“If someone had told me a few years ago I’d end up as the CEO of the National Association of Funeral Directors, I’m not sure I would have believed them,” says Mandie Lavin, who is heading the funeral profession’s biggest membership organisation at a time of major change for the industry.
Mandie is a barrister who held senior positions with a number of important regulatory bodies concerned with healthcare, law and finance before she joined the NAFD in September last year. But she began her career as a nurse, caring for many people at the end of their lives and eventually overseeing the out-of-hours running of a busy London hospital.
“My own personal experience of dealing with funeral directors is that they’ve always operated to an incredibly high standard of professionalism and transparency,” she says.
“As a nurse, I’d frequently deal with funeral directors who’d come to collect people who’d sadly died, despite our best efforts. And I’d organised my parents’ funerals and my best friend’s funeral.
“Seeing the advertisement for the job, and having nursed people at the end of their lives as well as understanding some of the legal framework around what happens when somebody dies, I thought it was a good combination of skills.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such a warm welcome and if there’s been anything I’ve wanted to know, or ask about the technical side of the funeral profession, I’ve a whole raft of people to ask.”
What is the NAFD and what does it do?
The NAFD is a trade association with more than 4,000 funeral homes as members. It provides them with everything from advice on the day-to-day running of their business and welfare at work, to the rules and codes of conduct the public can expect them to abide by.
“I think membership of a professional body should be a statutory requirement,” says Mandie. “It’s fundamental to maintaining standards and ensuring public trust and confidence in the profession.”
In her busy day to day role, Mandie travels the UK meeting with members of the funeral profession, civil servants, government policy makers and other people and organisations, from celebrants to major faith organisations.
Funerals in the headlines
Not long ago, the funeral profession was a bit of a mystery for many people, who may only walk through a funeral director’s door for the first time in very sad circumstances. More recently, news and current affairs programmes have drawn our attention to issues such as funeral costs.
With an increased amount of media focus on issues such as costs, funeral affordability and children’s funerals, the NAFD is involved in consultations at government level, to discuss how the profession can boost public confidence in the services they provide.
“There’s some immensely good practice out there and people doing really innovative things that are meaningful to the public, but I’m not sure the whole sector’s terribly good at publicising it,” says Mandie, who wants the funeral profession to speak out more about the things that it does well.
“Even now a lot of our communications supposedly for the public are really written for funeral directors. I think that’s a job of work.
“The media are asking all the right questions about price transparency and children’s funerals and a whole range of things, but we still have a lot more to do in terms of communicating with the public and helping them understand what funeral directors do and how important it is.
“Everybody wants it done in a particular way and a funeral director’s job is about seeing how far they can achieve that, so families can feel as content as they can about the loss of somebody.
“Some excellent work has been done by the Good Funeral Guide and organisations like Funeral Zone as well – it’s about getting the public to understand what it is that is required when that day comes.”
Government funeral regulation in Scotland
Under Mandie’s stewardship, the NAFD has also been working with SAIF – The Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors – to create a joint code of conduct that could help form the basis of funeral regulations for north of the border by the Scottish Government’s Inspector of Funeral Directors, Natalie McKail, who stepped into post at the beginning of July. “The way we work together is really important to the future,” says Mandie. “It’s not just about working with SAIF, but a whole raft of bodies in the sector that haven’t historically always worked quite as collaboratively as they should have done. I see us extending our reach and our dialogue with people such as lay celebrants, suppliers into the industry and doing more to increase public understanding.”
Mandie hopes that with the industry supporting Ms McKail as she potentially shapes regulation in Scotland, this should not only create greater reassurance for members of the public, but also for the many people who work in the profession and care greatly about what they do.
“We’ve submitted the first draft of our joint code of conduct to the Scottish Government to say look, this is where we’ve got to, what do you think?” says Mandie.
“It does need the eyes of the public on it, as that’s who it’s been written for. We also need to have a sensible conversation with the Scottish Government about things, like how they plan to handle complaints from members of the public.”
Funeral price transparency
“We want to make sure that when a family, for whatever reason, feels that a funeral has not gone to plan, the funeral director has an opportunity to put that right – as funeral directors already do when complaints or problems arise. Funeral directors are really good at responding and go over and beyond to try and get people to a better place.
“We want to make sure that still happens, although clearly there may be very serious circumstances that for whatever reason will come to the Inspector as a first port of call and we accept that.”
Mandie is keen to open up conversation about price transparency, which has been another issue in the media. More than a third of the NAFD’s members now display some or all of their prices online and the organisation has said it aims for all its funeral home members to have “some form of pricing on display and easily accessible” by 2020.
“Evaluating and meeting public expectation around transparency of pricing is absolutely fundamental to public trust and confidence,” she says. “We’ve got requirements in our code of practice and we have high levels of compliance.
“If you think for whatever reason you’ve got a larger bill coming to you than you anticipated – and that has not been clearly communicated to you – something is going wrong.
“I think a lot of it’s also to do with how people are interpreting the statement ‘transparency of pricing’ – all our members are providing estimates and price lists to members of the public. I think some of the miscommunication is about how much of that information’s available online.”
“One of the things that’s not clear to members of the public is that there are lots of other people that participate in a funeral, things that have to be paid – things like third party costs,” adds Mandie, referring to ‘disbursements’ such as burial plots, flowers and catering.
“It also depends whether or not you’re talking about people looking for a funeral ‘package’ and defining what is a ‘package’ is.
“The challenge that funeral directors have is that these discussions are taking place at the worst possible moments in people’s lives. That gives us a greater duty and responsibility to the public, because we’re talking to people who are distressed and grieving, often very shocked. In some circumstances, the last thing they ever thought they were ever going to be doing is organising a funeral.
“Even though I consider myself to be an informed consumer as a nurse and someone who’s had quite broad professional exposure to a whole range of life events, I learned all sorts of things around organising a funeral when I was arranging my parents’ funerals.”
One thing Mandie says she was surprised and humbled to find out about, was the quiet way in which many NAFD members waive their fees for children’s funerals. “This has become a really interesting area of policy thinking for us because we’ve had a number of parliamentarians, including Carolyn Harris, the MP for Swansea, who have been at the forefront of posing parliamentary questions about this. We can’t bind our members, but we’re certainly there to guide and advise them,” she says.
“We did our own survey about this, because we’d been picking up on a range of issues, like people using different age thresholds for children’s funerals, or even applying children’s charges in circumstances where they were actually dealing with someone who’d had a disability and died perhaps in their 20s.
“Our survey results were pretty momentous: about 75 per cent of funeral directors are either waiving their professional fees or lowering their fees – a very significant proportion. In the legal world, lawyers do a lot of free work – they call it ‘pro bono’ work. Funeral directors just go and do it and don’t talk to other people about it. When you look at the greater good that the whole of the profession does, particularly when they have circumstances such as the loss of a child, it’s very humbling.”
The issue of children’s funerals has also been a matter of wider debate, she says, with some funeral directors fearing there’s a danger of creating a ‘sadness scale’.
“Sad though it is, how do you compare that to the loss of a young mother who’s leaving three children behind, maybe at the beginning of her professional career and not financially secure?” reflects Mandie.
“It’s a very emotive subject. I think we need to think about it more.”
A personal view
Sadly, the most recent funeral Mandie attended was held to commemorate the life of her cousin’s much-loved daughter, whose sudden death from a brain tumour shook the close-knit West of Ireland community to which she belonged.
“Faye was 12 when she died and all of her classmates, her football and swimming teams came to see her,” she says.
“Her funeral was not something that was hidden away, but something in which people all played a very important part. People queued outside the funeral home on a Sunday evening for many hours to see her and so many people wanted to come and pay tribute to her and extend their sympathies to the family.
“People touched her and they were with her. They were with the family and still are. The journey’s still going on and it’s going to go on for ever, really, because she’s still part of the family, although she’s not physically with them.”
Mandie’s own Irish roots play a part in how she personally finds meaning in the funeral, but she jokes that she could write three PhDs and barely scratch at the surface of exploring the significance of the funeral in people’s lives.
“A lot depends on the circumstances in which you’ve lost somebody,” she says, more seriously.
“Faye’s death was very different to the sort of death I experienced with my parents who’d lived fruitful, happy, wonderful lives, had three children and saw us all grow up, get married and achieve things.
“Whatever the circumstances, there are still some fundamental things around dignity, respect and paying tribute. For me, funerals are a very, very significant life event and play a part in shaping your own future, taking on new responsibilities. Sometimes, the loss of someone can bring families closer.”
Mandie has clear ideas about how she’d like her own funeral to be. She has written and updated her will several times and made a funeral wishes list long before she ever dreamed she’d play an important part in the funeral industry.
“If, God forbid, I was to die tomorrow, my husband would be in no doubt about where I would be buried, what would happen and the significant things in my life I’d like mentioned. I haven’t exactly drafted my own eulogy, but I’ve come pretty close to it,” she laughs.
“I think it’s important – and it would be very embarrassing if everyone was standing around at my funeral saying, ‘She didn’t tell us about any of this and she was the CEO of the NAFD!’.”