By Kenton X. Chance
If you know them, you might see then lurking outside the Accident and Emergency Department and other wards of the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.
They are not health care workers, but staff members of the two main funeral homes in St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Ever-Ready Funeral Home and New Haven Funeral Home.
The competition between them is stiff and their tactics, say some persons who have had the experience, can be more than a little insensitive.
The funeral homes have also co-opted staff at the nation’s premium health care facility who are on their payroll, collecting money as much as EC$300 for every funeral package a bereaved family buys from their funeral parlours.
But a case that began on Aug. 8, in which Katrina James of Lodge Village, claims that the body of her father, Edmond Kenneth Ballantyne, 64, of the same address, was sent to Ever-Ready Funeral Home against her wishes, has once again moved the Ministry of Health to review the protocols at Milton Cato Memorial Hospital regarding the interaction at the hospital of funeral home and hospital staff and relatives of deceased persons.
Ever-Ready Funeral Home, speaking through its lawyer, said that hospital personnel had summoned it to collect Ballantyne’s body.
The Ministry of Health said that James had indicated that this is where her father’s body was to be sent, a claim that she denies.
But what is clear, is that Ever-Ready funeral home embalmed Ballantyne’s body and demanded that James pay EC$3,000 for its services before it could be released to New Haven Funeral Home.
In the meantime, Ballantyne’s Aug. 18 funeral was cancelled and it took the intervention of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves for his body to be released to James on Aug. 24 — without charge.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Luis de Shong, told iWitness News on Wednesday that his ministry has had to put rules in place to govern the behaviour of funeral homes soliciting business at MCMH.
“When we discovered that there was an issue in that regard … probably towards the end of 2014, we put systems in place to curb that,” de Shong told iWitness News, adding that the hospital administrator made certain recommendations that were endorsed by then Minister of Health, Clayton Burgin.
“And, as far as I am aware, the situation was going along, as per the agreed recommendations. And then, suddenly this situation just erupted,” de Shong told iWitness News.
“There are stories that certain untoward happenings occur on the part of the two principal funeral homes. But I don’t have the evidence to suggest it. I will now have to take a closer look at it, along with the administrator. It’s safe to say that as a consequence of this situation, it will take us back to the drawing board,” he said.
The senior public servant said that the recommendation made and implemented in 2014 were intended to strengthen “the protocols moving from the time the body is removed from the ward to the morgue and what happens at that point by the family with respect to where they would wish to have the deceased sent and the role of any external agencies if there is a role for them.
“There are steps which have to be taken before they could come on board,” de Shong said of funeral home staff.
A former funeral home worker, who does not wish to be identified in this story, told iWitness that there is intense competition among undertakers for business at MCMH.
The competition intensified, the source told iWitness News, when an embalmer moved from one funeral home to the other, then rumours began to spread about the ability of his previous employer to properly provide funeral service.
Then, one of the funeral homes headhunted several key members of staff of the other, further intensifying the competition.
When the morgue at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital needed repairs in 2013, Ever-Ready funeral home offered the Ministry of Health to store the bodies there at no cost, de Shong told iWitness.
“And, of course, there was an arrangement that if the other funeral home had to get them, they got them very easily,” de Shong said.
But the former funeral home worker told iWitness News that this also meant that Ever-Ready got most of the funeral business.
And with the MCMH morgue back in operation, the intense competition has restarted.
“The rate per referral at [Funeral Home X] was EC$100. [Funeral Home Y] was $200. But when [Funeral Home X] decided to increase their referral price to EC$200, [Funeral Home Y] went up to $300,” the source told iWitness News.
The former industry worker said that each funeral home has established relationships with the attendants at MCMH, who notify them whenever there is a death.
“Once a person dies, both homes are informed,” the source told iWitness News, adding, “If the family has a history of taking the dead to a specific home, the fight becomes easier for that home,” the former funeral home worker told iWitness News.
“The competition is fierce,” the source said.
The employees of the funeral home themselves are also under pressure to secure business.
“I used to work hospital for [a funeral home]. I got bodies. I used to be by the morgue. I used to comfort family members. I had also gone to the registry to get death certificates for relatives. So yes, I know what’s going on,” the former funeral home worker told iWitness News.
“It was insensitive of me. I never liked it.”