Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Buying or Burying Dignity?

A dreadful headline yesterday:

It speaks for itself - "Michelle Mahoney, 24, and Matthew Small, 25, were on their way when they got stuck in traffic on the way to bury their stillborn baby, who they had named Angel. When they arrived at the graveside they found a small mound of earth and realised their daughter's funeral had gone ahead without them."

The staff at the crematorium were described as being horrified and called the Vicar back to carry out a service for the dead baby, but understandably the bereaved parents remained inconsolable. 

Anyone can of course make a mistake or a bad judgement call and nothing is ever perfect. Those who work in jobs in sensitive areas such as funerals, health and social work have the additional stress of the consequences of a mistake being infinitely more serious emotionally or physically than most people risk.

Yet what struck me about this case, almost as much as the dreadful pain of the distraught parents, was the identity of the undertaker who buried their child without them being there - a contractor with the Cardiff hospital where this sad tale originated. D Caesar Jones was the funeral directors in question - nothing apparently unusual about this until it transpires that this is a mere local subsidiary of a national funeral business, the ironically titled DIGNITY PLC .

Dignity PLC proclaims itself as the "ultimate funeral professionals". It offers advance planning schemes, offers a find a funeral director to steer you to its franchisees, links to the Samaritans and sets out pictures of smiling people to ease you on the way to their bank account. It even provides templates for sympathy letters - so you need never be at a loss for words writing to the bereaved thanks to this Microsoft of the Afterlife.

All very thoughtful - and very worthwhile for their owners as they chalked up a profit of £26 millions in 2009.

I do not know anything about the motives of their shareholders, but it is, with many others of its type, big business making money out of people's most basic needs - in this instance for a dignified exit from life, for time and space to mourn a lost love one.

"DIGNITY" and  "PLC" - can these two monikers logically sit side by side? PLCs are "public limited companies". Under corporate governance law, including after New Labour's botched reforms in the middle of the last decade, PLC's have one sole objective - to maximise the financial return for their shareholders. Any deviation from this by their Officers potentially breaks the law. That is why corporate social responsibility initiatives are never more than revenue-seeking PR campaigns - if they were actually about CSR, those running them would be liable to be fired and even prosecuted for wasting their companies' resources, reducing profits and breaking the law. The UK Government's Business Link encourages businesses to look at CSR because "it can be good for your bottom line" (I.e., profit).

In his book and film, "The Corporation", Joel  Bakan explores the legal fiction, common to most of the western world, that allows PLC's to claim the same legal status as human beings - a PLC is an artificial or legal personality. This ludicrous state of affairs provides all manner of protection for the entity, including being able to claim the right to privacy in its dealings. It also shelters the actual real humans who own shares and benefit from its profits and dividends from any adverse legal and financial consequences from its actions. If it does not pay its suppliers, they are personally immune from its liabilities. If it commits ecocide or manslaughter as a result of bad practices and is sued, they are not financially accountable if it cannot pay its damages. If its officers, driven relentlessly to maximise financial returns for their shareholders, break the law in doing so, it is they who face prosecution, not the often faceless shareholders whom they serve.

Consequently, Bakan characterises the Corporate Personality as essentially psychopathic in its essence - it operates in a totally egocentric, self-interested fashion without conscience or regard for the impact of its actions on individuals, communities, other species or the environment. Beyond those it needs to satisfy its insatiable demand for profits, it has no care for its staff and discards them as soon as they are surplus to requirements.

By contrast, the dictionary definition of dignity , from the Latin root dignus, refers to: "The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect; Inherent nobility and worth: the dignity of honest labour."

I pass no judgement on the particular company cited in the story. They are far from alone in seeking to combine an apparent concern for others in their services with maximising the amount of money they make for shareholders who may or may not have any interest or even awareness in what they do - indeed, many shareholders are now other large, faceless PLCs. Consequently, it can be difficult to trace the human identity of many of those who own these fictitious corporate personas - something which may frustrate the efforts of an American woman who, with the assistance of the Green Party of the USA, has taken the law at its word and is now seeking to find a corporate suitor to woo and marry.

In this context, using names like "Dignity" or "Care" or "Kindness" is simply one tool to attract business and harvest money. The people working in such operations may be perfectly decent and caring on an individual basis, and, as Bakan describes, may finish their day going lovingly home to their families and friends, but as corporate entities, such benevolent behaviours would be quite inimical to their purpose.

So the tragic story from Cardiff is sad indeed. But Governments of all hues are committed to nothing but window-dressing when it comes to any reform of our corporate laws, and totally beholden to the market system which has led steadily to larger and larger conglomerates swallowing each other up. Consequently, they have become increasingly remote from those they provide services to, and it is little surprise that such an appalling incident can occur.

Dignity is defined by the Royal College of Nursing as "concerned with how people feel, think and behave in relation to the worth or value of themselves and others." And money can't buy that. Not ever.

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