Bodies held for ransom, rats in mortuaries, inflated prices and fly-by-night parlours could come under the spotlight if a funeral ombudsman is appointed by the government.
A proposal for a code of conduct by the Funeral Industry Regulatory Authority (Fira) in the Government Gazette and opened for public comment until October 2 calls for, among other steps:
The establishment of an ombudsman body to regulate the industry;
Members not engaging in false advertising and fraud; and
Funeral parlours not offering commissions to hospitals, hospices and the clergy to secure bodies for them.
Fira, which is lobbying to act as an ombudsman to regulate the industry, worth at least R4.5-billion a year, predicts that it would be the busiest watchdog in the country.
“There is a desperate need for a code of conduct and regulation of this industry because the atrocities are in the hundreds, if not thousands,” Fira executive chairman Johan Rousseau said.
A shock occurred less than five days ago, when a grieving family was charged R1 000 for the storage of their relative’s remains for one day and R14 000 for cleaning the body.
Other “atrocities” include products sold with profit margins of up to 1 200% and distraught relatives being made to wait hours for the body to be removed from the home even though the parlour was less than 10km away.
There have also been cases of exorbitant fees being charged by service providers for registration of death, a service that is provided free by the Department of Home Affairs. Rousseau said the proposed code of conduct would protect disadvantaged communities, who are the most affected by the unregulated industry.
In research titled the FinScope Consumer Survey 2015, it was revealed that many informal funeral parlours lacked general business skills and were using insurance premiums for cash flow to establish their business and acquire business assets.
They also did not keep insurance funds separately and had no sound pricing practices.
Respondents to the survey from the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal told of numerous abuses.
Bereaved families told the researchers that funerals had become a “social competition” as there was an emphasis on catering for guests.
One family had spent R80 000 for the ceremony, the report noted.
Another respondent said: “I paid all my dues. Instead of mourning their father, the grieving children had to walk in and out of the office of this parlour – he did not do any burial at all. He [the undertaker] did not give us anything – no coffin, nothing.”
Another said the family had to fork out money to release the body from a hospital, which was in cahoots with an undertaker, to a parlour of their own choice.
Reports on the industry also say holding bodies for ransom is a common practice that arises when hospitals and morgues establish relationships with funeral parlours.
“This practice then forces the family to engage with a specific parlour or else pay a fee for the body to be released to a different parlour,” the FinScope study said. The custody of the body then determined who had bargaining power.
Another respondent said: “Lady, there is a bigger problem. “I don’t want to beat around the bush – rats. “You would find rats running around the same room where the bodies are kept.”
The families told researchers they had not gone to the police or court to bring shady funeral parlours to book because they had been mourning and did not want arguments.
However, they all saw a need for the industry to be regulated, with some suggesting an ombudsman.
Motivating the need for an ombudsman, Rossouw said that such an office would provide proper information, mediation, complete investigation and adjudication, under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) and the funeral industry code of conduct.
Contravention of both the CPA and funeral industry code of conduct would most definitely be pointed out and consumers protected from atrocities, which happened daily within a non-regulated industry, he said.