The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms C complains about the way the Council dealt with her mother’s cremation following a technical problem. The Council was not at fault. It maintained the crematorium well and, when it failed, took reasonable steps to limit distress.
- Ms C complains about the way in which the Council handled her mother’s cremation after a failure at the Council crematorium. She says the Council:
- Should have informed her of the failure of the crematorium plant in a timely fashion, allowing her to make other arrangements;
- Should not have kept the body overnight at the site;
- Should not have taken the body to Wales in a van with four other coffins; and
- In the alternative, it should have told her that it was going to do so so that she could follow the coffin to Wales to pay her last respects.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Ms C. I made enquiries of the Council. I considered its response.
- I sent a copy of my draft to Ms C and the Council and asked for comments.
What I found
- The Council runs a crematorium. It has been suffering intermittent problems since 2009 when a poor-quality installation took place.
- A further, poor-quality installation took place in 2011. The company which carried out the work went into liquidation while carrying out the work. The Council says similar problems have affected 11 other councils which used the same company.
- In 2015, the Council commissioned a new crematorium at the site which is due to open in spring 2019. The Council is currently in talks with the contractor to bring the opening date forward.
- The Council says that, when the crematorium was functioning, cremations would usually take place within 24 hours of a service. Cremations did not necessarily occur immediately after the service and, in exceptional circumstances, could take place up to 72 hours later.
- Where this happened, the Council says it would inform the funeral directors and ask them to inform the family.
- The Council has a contract with an external company to run quarterly maintenance on the plant at the crematorium.
Ms C’s complaint
- In early January 2018, Ms C’s mother passed away. She engaged a funeral director who arranged her funeral for 12 February 2018.
- Officer P, the director of environment services at the Council, says he learnt late on Thursday 8 February 2018, that there were problems at the crematorium. The problems led to thick smoke billowing over the site which was a potential danger for staff and mourners alike.
- On Friday 9 January 2018, Officer P visited the site with a safety officer. They learned that the problem was caused by component failure. The problem could not be fixed immediately and they decided it was necessary to stop cremations on site and to make other arrangements.
- Officer P says that, while there had been difficulties with the cremator before, the problem of January 2018 was unprecedented; in all previous instances, the shutdown of the cremator had been much shorter and cremations had been delayed but still carried out at the Council’s crematorium. On this occasion, the Council did not know when cremations could resume.
- Officer P says the Council informed funeral directors of the problems and asked them to inform their clients. He says the Council did not contact Ms C directly and, indeed, could not have done so, as it did not have her contact details.
- Ms C says she could not have rearranged the funeral at this stage. She had guests coming from far away who had already made travel arrangements.
- The funeral was held at the crematorium on Monday 12 February 2018. After the service, Ms C’s mother’s body was kept at the crematorium site overnight before being taken to a crematorium in Wales the next day.
- Ms C says she was not informed and found out later when the flowers which she wanted cremated with her mother were returned to her.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- Clearly, the failure of the crematorium caused Ms C distress. Due to the unfortunate timing, it was impossible for her to reschedule her mother’s funeral and she has found the knowledge that her mother was taken elsewhere for cremation difficult to cope with.
- However, the question for the Ombudsman is not whether Ms C was distressed but whether the Council was at fault. That is to say, whether it should have acted differently. I do not find that it was.
- The Council runs the crematorium as a service to the public. It commissioned repairs to the plant in 2009 and 2011 which, unfortunately, were sub-standard. Since then, it has employed a market-leading firm to maintain the site. It also commissioned a new site with two chapels nearby which was due to come into action in the spring of 2019.
- It was not the Council’s fault that the works of 2009 and 2011 were defective. The Council took reasonable steps to prevent inconvenience and distress to members of the public and to replace the facility in the longer term.
- It had procedures in place for what should happen in the event of a problem. It would tell funeral directors and ask them to tell members of the public.
- However, it had never had such a catastrophic failure as occurred on 8 February 2018 before. This was caused by a component failure. The Council took steps to remedy the failure through its maintenance contractors, but the component had to be sourced from France which led to a halt in cremations at the Council site.
- The timing was most unfortunate. The plant failed on Thursday evening. The Council decided it would need to close down the site on Friday morning. Ms C had arranged her mother’s funeral for the following Monday with guests coming from far away. It was not possible to reschedule.
- Officer P says he considered closure of the entire cremation services operation until the problem was fixed. However, he was; ’mindful of the significant impact that this would have had on the families of the bereaved’.
- This was a difficult decision Officer P had to make with an elected member of the Council. If they had decided to close the chapel as well as the crematorium, this would also have been upsetting for Ms C.
- The Ombudsman cannot find fault with this decision. It was a reasonable one in the circumstances.
- Ms C says she would never have held the funeral there had she known of the problems. However, she also told me that she could not have cancelled the service because guests had arranged to come from so far away.
- Officer P accepts that he might have done things differently, with the benefit of hindsight but it is difficult to see what more he could have done. Cremations could not take place at the site but services had been booked at the chapels. The Council told funeral directors and asked them to inform their clients.
Keeping of the body overnight at the crematorium
- Ms C says she is upset that the body was kept overnight at the crematorium. However, even if the plant had been working properly, this might have happened as bodies are not cremated immediately after the service but were sometimes kept for 72 hours even when the cremator was working.
Removal of body to a different site
- Ms C says she found it upsetting that her mother’s body was taken to a different site and, even more so that she was taken ‘in a van’.
- I cannot find fault on the basis that the body was taken elsewhere. This was necessary in the circumstances.
- I understand that Ms C found it upsetting that she did not know that this had happened until after the event. But the Council says, and I accept, that it told Ms C’s funeral director in advance. This was, therefore, a matter between her funeral director and her. Officer P says that one funeral director did arrange for a hearse to accompany the coffin to the crematorium in Wales.
- Ms C says the Council should have paid for her to go to Wales with the coffin. Again, I cannot see that the Council should have done so. Ms C left the crematorium after the service. She did not wait to see the cremation itself. There seems, therefore, to be no reason why she should have attended the cremation elsewhere.
- The Council also denies that Ms C’s mother was carried in a van. It says she was taken in a private ambulance which, it says, is standard procedure. It says every transferred coffin was placed on a catafalque and treated respectfully.
- Ms C says she feels that the arrangements lacked dignity. Officer P says the Council ‘’did not set out with any intention of causing distress to bereaved families’. I accept that this is the case and that the Council did all it could to ensure that dignity was maintained.
- Clearly, the events described caused Ms C distress but the Council was not at fault. The failure was an unfortunate incident for which the Council was not to blame and it did its best to mitigate the distress this inevitably caused. It had no relationship with Ms C so could not have told her about the arrangements made.
- I have closed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman