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Hoodwinked Over Funerals?

By NOELLE NICOLLS

Tribune Features Editor

nnicolls@tribunemedia.net

FUNERAL service professionals are concerned about the failure of governments to institute any form of licensure for practitioners in the industry, and the failure of the industry to effectively regulate itself.

“Have the Bahamian people been hoodwinked, run amok, bamboozled, by persons purporting to be funeral service practitioners who are (actually) charlatans? Charlatans are impostors. Have we been hoodwinked, run amok, bamboozled by impostors in the funeral service industry?”

This was the question posed by Wendell Dean II, president of the United Funeral Directors Association of the Bahamas (UFDAB) and managing funeral director at Emerald Ridge Mortuary and Monument Company.

The UFDAB is the most recent association in a long list of organisations which have mostly become inactive or defunct. Pedro Ferguson, president of the now inactive Bahamas Funeral Directors’ and Embalmers’ Association and funeral director at East Sunrise Mortuary, along with Mr Dean, echoed the views expressed by many practitioners interviewed by The Tribune.

They expressed concern about a lack of regulation in the industry, particularly when it comes to the certification of workers who present themselves as professional embalmers, funeral directors and removal specialists.

Grieving relatives put a sacred trust in the professional services they use when a loved one dies. Industry workers have told us that in their view all too often the public’s trust is abused.

The Tribune is backing growing calls from workers and families for a halt to that abuse.

In the Bahamas, nurses, medical doctors, dentists, pharmacists and other health professionals and health care facilities have individual councils that oversee the licensing of professionals.

Internationally, similar oversight bodies exist for the licensing of funeral establishments and funeral service professionals trained in mortuary science.

No such structure exists in the Bahamas. The government sets no standards of professional qualification. In the Bahamas, “they pull people off the street” and call them embalmers, according to Carla Fitzgerald, a US trained embalmer and funeral director, who is no longer working in the industry.

According to insiders, funeral homes often resort to hiring freelance embalmers – not necessarily a bad thing in itself. However, in the United States, for example, freelance embalmers need a licence to operate as contractors.

In the Bahamas, a freelance embalmer can set up an embalming room inside his or her mother’s garage, charge $50 to $100 and go to work. It has happened before, said an embalmer.

“They will use bleach and water to embalm if they want, and no one cares,” said the source.

Concerned professionals who spoke to The Tribune agree, standards in the funeral services industry vary widely.

The situation is made complex because professional certification does not guarantee a professional is competent or ethical, said Wendell Dean.

Professionals can be placed in four basic categories, according to the description provided to The Tribune by several workers: US trained and certified professionals or locally trained professionals who know what they are doing; and, US trained and certified workers or locally trained workers who “do not know” what they are doing.

Speaking about one embalmer, locally trained with no certification, Mr Dean said: “I can put his knowledge of the human body, the embalming process up against any qualified funeral director. I can put my head on the chopping block that he could do a better job than most, and I am talking about start to finish, sanitation, disinfection and preservation.”

The embalmer in question, as with all others, certified or not, is able to be employed, because there are no regulations that say otherwise, said Mr Dean.

On the other hand, he said: “There are persons who went through the prescribed courses of study and still can’t embalm. So they employ people who embalm for them.” In some instances, he said, owners are trained, but do not have the skills to manage a business, which, in his view, further compromises standards.

According to California State law, “an embalmer is an individual who is duly qualified to (1) disinfect or preserve dead human bodies by the injection or external application of antiseptics, disinfectants, or preservative fluids; (2) prepare human bodies for transportation in cases where death was caused by contagious or infectious diseases; (3) use derma-surgery or plastic art for restoring mutilated features; (4) and who is duly licensed as an embalmer under the laws of the State of California.”

US laws follow a similar pattern. To be eligible for licensure, an embalmer must meet a list of criteria, including: having graduated from an accredited mortuary science programme, completed at least two years of apprenticeship under a licensed embalmer, and pass the state examination, and a section of the national examination.

Kenneth Clarke, owner and funeral director at Clarke’s Funeral Home, said the industry urgently needs legislation so that only qualified morticians are able to do business in the Bahamas.

“We need qualified people who know what they are doing to occupy and run businesses here, to protect the industry,” said Mr Clarke, who suggested a licensing authority similar to the Pharmacy Council.

Mr Clarke said foreign professionals from the US are even taking business from the local industry. He said a Miami based funeral home conducted a funeral on a Family Island after a recent plane crash.

“In this day and time, we have people coming from Miami to do work in Bimini and Nassau and other places and we can’t go over there. They do that routinely. The funeral home will come straight there. We can’t go to the US and do a funeral,” said Mr Clarke.

The Bahamian government has no official records indicating who is trained or certified and who is not, because there is no licensure in the Bahamas for individual practitioners. Various insiders claim to have done research by contacting mortuary schools in the United States to obtain information on Bahamian graduates, and mining data from the professional network.

The Tribune obtained a list of industry workers in the Bahamas from a professional who has worked in the industry for over 10 years. The trained funeral director said the highest certificate for most local practitioners is a university degree or diploma from a US-accredited school for mortuary science, such as Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, one of the oldest schools in the United States.

According to the unofficial list, there are at least a dozen uncertified embalmers operating in the Bahamas. The list provided to The Tribune details the names of 49 workers, some of whom are US trained and certified, but not practising and others who not certified and are practising.

According to the list, there is a worker working in the Bahamas who never attended an institution for mortuary science and obtained a local business licence “by false admission.”

The list claims there is an uncertified worker who engages in “unethical practices,” who is hired by a number of different establishments. Speaking about the same individual, and the person’s team, another source said: “They are nasty, don’t use proper hygiene, their equipment is not up to standard, their equipment is not properly sanitised and disinfected and they do work for others.”

The list claims there is another uncertified individual, who years ago was implicated in a police investigation concerning a corpse, who is still employed in the industry. Media reports at the time of the incident claimed the individual was fired.

Speaking about the individual, another source said: “He may have matured. I am assuming he must have matured seeing that he has been in the profession so long.”

The list also claims there are a number of “US trained and certified” embalmers, who are not practising in the establishment they own or work for, and opt instead to hire uncertified “fluid pushers” to conduct embalming. Fluid pusher is the industry’s term for people who are practising as embalmers without the proper training or certification.

Also detailed on the list is an instance in which a US trained and certified funeral director is allegedly made to work as a female attendant. She is “only allowed to perform executive clerical duties, obituaries, announcements, death notice, janitorial duties,” says the list. Industry insiders say there is “widespread” discrimination against women in the industry.

Although Carla Fitzgerald has not worked directly in the industry for some years, she said the problems faced today are not new. When she was actively practising, she said she saw discrimination against women and competition between certified and uncertified workers.

“I was paying untrained people more than I was paying myself,” said Ms Fitzgerald, who says she had to work as an administrative assistant, handling the books, paying salaries.

“If they can get someone off the street and train a little, why would they pay me top dollar?” asked Ms Fitzgerald.

She spoke highly of her last place of employment, where she said she was laid off because business could not sustain the employment of two full-time funeral directors. However, she said the lack of regulation overall hindered her development.

While she has confidence in a few establishments, she said, overall the industry needed “a lot of work,” and she would only return to the practice if certain conditions were met.

“It would need an overhaul in regulations and standards,” said Ms Fitzgerald.

Explaining what could go wrong by using an improperly trained embalmer, Kirsch Ferguson, director of Ferguson’s Funeral Directors, said: “Oftentimes as morticians, or trained embalmers, we are called before the court to give evidence in cases where a body may have had to be exhumed, and the like. Someone who has come up through the ranks as an understudy maybe quite aware of the practice of embalming, but when it comes to theory it is a different ball game.

“I can train anyone to embalm a body, and say, ‘well, this is how to inject a body’, but a situation may arise also, where I have a body that is jaundiced, or a body that died in a plane crash and the deceased ingested methanol or some type of gas that can react to formaldehyde,” said Mr Ferguson.

An embalmer without proper training might not be able to analyse a death certificate proficiently, said Mr Ferguson, and recognise that if lupus is present, or any number of conditions, the primary injection point might need to change to arrive at the desired embalming result.

“Some, as an understudy, will simply go by the rudimentary form or standards I have shown them. And that is the big difference,” said Mr Ferguson.

“From practising in the US for five years, law suit is the name of the game. And most of the law suits begin from what happens in the back. No matter how you look at it: a firm that has a beautiful facility, the best rolling stock, if the deceased is not presented properly, all hell breaks loose.

“The ethics in funeral services has nothing to do with what the family sees. While they are not in the embalming room with you, the standard should be straight across the board. What they don’t know, they must be assured that Mr XYZ did it the proper way,” said Mr Ferguson.

IF you have any information or experiences to contribute to our series please call 502-2387 or email nnicolls@tribunemedia.net

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