Ethics in Funeral Service: Necessity or Nuisance

By Robert W. Ninker, CAE
In many states, the legislation which provides for funeral director and embalmer licensure typically carries an introductory paragraph of intent. As we begin addressing ethical issues, let’s see what the legislators had in mind when they began requiring licensure.

Legislative Intent. The practice of funeral directing and embalming in the State is declared to be a practice affecting the public health, safety and welfare and subject to regulation and control in the public interest. It is further declared to be a matter of public interest and concern that the preparation, care and final disposal of a deceased human body be attended with appropriate observance, and understanding, having due regard and respect for spiritual dignity of man. It is further a matter of public interest, that the practice of funeral directing and embalming as defined in this Code, merit and receive the confidence of the public and, that only qualified persons be authorized to practice funeral directing and embalming in the State of Illinois. This Code shall be liberally construed to best carry out these subjects and purposes.

While your state’s legislation may contain different language, let’s examine the implications of the original intent. For example, is the practice of funeral directing and embalming truly a practice affecting the public health, safety and welfare?

Do you understand that language to include your responsibility for assuring that the death certificate is submitted, by the physician in a timely manner with accuracy and completeness? Do you understand your state law to require you to be diligent in assuring that the Department of Public Health has correct information so that researchers, seeking to determine ways to reduce disease and other causes of premature death, actually can count on your efforts to get it right.

When you see that the physician either is lax in revealing the true underlying cause of death, will you or your staff member dare to raise the issue, or do you send it along to Vital Records and let them decide whether a frequent cause from a particular physician may be nothing more than cardiac arrest? Does your staff take seriously the completion of every certificate so that it can truly serve its purpose in improving public health? That is indeed what the legislators expected when they gave that responsibility to licensees!

Next, is it really “a matter of public interest and concern that the preparation, care and final disposal of a deceased human body be attended with appropriate observance and understanding, having due regard and respect for the reverent care of the human body and for those bereaved and the overall spiritual dignity of man”?

What does that have to do with your removal practices? For example, in all instances, is one licensee capable of fulfilling the obligation by him or herself? How does your firm decide, based upon conditions, whether to send one licensee or two persons? Have you, or the owner, personally trained and periodically overseen the procedures used to assure “appropriate observance” is extended even when there is no nurse, physician or family member present when you or your staff prepare the remains for removal? Are universal precautions exercised on each removal rather than those which are marked in such a way as to raise questions whether the remains may have potential for infectious disease?

Are you or your licensees skilled in dealing with the increasing frequency of hospital apparatus being left in or on the deceased? Has your stamp of direction been taught to your licensees so they don’t have to guess on whether to remove bandages, IVs and other paraphernalia at the hospital or the funeral home?

Once the remains is in the preparation room, are all licensees trained not to smoke or eat in there and do you have a procedure for assuring the remains is treated in an ethical manner? The state ties that responsibility to licensees whether its in the laws, rules or is a matter of pure conscience!

It really is “a matter of public interest, that the practice of funeral directing and embalming as defined in the Code, merit and receive the confidence of the public and, that only qualified persons be authorized to practice funeral directing and embalming“.

Given this introduction, is there room, in your firm, for a procedural review to see that unlicensed persons are not making removals by themselves, and that they aren’t in the preparation room engaged in any direct contact with the body and have no casual access to it?

If your preparation room is not locked, others can have access to the remains and what does that have to do with your ethical “care” or sheltering of the deceased? In addition, what would the courts say about a situation where a remains, housed in your facility, was abused by another or afflicted by even a mouse?

When the legislators state their “code shall be liberally construed to best carry out these purposes,” they hold you to a very high standard. Can you feel comfortable with that obligation without a thoughtful reality check in your funeral home — this week!

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