Old, disjointed systems and processes can pose a number of challenges to successful crematory management. Discover how to overcome them.
Cemetery and Crematory Processes, Compliance and Best Practice: An Interview with Lee Snashfold
| Read time: 10 mins
We were delighted for the opportunity to speak with Lee Snashfold, Managing Director of Lee Snashfold Crematoria Management & Consultancy Ltd, who provided insights on what best practice looks like for modern crematories and cemeteries.
Please note: regulatory information pertains to England and Wales crematory and cemetery legislation and practices
Tell us why providing support to cemeteries and crematories is so important to you.
My entire working career of 42 years has been spent in crematories and cemeteries.
Having been a regional manager with Dignity - the largest owners and operators of crematoria and cemeteries in the UK - for six years, I really wanted to start my own company. At that time, no one was providing any outside consultancy support at all.
I often found back then that people were put into roles running a crematorium, particularly within the public sector, with no background training, and with staff under their control who unfortunately knew more than they do.
At that time it was only me, but in the last few years we've grown the company to where we have eight full-time employees and about 20 associates.
What services do you provide?
There are two very specific parts to the company.
We provide experienced crematory managers and qualified cremator technicians, as well as administration and chapel attending staff. We're the largest providers of emergency cover in the UK by quite a long way.
The other part is in consultancy for things like carrying out strategic reviews, writing best practice manuals, operation manuals, and also being involved in new build crematories.
We carry out reviews and checks all over the UK - they're always well received, right across both the public and private sectors. Uniquely, we work a lot with the private sector, carrying out reviews on all sorts of things, including admin processes and sales enhancement, as well as having developed a comprehensive health and safety and PPE assessment programme
Broadly speaking, what does crematory and cemetery best practice look like for you?
It would be giving the clients, the bereaved and your key stakeholders - your funeral directors, and your clergy, the best service that you can give them.
Equally, you’ve got to do that within a framework, within a compliance framework - but to give them the best service that you possibly can, and to make the bereavement experience, at an extremely difficult time, as gentle as you possibly can.
Why are strategic cemetery and crematory management reviews important?
The importance is to ensure legislative compliance, but also that best practice compliance is given to the bereaved.
Legislation is one thing - everybody has to abide by that - but one of the good things about going around so many places, is that in terms of best practice you get to see what works best all over the country.
Where people may have been at only one crematory or cemetery, they wouldn't necessarily know any other way. When you can show them [another way], some of the time you are met with some resistance - particularly by people that have been there for [a long time], but if people see that there's a better, quicker and more effective way of doing things, they're usually quite quick to embrace them.
We've done a lot of strategic reviews over the years, and as mentioned, have developed a new training and assessment programme in line with the FBCA (Federation of Burial and Cremation Authority) that can be used as a form of pre-inspection; we'll be sending out that opportunity for people, both in the public and private sectors.
How would you go about assessing the effectiveness of existing practices?
One of the things that we do in our reviews is interview the staff, but we also interview users as well.
Let's say a local mason that would use the facility, usually three funeral directors, and a couple of religious faith leaders as well. All of the comments are given anonymously - good and bad - and we feed all of those comments back into the review. We discuss what works, what doesn't, and what could be done better. And that's very effective in assessing effectiveness.
You can also look at things like: Are your funeral numbers going in the right direction? Are you maintaining the numbers that you should be? And if you're not, is there an obvious reason? Is it, for example, that you've got a crematory that's open five miles away and they've taken 300 of your numbers, or if you lost those 300 because you're not giving the service that you should be.
In the reviews, we would look at things such as: Are you maintaining your market share? Are you growing your market share? Or is it decreasing? And if so, is there a reason why?
What are the key components of a best practice framework or strategy?
Crematories are given an environmental license they have to operate within. You also abide by the code of cremation practice, and there would be a copy of that on the wall of the crematory, so you'd make sure that you were keeping to those things.
As far as environmental compliance, cremators actually record continuous monitoring. You can go up to certain low emission levels, but you shouldn't go above those. Any exceedents then have to be reported to your environmental health officer and logged separately.
Then you would look to see if there's a pattern. Are you getting a number of exceedents or is it just a one-off? Where are these exceedents coming from? Are they only coming a particular funeral director or perhaps when the cremators are particularly hot later in the day. Is there a pattern that can be addressed.
Then you've got to look after your staff and make sure they're delivering outstanding customer service. Try and put yourself in the position of your users. If it's your mother, your father, would you be happy with that service that you are giving?
That's the way I try to approach it. I vividly remember the devastation I felt when my father died and said to myself, “Always remember how you feel right now because that is the way every family you deal with is feeling”.
What would be the best way to ensure that information is kept and kept up to date?
The best thing to do, wherever possible, is to enter details that day, once the burial has taken place, so your records are absolutely up to date.
That doesn't happen all the time because, in Parish Council’s let's say, the person that's doing that, the registrar [for example] might only work one or two days a week. Nothing is mentioned in LACO as having to do it that day - it's as soon as it's reasonably practical - but if you let it go, especially if you're a busy cemetery, it's always a job to catch up.
Some places I went to, would have the index up to date, but the register might be three weeks behind. And that was something I then ploughed through and got it up to date and made sure they were in on a day by day basis.
Now with computerized records, that's not so much the case because it is booked in on a screen like with PlotBox and the other cemetery management solutions.
Do paper-based systems make it more challenging to recall and manage information?
It can, depending on how far back you're going, because you've only got a finite amount of space in your admin office. So you might keep, let's say, one year's worth of papers there, then there would be some sort of a storage or holding area where you are going to store the papers after that.
There's not as much paper now as there used to be. There are for the cremation forms and so on, but in terms of registers that are held, now a lot of people have done away with those because of the computer system that everything's put onto - maybe once a year they'll print that information off and file it.
But there aren't the great big ledgers that you’re entering into on a daily basis like I used when I started.
What role do you see management playing in ensuring compliance?
The manager's got a hugely important role. The one thing I try to get across is that you've got to conduct yourself and walk around as if this is your site completely - right across the board.
It's no good shutting yourself away.
So best practice to me looks like ensuring you are providing best practice as a manager in all areas that are under your control. You as the manager must know what's going on on your site. And that's vitally important. I always made sure I had very good people as my head gardener, as my grounds foreman, as my crematory superintendent, as my office manager, and on a Monday morning we would meet and have half an hour together.
I would ask, “Have you got everything that you need? Is there anything else we could be doing? Where are you at? I know that you've got this, this burial, where are you at with it?”. I would go through each one to make sure everything was okay. And if I had to then jump into doing some admin, or some cremating, that's what I would do.
What steps would you recommend should be taken to proactively identify and address potential compliance risks?
Most of the compliance risks would be at the crematory itself because it's a potentially dangerous area. You've got machines running - electric, gas, running at a high temperature. So you've clearly got risks there as you have with your grave diggers.
What sort of temperatures are the machines running at - are they running too hot and if so, why? And that's where having good, experienced people is important because they get to know the machines well in the same way that you might know your own car.
Compliance is one thing, but in terms of best practice, I'd also look at whether your people have got all of the right PPE. It’s really important to have the right sort of people there, but particularly because you've got a potentially dangerous area where you've got to be very careful.
You'd also make sure you were compliant on your emission levels, and so forth, but equally on the operation itself.
We supply our qualified technicians with a standard set of kit - fire resistant gloves, heat resistant and fire and flame resistant clothing, respiratory masks, everything that you would need to be safe when operating a cremator, and we insist they use them.
Everyone should use gloves, but sometimes for raking down at the end of a cremation, not everyone uses their masks like they should. We are insistent on that with our people.
How can effective training and education programmes contribute to promoting compliance?
As mentioned, we're currently training people to be qualified cremator technicians and have also got a couple of people that are qualified mentors. The FBCA and the ICCM issue cremator technician licenses - as part of that, you have to complete written assignments and a certain amount of cremations under the watchful eye of your mentor; then an examiner will oversee you carrying out a cremation from start to finish.
We train people that are either working for us, or we are asked to train other people right the way through from start to finish on behalf of cremation authorities, including on the use of PPE. I think it's fair to say nowadays people are much more aware of their PPE responsibilities.
If I think back 30, 40 years ago there were always challenges with getting people to wear all of the right kit. Now I would certainly be asking questions if they weren’t.
What measures do you recommend for regularly assessing and monitoring compliance within that setting?
Obviously you've got your continuous monitoring, so you have to keep an eye on that, and if there are any exceedents, you have to log them: Was it only momentarily? Did it continue for 20 minutes or so? And if so, why? What was the charging temperature? What temperature did it reach? What was the temperature at the end? Was it anything different about that particular cremation? Was it a particularly large coffin?
They're all the sorts of things that you would look at because your EHO (Environmental Health Officer) will be asking questions, what you did to put it right, or what you’re doing to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
Those are just some of the things that you would look at - it's up to you as a manager to look at and monitor what's happening, but equally your technicians should be making you aware of everything that's happening - including anything out of the ordinary.
What strategies would you suggest for managing operations to help ensure capacity and capability?
You've got to look at your current staffing levels and ensure you've got the capacity.
Let’s say your booking sheet says 9am until 4pm and you've got 30 min services, but at that period, one of your cremators is having some work done, and you've only got one cremator. If there's no liaison going on, it's no good - then you've got a problem. And that's where it's important that as the manager, you are communicating everything, or starting taking times out.
Or when coming up to something like a bank holiday, and want to make sure all your cremations are done before you leave that day - you've got to communicate between parties, or look at working a shift system. This is one of the things that we get asked to do quite a lot when sites are very busy.
It’s also important to have multi-trained staff that understand the challenges of other people's roles.
So, yes, it is very important that you review the staff level you have with the workload that you've got.
What does best practice look like in ensuring process efficiencies?
At the end of the day, your staff have completed everything they need to for that day. You're never going to be completely up to date, but your admin is all done, and all the paperwork is processed for the following day.
The next morning or that afternoon, staff can come up to the office and they know exactly how many floral tribute holders they've got to set out the next day, they know what time, what music has got to be played the next day - everything they need to know.
You've got an interment of ashes the next day at 9am: Where are the ashes? Who's got them? Are the family bringing them? Have you got them? Is the hole dug and the instructions given out?
Check to make sure you've done everything that you can to make sure everything is going to happen smoothly the following day.
That's what process efficiencies looks like to me
In that regard, communication is very important - with everyone having access to the same information.
Absolutely. If you take the systems you have now - your system being an example, but all of the systems, where staff can log in to access information - whether it be in the crematorium or at the office, they can see that the paperwork is there…because you can't enter all the details of that deceased person otherwise.
And they've got access to the diary - they can see how many funerals they've got the next day. So even though they've got their printed off paperwork, and they've got their individual authority to cremate cards signed off by the manager, let's say, they can see what work they've got coming in.
So that does help.
And to finish, how would you ensure best practice in terms of customer service levels?
When I do reviews I speak to the local users. Feedback forms are always good, and 90 plus percent of the time the feedback forms were positive. The other thing you start to see if you're not giving good customer service, is that people will vote with their feet - they'll start going elsewhere.
And if your numbers are declining you've got to look at why. What are you not doing that you could be?
In almost all cases, there will be things you could be doing better. The presentation of the gardens of remembrance, let's say, where maybe some funding has been cut for a gardener - it has a knock on effect. Those are the sort of things you've got to keep on top of and make sure it's an attractive place for people to come to, or they won't want to have their memorial there.
To learn more about the services provided by Lee Snashfold Crematoria Management & Consultancy Ltd, visit their website here.
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