[Our funeral colleagues in the UK continue to delight me with their sensitivity, insight, and intelligence. I picked this up off Charles Cowling's "Good Funeral Guide" blog -- AFM ed]
I'm afraid I slipped into a daydream in church on Easter morn yesterday. It started by wondering how different the story might have been if the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago was like the London Borough of Bromley today.
The idea that Joseph of Arimathea could have got a quick verbal consent from the head of the local authority to take possession of Jesus's body would be ridiculous; he'd never have got the paperwork organised in time. Mary Magdalen would have been so tied up with the bereavement services she'd never have got back to the tomb before dawn. And that's before having to explain to the bureaucrats that the tomb turned out to be empty.
Let me explain how this reverie started. My father-in-law died about a fortnight ago. He was 84, he had been very ill and it was expected, but in the end it was very sudden and we were phoned with the news a little after midnight. We arrived at the Princess Royal Hospital in Orpington in the morning to be told, quite properly, that his body had been taken off the ward to the mortuary.
The ward staff were as impressive as those working at the sharp end of the NHS invariably are. Efficient and firm, yet gentle, they told us we would be taken down to the "bereavement service", where arrangements would be made for my wife to see her father, as she had indicated she wished to.
Things changed when we arrived at something called the "Bereavement Suite". We were shown to some chairs facing a wall and told that a doctor was doing some mysterious paperwork – a death certificate, I presumed – behind a closed door. Some time passed. I then discovered it would be at least a 20-minute wait, so we said we would get some breakfast in the canteen.
We returned and faced the same door. People rushed in and out of it by another entrance, and I began to wonder if my father-in-law was actually laid out in there. And whether he was the first person ever to die in this hospital. Suddenly, the door was flung open and a man proudly ushered us into a room with those hard sofas and glass coffee tables that are meant to say "sensitive".
He whipped through some paperwork and kept glancing at the clock, saying he'd booked us an appointment with the registrar and that we would have good time to get there after this meeting. "After we've been to the mortuary?" I asked. He looked at us both in something between confusion and panic. "The ward said you would arrange a visit."
His head began to shake uncomprehendingly in the manner of jobsworths down the ages. "Oh no. They can't do that," he intoned. "They have no right to say that." He started to criticise the system. My wife cut in to say she had no interest in the hospital processes and suggested she was phoned later with an appointment for the Chapel of Rest.
The registrar's office was like a doctor's waiting room from the Fifties. The lady who saw us was excellent, striking just the right balance between professional efficiency and human sympathy, although there was perhaps a little too much information; I now know that the deaths of Charles Darwin and Napolean III are registered in Bromley.
But the whole experience left me thinking that we must surely be able to manage the bureaucracy of death better than this. The frightening part is that the man in the Bereavement Suite has presumably been on an expensive training course in dealing with the bereaved. I shudder to think how "skilled" he might be if he hadn't. This was a relatively untraumatic death, one that was in the natural order of things. Imagine the damage that could be inflicted on someone who had lost a child. In my experience, the process is far better handled by care staff, rather than another intrusive layer of administrative NHS management.
As for registering a death, there must surely now be sufficient encryption technology for this to be done effectively online. It wouldn't suit everyone and the availability of human contact is vital for the grieving. But where there are relatives and close friends prepared to perform the task, it would be one burden lightened. I note that Bromley's death certificates are no longer handwritten but computerised, so if it's good enough for the bureaucrats, it's surely logical to extend the technology to the bereaved.
My guess, however, is that there are too many jobs in the bereavement industry for the business end of death to be made more efficient. Better to keep a Bereavement Suite going than make life easier for the bereaved.
By George Pitcher
Published: 7:25AM BST 05 Apr 2010