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Straightening a Scandal

Most people have heard of school inspectors and factory inspectors. But what about a funeral inspector? Scotland has just appointed its first of these under the title “Inspector of Funeral Directors”. She’s called Natalie McKail and for the next two years she has the job of looking carefully at the funeral industry in Scotland. Then she’ll make recommendations about how it should be run and decide whether a licensing scheme should be introduced for funeral parlours, crematoria and other aspects of the industry.

She brings more than twenty years of experience in local government to her new role, but the work she does may be the most important she’s ever undertaken. Her appointment was prompted by the so-called “Baby Ashes” scandal, which revealed that some Scottish crematoria had been following unethical practices when cremating the bodies of babies and small children. At Aberdeen Crematorium, for example, babies had cremated with adults who were unrelated to them. Sometimes the parents were given mixed ashes or told that there were no ashes at all.

The revelations were obviously very unwelcome news for parents, relatives and family friends of the dead children across Scotland. The death of a child is one of the worst experiences that any of us can go through. When a young life ends prematurely so many hopes and expectations are crushed. It seems unnatural, abhorrent, overturning the rightful order of things. Some parents will grieve for the rest of their own lives. But the emotional pain can be made worse by the thought that the body of a child is not treated in the right way before the funeral.

That is what happened in Scotland and Natalie McKail’s job is to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. She had already successfully headed the improvement programme at the Mortonhall crematorium in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, which was one of those named in the scandal. Her role as national inspector of funeral directors is a natural progression, because she has proved that she possesses the necessary managerial and inter-personal skills.

Should other regions of Britain create similar posts? Should we even have an “Inspector of Funeral Directors” for the entire country? After all, scandals about the wrongful treatment of prematurely dead children have also occurred in England. There are strong arguments both for and against regular and detailed inspection of the funeral industry. On the one hand, it will reassure customers that the best standards are being maintained; on the other, it may introduce unnecessary bureaucracy and raise costs without improving service and quality.

And the idea of a national Funeral Inspector raises the question of regional culture and customs. Funerals are like dialects and accents: they change as you move from north to south, from east to west. That’s a good thing, because funerals should reflect the lives of those who are being mourned. Scottish people want Scottish funerals, with all the customs and traditions that are accepted and familiar in Scotland.

And within Scotland there are variations: Aberdeen is a very different place from Edinburgh. If a funeral inspector’s remit is too large, local expertise loses its value and the job can become unwieldy and inefficient. Natalie McKail has a big scandal to straighten and a disappointed population to reassure, but those who appointed her are confident that she can do for the whole of Scotland what she has already done for Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh.