemeteries and crematoria to collaborate better to make sure the system worked for and not against bereaved people.

It found that almost half of all families had to wait more than three weeks for a funeral, with 14 per cent waiting over a month.

The spokesperson said: “Lack of pathologists creating a backlog in the coronial system, shorter working hours and restricted collection times in the mortuaries, lack of slots at crematoria and delays in death registration appointments are just some of the issues we found in our research. These delays cause acute distress to bereaved families.

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“The solution lies in better collaboration between all parties, including funeral directors, to resolve these issues – not simply slapping fines on private sector organisations who have no ability on their own to do anything about them.

“On a practical level, there is generally no contractual relationship between the funeral director and the mortuary, so there is a risk of the charge having to be levied on the grieving family instead.”

Flax Bourton Public and Forensic Mortuary provides services for the Avon coroner to investigate unexplained or unnatural deaths in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset and is operated by the city council on behalf of the four authorities.

When the coroner has finished investigating the cause of a death, she releases the corpse for collection by a funeral director, who is usually appointed by the family and is responsible for storing the body until burial or cremation.

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The council says that if there is a delay in collection, this directly impacts the coroner’s ability to store others and increases the costs of the publicly funded service.

Mortuary and coroner support manager John Pitchers said: “It’s important that the mortuary’s limited capacity is closely managed.

“When there are delays in collecting deceased persons for burial or cremation it means the mortuary cannot work well and runs the risk of running out of storage capacity.”

The council said: “The increasing pressure on capacity at the Flax Bourton Mortuary is driven by increasing population and more people dying; an increase in the average time between a person’s death and their funeral, meaning deceased people need to be stored for longer; and the growth of ‘no frills’ funeral services that operate without their own mortuary capacity.

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“In response to these pressures on mortuary space, local NHS hospital mortuaries and the two largest funeral directors in the former Avon area have significantly increased their mortuary storage capacity in recent years.

“We do not think it is reasonable or fair to continue to provide taxpayer-funded mortuary space which subsidises private funeral companies that are charging relatives of the deceased for this service.”

The consultation ends on October 31 and is here.

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