By NOELLE NICOLLS
Tribune Features Editor
FUNERAL home owners should consider stopping work, or taking some drastic action, to make the government hear the cries of the industry, said one funeral owner, who laments the bad reputation unethical practitioners are causing the industry.
“This country cannot function without us,” said Denalee Penn, a certified funeral director and embalmer and owner of Evergreen Mortuary. “It is within our interest to protect our profession,” she said.
Speaking about recommendations made to 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, since the Tribune launched its ongoing investigation, Ms Penn said: “We say we want change, but to what extent are we willing to go. This country cannot function without us. We have a small morgue right there that only holds a certain number of bodies. I told him in the beginning, what you need to do is send correspondence to each funeral home, shut the place down; nobody get’s nothing. Make the government hear us.”
She imagined the message that would be sent if funeral owners went “a few days without removing bodies.”
She said the industry needs to be considerate of families in their times of loss; however, at the same time, it had to recognise that strong action is needed in the fight to get regulations enacted.
Professionals in the funeral services industry provide a vital service to the public, said Ms Penn.
“Right now if someone gets knocked down in the street and the body is in whatever state it is in, they don’t call a doctor. The ambulence drivers, if they come there and they don’t get a pulse, they leave; they call the funeral directors. We are the persons who go and remove the person in a dignified way, because we are trained to do that,” she said.
Any doubt cast on the industry by a lack of public confidence hurts the profession, and compromises the sacred trust placed in the professional.
“We are not all bad guys,” said Ms Penn, who is the owner of a funeral home in an industry accused of widespread discrimination against women.
She said funeral owners should seize the opportunity to take action.
“I find in this country the only way you can get things done is go the extra mile and you make people see that you are serious,” said Ms Penn, suggesting also that funeral owners “go downtown to Parliament House.”
The road to regulation for the funeral services industry has been long. Over the years, the industry has made various efforts to lobby the government without much success. Mr Dean said his association met with members of government in the 1997 to 2002 Hubert Ingraham administration, the 2002 to 2007 Perry Christie administration, and under the last 2007 to 2012 Ingraham administration.
A letter dated July 22, 2010, addressed to Anita Bernard, Secretary of the Cabinet, from the UFDAB states: “We beg leave to professionalize the practice of funeral service within the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. More so, since the world is a global village, as evidence of H1N1, Bird Flu and different strains of STDs and other viral and bacterial infections, make funeral providers the locus of public health within the commonwealth.”
In November 2010, the association sent letters to all funeral home owners inviting them to participate in a process of preparing documents to present to the government “in order for proper regulations and policies to be put in place.”
Mr Dean said he received no response from funeral homes. And although he received verbal agreement from 13 professionals expressing interest in membership and participation in the association, he received no formal application.
Bradley Roberts, former Minister of Works, said he recalled having a conversation with the association during the last PLP administration, during which he directed members to speak with the Ministry of Health. Leslie Miller, former Minister of Trade, said he might have spoken to the association, but he does not remember.
Desmond Bannister said he had several meetings with the association when he was Minister of State in the Attorney General’s Office. Mr Bannister said the drafting department was looking at the industry, and had recognised “there were a number of things that impacted on it.” Although several complaints were brought to his attention, he said he was not made aware of all the industry’s complaints.
Mr Dean suggested that successive governments have passed the buck on regulating the industry.
“If the majority is agitating, the government may look at it. If the majority is not agitating, the government won’t even open their eyes to it,” he said.
Not everyone is in agreement that the government is at fault.
Loretta Butler-Turner, former cabinet minister and certified funeral director, said in the history of regulation, there has been a public/private partnership, where industries organise themselves first to get the ball rolling. “They have to mobilze themselves for the government to even recognise them. That is how it has happened in the past,” said Mrs Butler-Turner, who is no longer active in the industry.
A professional who works with a government health council said the general history of health councils is that industry associations played a leading role. As a result there are now statutory bodies to locally licence nurses, pharmacists, doctors and all manner of medical professionals.
“You have to have a vibrant association to form a legal framework. Legislation in a professional area has to be started with the professionals who will have to direct what is in industry standard,” said the health council professional.
In the funeral industry, professional associations have had “many, many incarnations.” Some individuals, sources claim, have a tendency of “appointing and anointing themselves.” Other sources claim professionals in the industry are “hypocrites”, who talk but are unwilling to act.
“There is a lot of cut throat in the industry,” said Mrs Butler-Turner.
In the early 1990s, when she was an executive member of the Bahamas Funeral Directors’ and Embalmers’ Association, Mrs Butler-Turner said the industry was “very close” to bring about regulation. “We were able to bring together probably the largest grouping of individuals at that time, who were pretty much in one accord.”
However, professionals dragging their feet and the government changing hands and other factors stalled the efforts. Every time, the process had to be kicked started again, said Mrs Butler-Turner.
Pedro Ferguson is president of the now inactive Bahamas Funeral Directors’ and Embalmers’ Association and funeral director at East Sunrise Mortuary. In an interview with The Tribune, he said he believes the government should regulate the industry. However, Mr Ferguson said he wished not to be associated with any efforts to bad mouth the industry or tear down individuals.
Who will step in to sort out the mess in the funeral services industry is anyone’s guess. Questions linger as to the government’s plan. Minister of Environment Kenred Dorsett did not return calls to The Tribune. He is currently on official leave, with Minister Shane Gibson acting for him. It is unclear whether the Ministry of Works, Ministry of Environment or Ministry Health will lead the effort or play a role, and who in the government will ultimately take responsibility?
As the government and the industry try to figure things out, industry insiders say, the public is left with no price controls, which means they can be “exploited” by unethical professionals who engage in price gouging; universal health standards are not always practised, which places public health at risk; and professionals are not licensed, which gives families no security that their loved ones are treated with the dignity they deserve.
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