Nov 27, 2014
It’s strange how people’s minds work. I’ve got a young man working for me who often recoils at seeing people’s feet. Considering most people would regard a job in the funeral profession as being unthinkable, for my young chap it’s actually a career in chiropody that he thinks would be the stuff of nightmares. Personally I’m indifferent to people’s lower extremities and I can think of infinitely worse things than a pair of grubby, un-manicured feet.
But move the conversation upwards a few inches and it’s a different story altogether. Give my young chap the briefest sight of a well-turned ankle on a live female and he’ll be enraptured. And a short skirt? Well, it’s all we can do to stop him tripping over his own tongue. It must be his hormones. But feet? No, he doesn’t cope with feet very well at all.
I only mention all this because, going back twenty-odd years to when I was still with my former employers, I was idly contemplating a pair of well-maintained feet when I spotted something altogether more alarming. My colleague was at the other end of the body, checking the wrist tag before entering the details in the mortuary register. He’d just travelled back from North Wales with said body – a motorcyclist who’d died in hospital after an accident. The thing to bear in mind at this point is that hospitals obviously take identification very seriously and they’ll invariably apply at least two identity tags to each body.
We’d known this tragic case was coming in and I was already aware of the deceased’s name.
“This is supposed to be David Thompson* isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep,” my colleague agreed. “That’s what the wrist tag says - David Thompson.”
“Hmm,” I said, “It’s a shame the foot tag says Michael Smith* then, isn’t it?”
(* Not the real names of course).
Well, cutting a long story short, it turned out that quite by chance there’d been two victims from two separate accidents taken to the same Welsh hospital. Neither the hospital mortician nor sadly my colleague had spotted the discrepancy with the I.D. tags. Frantic phone calls ensued, from which it was established we had the wrong body. However, as both bodies had only just been released by the coroner the Welsh funeral director handling the other funeral hadn’t yet gone to the hospital to remove what should’ve been his client. My colleague travelled straight back to Wales the following morning where a hand-over was effected and matters mercifully rectified before reaching the point of no return.
It illustrates perfectly why identifications have to be checked, double-checked and checked again for good measure.
But sometimes it’s not the process of making sure we’ve got the right body so much as simply remembering which funeral is which. We had a good example recently, with a district councillor and a retired military man both having big funerals at the same church. Likewise, during exactly the same period we were also arranging the funerals of two unrelated men, both of whose daughters my colleagues and I knew well.
“What flowers are they having for Mr. Hughes?”
“Hughes? Is that Sally’s father or Sue’s?”
“Sue’s. Sally’s father is Mr. Higginson.”
“Isn’t he the military chap?”
“No, you’re thinking of Mr. Hitchinson.”
“Is Hitchinson the burial on Monday?”
“No, you’re thinking of Mr. Hatherall.”
“What, the district councillor?”
“No, he’s Sally’s father.”
“What, Sally’s father was the district councillor?”
“No, that was Mr. Hartnell.”
Now that was just the conversation between myself & my colleagues in the office, so you can imagine how careful we have to be when talking to the families themselves! My problem is I have a very visual memory and I’m absolutely hopeless with names. I once bumped into a former client in the supermarket. The moment I saw her I could remember everything about the funeral I’d arranged for her.
As we greeted each other I could remember it was her husband’s funeral; I could remember which crematorium it was, even the time of year her husband had died. But embarrassingly the one thing that completely escaped me, as we stood there chatting merrily away about mundane stuff like the price of cabbages, was her name.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.