New rules for dead bodies - Funeral home operators cry foul
Some funeral directors are fuming and threatening to take legal action if directives given to police officers earlier this year are not withdrawn.
The source of the discontent is contained in the police Force Orders issued on February 11, which stated that in instances of sudden death, where the persons had no known medical condition, the Government-contracted funeral homes should collect the bodies and they should not be released until the police determine if a doctor would sign a medical certificate of cause of death.
Before that order, it was only in situations of suspicious deaths and sudden deaths, where the deceased had no known medical condition, that a contracted funeral home had to be called to collect the body.
"The Force Orders is a breach of civil and human rights," said president of the Funeral Directors Association of Jamaica (FDAJ) Melvin Honeyghan.
"The police should only take responsibility when they have an interest in the body, but if they don't have an interest, they should not dictate to the family what they do with their remains.
"A non-reversal of this will result in legal action. I know some non-association members have already contacted lawyers."
But in defending the change, the Ministry of National Security said it was deemed necessary to refer all cases of sudden death to a government-contracted funeral home as it is best to initially assume that foul play could have been involved.
"If we are to treat the sudden death of any person with a known medical condition as a non-forensic case, we will be presuming that the person could not have been the victim of a crime, leading to his or her demise," said the security ministry in response to questions from The Sunday Gleaner.
"If we treat the sudden death of any person as a non-forensic case simply because of the person's age, we are presuming that an elderly person could not have been the victim of a crime leading to his or her demise.
"Hence, out of an abundance of caution, the proper procedure has to be done, and this is by way of the medical doctor signing a medical certificate of cause of death," added the ministry.
It argued that there is no infringement on the rights of family members to choose the funeral home of their choice as they are not obligated to continue with the service of the contracted funeral home that initially received the body.
"The police are required to call the contracted funeral home to collect the body. Thereafter, within 48 hours, the police must determine whether a doctor will sign a medical certificate of cause of death, in which case, the body will be released to the family to be dealt with by a funeral home of its choice.
But Honeyghan said post-mortems are not being carried out within 48 hours as there are not enough doctors.
"Post-mortems are being done up to three months after the person dies and bodies are being returned in an advanced state of decomposition. It is not practical as the police don't do any investigation within the 48 hours," said Honeyghan.
With funeral homes in some parishes having failed to meet the evaluation criteria and tenders only accepted every three years, a few government-contracted funeral homes have been asked to provide services for more than one parish, with two covering up to three parishes.
Honeyghan argues that the current arrangement sees the government-contracted funeral homes accepting more bodies than they can handle.
"If they are going to take on this responsibility, they have to ensure that within a certain number of days, families have their bodies of all nature. They can hardly manage murder and accident victims, so how can they manage more?" Honeyghan questioned.
In the meantime, operator of the Mizpah Funeral Home Vincent Mason said that in his more than 50 years, it was the first time that he had seen this approach taken of sending all cases of sudden death to a contracted funeral home and that this was seriously affecting his business.
"So now, bodies from St Mary and Portland are sent all the way to Brown's Town, St Ann. We not even getting house calls anymore. Even when they try to explain that the man has been to the doctor, they still send it all the way to St Ann.
"We have been in business for years and we have never experienced this type of situation. It is starving our business.
"We are losing business, and I don't know what the next move is. If this continues, then a lot of us who have been here for years are going to be affected so much that we may have to start cutting staff."
Fellow FDAJ member and owner of Roman's Funeral Home Winston Roman charged that the new arrangement gives the government-
contracted funeral homes the opportunity to engage in dishonest practices.
"It lends itself to unscrupulous practices by the funeral homes in terms of solicitation, which is in contravention of their contractual agreement," said Roman.
"It creates a bias and an unfair advantage to the contracted funeral homes - having first contact, having the bodies for 48 hours, and trying to find ways to discourage the families from exercising their right of choice."