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Funeral service industry needs regulation urgently

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Funeral Director of Roman’s Funeral Home in Kingston Scott Roman is calling for a revamping of the currently “outdated” cremation and burial acts, and for the implementation of proper regulation for the funeral service industry.

In light of the now recurring incidents of funeral homes preparing wrong bodies for burial and cremation, Roman told the Jamaica Observer that legislation is needed to prevent the prolonged bereavement of family members like that of 48-year-old Sandra Rhone whose body, it was reported by this newspaper last week, was wrongfully cremated, leaving the family in confusion.

Roman, therefore, appealed to the Government to implement new legislation that will regulate how funeral homes are operated.

“My main goal for this industry is for everyone to maintain a standard, and if someone wants to do this business, get proper training and certification.

“The Government has put no regulation in place in the industry. There are two acts: The Cremation Act and Burial Act, and none of them have any regulations over the funeral homes and their functions per se. Those two acts are very old; back when those acts were done there were probably just two or three funeral homes in Jamaica, so it wasn’t a necessity then.

“Most legislation come about because of necessity and changing times, and it is definitely time for some action and for the legislation to change based on the present events taking place,” Roman told the Sunday Observer.

He explained that these incidents of wrong bodies being delivered for burial or cremated were a blatant indication that most funeral homes are operating with individuals who are not trained.

“Something like this happens when proper protocols are not observed and that is due to lack of training. When you are trained as an embalmer, you learn how to handle human remains and keep track of deceased loved ones by a system of tagging so you know which bodies are there by name. If they were following proper procedures, then you would not have had a situation like this. Every body that comes in would be properly tagged with a tag that would be maintained.

He admitted that, “things like this have happened in the States (USA) before, but those funeral homes no longer exist, and they get sued for generations because there is no price tag that you can put on mental anguish of the family. So that is the worst thing that could ever happen in this industry, but once you’re following protocol and there are standards, that should never happen, it can be avoided”.

As it is now, Roman said that to professionally run a funeral home service in Jamaica, persons would simply need to incorporate their business, since there are no regulations or licensing required. Because of this, he explained that Jamaica’s funeral service industry has been left wide open for operators who are not trained embalmers.

“There are a number of people who have facilities, running a funeral home and are not certified embalmers. And these are mostly the people who are accommodating the operators, but for them it is just business.

“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. They store the bodies with one storage facility; the family is seeing a casket in another facility, so they never really have a face-to-face interaction sometimes with the actual customer.

Roman, who is a fourth-generation director of an 80-year-old establishment, explained that not all funeral homes that have storage facilities have licensed embalmers who are trained to handle bodies, and about 70 per cent of “so-called” funeral directors do not actually handle the bodies.

This, he warned, creates a big public health risk for communities where there are funeral homes that do not follow the proper protocol of handling body waste.

“You have risks to public health dealing in a funeral home, because you need to consider things like safe disposal of waste materials. If persons are not trained to handle proper disposal of waste materials, they can pose a big health risk to the surrounding communities when you have improper handling of bodies that might have communicable diseases or bodies that are contagious that can lead to serious health issues.

“If you have cases of persons improperly handling the waste, it affects everyone in that surrounding area. Most of the morgues are generally situated near to hospitals for the reason that the sewage in these areas have the capacity to handle the run-off of waste, because the hospital has to deal with similar waste and bodily fluids.

“There are multiple diseases that you have to be trained on how to identify them, how to handle them, to prevent the bacteria from spreading. And if you’re someone who is not trained, you will not be able to identify much less know how to treat those cases,” said Roman.

He also said that the last time some urgency was made by the Government to check with funeral homes on how bodies were being handled, was 2014 when there was an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa, and one case was reported in the United States, but he insisted that the Government cannot afford to wait for a public health crisis to happen before they take action.

“We shouldn’t wait for extreme circumstances to take action. And it is important that licensing and regulations are implemented. In an industry of funeral service that is so delicate in dealing with families in bereavement, as well as health care risks, there needs to be a level of regulations to ensure that a standard is maintained. We can’t wait for issues like this to arise or worse. So, it is imperative that the Government takes some action in light of the situation and they shouldn’t wait for another situation to arise before they take some action,” said Roman.

As a member of the Jamaica Association of Certified Embalmers, Roman told the Sunday Observer that currently, there are about 20 certified embalmers in Jamaica, compared to about 250 funeral homes now operating in the country.

The funeral service industry, he explained, has become a saturated market because of the lack of regulations and the easy barrier of entry.

On average, Roman said a basic funeral package that would include 50 programmes, a casket, a spot at Meadowrest or Dovecot burial grounds, transportation of the body, storage, as well as, embalming and preparation, would cost $280,000, and that cremation on average starts at about $200,000.

It was reported that Rhone’s relatives spent $370,000 in funeral expenses. Owing to the current practice of outsourcing these services, Roman said it is possible that consumers are being charged more.

“I want to urge consumers to be more aware and seek out trained professionals to take care of their loved ones”, said Roman, adding, however, that consumers cannot be blamed for these mishaps.

“The families are not to be blamed because they are under the impression that as business they are going to be getting that level of service that represents the industry. And this goes back to the Government, in that, they can take a step to reduce the amount of anguish that a family will have to experience in a situation like this, by having regulations and trained professionals. But if there is not standard, people will walk into any establishment”.

“It is hard to keep a level head when you grieving, so it’s not so easy to be concentrating on making sure that a funeral home is reputable, which is why it is so important that the Government makes these proposals be heard and put them to the nation to protect the consumers. You have had situations at Dovecot previously where funeral homes come out there and there is no grave that has been prepared because the funeral home did not book a plot. And there are multiple other things that come up because family members did not go with a reputable or trained funeral director,” he said.

Roman, therefore, argued that the Government needs to step in to protect consumers by introducing certain regulations.

“They have to start by making sure that persons are licensed and trained to be a funeral home operator or be considered a funeral director”.

In the past, Roman explained that persons would have had to go overseas to be trained, but this, he said, has recently changed.

“The Montego Bay Community College now offers a course in funeral services; the curriculum was based on a school in Canada that provides associate degrees in funeral service. There are also classes that take place in Kingston. So, for people to get certified, it can be done right here in Jamaica,” said Roman.

He revealed that about 14 students recently graduated from the Montego Bay Community College, where there is a constant enrolment of students in that programme.

Other obvious regulations, Roman said, would be infrastructure and proper zoning for mortuaries.

“For the time currently, this is mostly observed but it is not law for the industry. Most funeral homes are in the proper zones but it is not technically law,” he explained.

So far, Roman said recommendations that have been tabled by the Jamaica Association of Certified Embalmers have not been utilised by the Government.

“We have already put together a proposal of legislation that should be implemented, so there is a draft of legislation. We have been trying to get legislation in our industry for quite some time.”

“When Fenton Ferguson was minister of health, we the association had multiple discussions and he would have received from us all our input on what the legislation should be. We made some good strides as it relates to putting the pen to paper. But everything has now come to a standstill. We have been trying to reach out to Mr Tufton and we have not gotten anywhere so far,” said Roman.

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