Mark Titus, Freelance Writer
Tommy Thompson, chief executive officer of Brite Lite Funeral Services. - File
With no regulatory body to keep them in check, grieving relatives are left to the mercy of funeral operators, who continue to offer their services at exorbitant costs.
In the old days, when someone died in a district, every one played his or her part to ensure that the departed was properly buried. From the icing of the corpse to the interment, it was a community affair.
Today, funeral operators can be found in every nook and cranny of major towns. Whether operating out of a briefcase in the vicinity of the public hospitals, or a posh complex on the outskirts of town, these professionals are willing to store, prepare and bury your dead, but at a hefty price.
When The Sunday Gleaner visited the office of one of the more popular undertakers in western Jamaica, we were ushered into a cosy, air-conditioned lounge by an ever-smiling staff member. Music played softly, while the receptionist comforted a middle-age woman who was weeping uncontrollably.
The glass chariot carrying the casket of the late Christine Hewitt leaves the Holy Trinity Cathedral on July 15, 2006. - File
When The Sunday Gleaner enquired what it would cost for a burial, an employee showed eight coffins on display in a showroom. The employee explained that each coffin was part of a package that included storage until funeral, hearse, dressing and preparation of the deceased, a wreath, two publications in the print media and 100 four-page programmes.
The coffins, all looking alike to The Sunday Gleaner, attracted costs of $95,000, $137, 145, $193,550 and $256,800, while the colour selected depended on the gender of the deceased.
At a neighbouring mortuary, the packages each cost an additional $30,000. One of the more expensive packages would qualify for a special burial spot on the hillside "facing the setting of the sun" for a "reasonable" $75,000, while a spot in the valley or on the flat comes with a price tag of $55,000. This includes headstone and name tag.
According to a Portland-based undertaker, who spoke to The Sunday Gleaner on condition of anonymity, there are a number of things that must be considered before one complains about cost.
"You can't take a shoemaker and give them a funeral home to run," he said "The training course to become a mortician is not offered in the Caribbean and it costs approximately US$5,000 per semester.
"If someone dies from an accident, it will require a certain skill to restore the features of that individual. Just as with a doctor who is an expert in his field, he charges whatever he wants, why shouldn't we do the same as experts in our field?"
He continued: "Customers must also understand that all of the materials used in the industry are very expensive and most, if not all, must be imported from abroad."
Asked about guidelines for operators, he replied: "There is no regulatory body for funeral homes, but the parish councils and the Ministry of Health play a role."
However, acting secretary manager for the Portland Parish Council, Fay Neufville, told The Sunday Gleaner that the council's role had nothing to do with the day-to-day running of funeral parlours.
"That's an independent thing; we have nothing to do with the day-to-day running of funeral homes," she said. "Our responsibility is in relation to any form of building construction that is to take place on the premises. We monitor them to ensure that they abide by the guidelines that they are given and if there are environmental concerns, we immediately refer it to the National Environment and Planning Agency."
Funeral service for the late Jerald 'Bogle' Levy on February 6, 2005.
Peter Knight, director of the environment health unit in the Ministry of Health, told The Sunday Gleaner that there were no specific public health regulations for funeral home mortuaries.
"We are in the process of finalising the regulations under the Public Health Act," he said. "For now, what we have are standards and guidelines for the operators, but no regulatory instrument. We developed these regulations in 1999, under section 7 of the Public Health Act, this gives local boards of health the authority to make regulations.
"Unfortunately, other issues overcame the ministry and it was not pursued," he continued, "But that matter is again being pursued. With some technical support from the Pan American Health Organisation, we are now going to engage a short-term consultant to review the draft, and then we will go to the chief parliamentary counsel to finalise the regulations."
When contacted, Tommy Thompson, chief executive officer of Brite Lite Funeral Services, described the funeral business like a clothes store.
"There are some who will go to the United States to buy clothes, some to Panama and some will even buy it locally," he said. "Where you source your supply will determine how much you are going to sell your merchandise for. It also depends on the requirement of the client.
"When I die, I have to go out in fine style, because that's my lifestyle," noted the man known as the undertaker of choice for celebrities, as well as popular dancehall figures, "Let's be practical. A king who lives in a palace and can afford all the luxuries of life, when he dies, will not want to go out as any normal person. So, someone will make particular request according to their affordability, and that is what Brite Lite does."
He pointed out that the belief that he only catered to high-profile burials has hurt his business a great deal, as he also caters for the "ordinary man".
"One hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars can give you a complete package, including burial spot, " he explained.
With the concept of celebration rather than the traditional mourning, Thompson has revolutionised the industry with the introduction of bumper stickers, coloured T-shirts, buttons, flowers and helium balloons.
Glass coffins, chariots and stretch limousines are just some of the features at a 'bling-bling' funeral. The average cost for such an event is approximately $1.2 million.
"I was in Miami thinking about everything in my life, when God spoke to me, saying that death was to be celebrated. As a man of Christian faith, I took the message very seriously," he claimed
Over the years, he said: "We have had some unusual requests and we have always tried to deliver, because the bottomline is that when you can make someone happy in their moment of grief, you would be fulfilling your role as an undertaker."
Efforts to contact Ferdinand Madden, president of the lobbyist group, Funeral Directors Association of Jamaica, were unsuccessful.