Poppy Funerals leaves families in distress after death of loved ones
No qualifications, experience or competence is needed to set up as a funeral director in New Zealand. The industry is unregulated and a group of Canterbury women are calling for this to change. Tina Law reports.
Michelle Bishop will challenge anyone who says the funeral industry in New Zealand does not need regulation.
"I'm happy to provide them with details of what it was like to watch my daughter rotting in front of my eyes."
Bishop, Maree Ford, Dorothy Cockburn, and Bridget Symons all have horror stories to tell about the service they received from Christchurch funeral director Poppy Funerals.
They have had to battle with owner Jasmin Teague to get death certificates and, in most cases, ended up applying for it themselves, despite paying Poppy Funerals to do it for them. In Symons' case the certificate did come through but the details were wrong and needed changing.
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Bishop has also been chasing Poppy Funerals for two promised urns and proof her daughter, Hillmorton Hospital nurse Sharnae McLean, 24, was embalmed after she died in her sleep on August 11.
She describes how she saw Sharnae's face changing colour soon after her body arrived at the family home. She talks of how Teague arrived soon after armed with a Thin Lizzy makeup compact and used it to dust Sharnae's face.
"She told my 16-year-old daughter if her face changed too much to keep dusting her."
Bishop says a "strange odour" came from the body and Sharnae's hands went flat and turned a crimson/black colour.
"In my opinion there are only two things that could have happened: either Sharnae was embalmed very badly or it has not been done at all."
All the women, and others who have contacted Stuff but did not want to be named, say Poppy Funerals has had a profound impact on their lives far beyond the funerals and has affected their ability to grieve for their loved one.
Bishop feels like she let her daughter down.
Cockburn says fighting Poppy Funerals for four months to get a death certificate after her husband, Jimmy, died suddenly in January, was "terrible".
"It was the worst time of my life, apart from losing my husband. It just made everything 10 times worse. It's just the wrong time for people to hurt you."
They all chose Poppy Funerals because of its name. For Ford it was because her husband's dad had been in the army and the poppy symbol meant a lot to the family. For Bishop it was because her daughter's nickname was Poppy.
They thought funeral directors in New Zealand were regulated and had to abide by a set of standards. They were shocked to hear this is not the case.
"It's heinous that anybody can take care of anybody's loved ones," Bishop says.
What the women also did not know was they should have checked if the company was a member of an industry association, like the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ). FDANZ members work by a code of conduct, a set of standards and have a complaints procedure.
About 80 per cent of funeral directors in New Zealand are association members, but they do not have to be and that is the problem, Bishop says.
Poppy Funerals is not a member, so there is no one body Bishop can complain to. Instead she has laid a complaint with the police over Poppy's failure to register the death, which must be done within three days of the burial.
She has laid a complaint with the Commerce Commission and approached Members of Parliament.
Bishop plans to set up a petition in the hope of getting the Government to listen and put some form of regulation in place.
The Government has so far been unwilling to regulate the sector, despite a 2015 Law Commission report recommending funeral directors be registered and qualified.
The report found no evidence of widespread problems or abuses in the sector, but said there had been reports of occasional deficiencies caused by unqualified funeral service providers that had caused distress to families.
The commission recommended funeral directors be registered by central Government and hold a relevant qualification. It recommended a funeral director could not be registered if they had certain convictions.
Funeral directors do have to register annually with their local council, but do not need to provide any evidence of training, experience or competence.
The Christchurch City Council has eight funeral director companies registered as of Thursday and Poppy Funerals is not one of them. The fine for not registering with the council is $100.
The commission report said the public were often surprised to learn funeral service providers did not need to be qualified and were not regulated. They expected appropriate safeguards and regulatory protections to be in place, it said.
"The current inaccurate belief that the system already provides that assurance adds to the vulnerability of consumers because it may make them less cautious about who they engage or less likely to check and compare the experience and qualifications of different providers."
The report said that if things did go wrong, the harm suffered could not easily be put right.
"A funeral service cannot be re-run and distressing experiences cannot be reversed. Neither is compensation a sufficient response."
The Government is yet to put any of the recommendations into practice and appears reluctant to do so. Its response to the report said it was yet to be convinced a sufficiently strong case had been made about the need for regulation and more work was needed to assess this further.
"The Government notes that the imposition of an occupational regulation regime is a significant step that would impose additional costs on service providers and ultimately consumers."
But, Bishop and Ford do not accept the Government's response. They believe operators like Poppy Funerals prove there is a need. They do not want what happened to them repeated.
When asked if any work had been done to assess the need for regulation since the report was released, a Ministry of Health spokeswoman said this week, the ministry and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) were "working on a cross agency discussion around implementing the Government response" to the Law Commission report.
"This work will continue, and analysis and consultation will take place in due course."
The ministry and DIA are also looking at options for developing an online system for certifying causes of death, the ministry says.
Consumer New Zealand has added its voice to calling for action on regulation, but does not know what shape it should take.
Research writer for the consumer advocacy group Robert Kelly says it has argued for several years there needs to be more regulation of funeral directors and regarding the transparency of prices.
"My concern is that the market is set up as if the consumer and the person providing the services are equal bargaining partners, they're not because the person engaging the services is grieving. They're not in a position to feel comfortable to shop around.
"There is a real need for the consumer to be savvy at a moment when they are not savvy."
He says consumers are expected to have a knowledge of a market they only have experience of once or twice in their lives.
FDANZ chief executive Katrina Shanks believes there is not a huge need for regulation because there has not been a systemic failure in the industry.
She does support the need for every funeral home to have a qualified funeral director on staff – something FDANZ members have to have.
"Obviously we have concerns where families have not received the standard of care they should have received."
In the meantime, police are still investigating Bishop's complaint against Poppy Funerals and the Commerce Commission says it is assessing her complaint before deciding whether to investigate.
Teague has told Stuff she is bound by confidentiality agreements with regards to individual cases and will not comment. She says the issues around death certificates are "unacceptable" and have been rectified.
The Poppy Funerals website is no longer accessible.
Teague appears to be a relative newcomer to the industry. Companies Office records shows she is a director of two companies – Remembrance Funerals, registered in August 2016, and Just Funerals Canterbury, registered in October 2016. Remembrance Funerals, which trades as Poppy Funerals, is yet to file an annual return with the Companies Office.
A Companies Office spokeswoman says the office sent an overdue reminder and if the return is not filed, the next step will be to initiate action to remove the company from the register.
Teague signed a franchise agreement with Just Funerals, based in Auckland, a year ago and operated the franchise for two or three months, but Just Funerals owner Steven Davey says he terminated the arrangement earlier this year and has had nothing to do with Teague since.
Calls for regulation in the industry are not new. Auckland woman Anna Robinson pushed for regulation almost 12 years ago after her father died and was embalmed incorrectly. She is upset people are still suffering from unqualified people working in the industry.
"I really thought something may have changed by now."