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Dignity in death

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Local councils have developed funeral services designed to alleviate the distress of bereavement while meeting individual needs.

Make funerals more personal

The outpouring of public grief over Princess Diana's death, expressed in many ways, prompted Exeter City Council to ask whether less traditional and more personalised burial services needed to be available.

"We needed to be more flexible and adaptable to accommodate peopleÍs personal preferences. So we looked at how we could offer an individual service," says Paul McCormick, the council's head of contracts and direct services.

Working in partnership with local funeral directors, Exeter examined the kinds of burial services people were asking for and developed leaflets and information on its internet site to reflect those needs.

"Some people plan funerals in advance. Offering an individual service allows them to think about what they want, rather than having to go down the traditional route," Mr McCormick says.

A woodland burial site and the reuse of Edwardian plots have proved popular, he says.

The council is also looking at working in partnership with one of its funeral directors to open a garden of remembrance so people can place ashes there in environmentally friendly, bio-degradable urns.

When a Chinese family wanted a funeral to include having a meal around the grave the council met their request.

Champagne glasses are provided for those who want to toast their loved ones and doves have been released over grave sites during funerals.

Since introducing this individual approach to burials, customer satisfaction surveys about the service have "shot through the roof" Mr McCormick says.

"We've gone from 80% to the high 90s in terms of satisfaction with this service. It takes a bit more time in terms of working with people about their funeral needs. But it means they can become more involved and the experience is more satisfying for them."

Offer support to children

The Family Welfare Association's Supporting Children in Bereavement Project is backed by Barnsley MBC, which manages its funds. The scheme helps children and teenagers who are affected by the loss of a parent, close relative or friend. It receives financial backing from the Children's Fund.

Children are referred to the service by teachers, school nurses or social workers, and receive help from therapeutic bereavement workers. "The scheme gives children and young people the chance to talk to someone about what has happened and how it has affected them," says Claire Meek, project service manager.

Ms Meek describes one particular success the scheme had with a young boy who had a poor school attendance and behavioural difficulties and was on the verge of being expelled from school.

"He had a strong attachment to his father who died suddenly. The boy went off the rails and was at risk of being excluded from school," she says.

"After working closely with his school and his mother, his school reports are much better and his concentration in class, attainment levels and emotional wellbeing haveimproved greatly."

"He is a bright boy with lots of potential and that can now be fulfilled," Ms Meek adds.

Be aware of all religious needs

Bradford City MDC and the Bradford Council of Mosques are working in partnership to meet the bereavement needs of the city's Muslim community.

"Some years ago the Bradford Council of Mosques approached us to talk about how the growing Muslim community could become more involved in bereavement services," recalls Malcolm Vegas, head of service markets and interim head of service, parks, landscapes and bereavement services.

The council agreed to release an area of land in Scholemoor to the Bradford Council of Mosques so the community could carry out its own burials.

The service now has its own grave digger who is on standby 24 hours a day and a round-theclock service is also available to ensure interment within 24 hours of death in accordance with Muslim beliefs. Bradford MDC is also looking at the possibility of handing over memorial and headstone management of the burial area in Scholemoor to the Bradford Council of Mosques.

Mr Vegas says: "The partnership approach has helped build good relationships with the community and has increased understandingand respect for alternative cultures.

"We talk regularly with local ward councillors who represent the community, and the feedback is that people who have gone through the bereavement process at Scholemoor are extremely pleased with the service. It is commendable that something as sensitive as this scheme has worked so well.

Invest in cemeteries

A£2.5m investment plan at St Helens and Newton cemeteries by St Helens MBC has proved a success with users.

Over the past few years, visitors and the council had expressed concern about the amount of traffic using St Helens Cemetery. In response to this and other criticisms, the council has invested in a number of improvements.

The St Helens Cemetery car park has an additional 80 spaces with some dedicated for disabled drivers. More than 800 blue badge holders - people with mobility or disability problems - have been provided with free swipe cards to operate the electronic barrier installed at the main entrance into the cemetery.

The council has also been working with the Friends of St Helens Cemetery Group to address users' needs. Councillors decided that the facilities where people visited their loved ones should be made more appealing.

"St Helens Cemetery is a beautiful place, as is the Victorian Newton Cemetery. We wanted to give them a facelift to make them as attractive as possible," says Steve Massey, assistant director for public and environmental protection.

In Newton Cemetery, the chapel has been refurbished and redecorated. All paths and roadways have been resurfaced, additional car parking has been provided and traffic bollards have been installed to prevent vehicles driving over grassed areas. Memorial safety inspections are ongoing at both cemeteries.

"The cemeteries have become an asset for the borough and feedback has been excellent," says Mr Massey.

Use registration services

For the bereaved, having to deal with the formalities of death can often add to the trauma and distress. So earlier this year, Cardiff Council launched a service to help people during this difficult time.

Cardiff's registration service, in partnership with Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust, has set up a death registration service based at the University Hospital of Wales.

Under the scheme, bereaved families have the option to register the death of a loved one in the concourse of the hospital once they have collected the medical certificate of cause of death. It is expected that the service will make it easier for people to deal with the formalities that need to be completed, although the Registrars Office in Park Place, Cardiff, will continue to provide a registration service.

Judith Woodman (Lib Dem), executive member for communities, housing and social justice, believes the service will help bereaved people. "Having this facility on site will help to ease the stress of registering the death of a loved one," she says.

Sue Gregory, nurse director for Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust, adds: "Relatives have already expressed their appreciation of this service."

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