Dead Weight

words: Lisa McCafferty
Overweight coffin

It’s no secret that the UK is in the midst of an ‘obesity epidemic’. According to the National Obesity Forum (NOF), in most European countries around half the population is now overweight or obese, and this percentage is set to rise further over the next decade. It is predicted this could reach 71% by 2025.

Worryingly, these predictions are now said to ‘underestimate’ the full scale of the problem.
As one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United Kingdom, the effects of obesity are beginning to have a knock-on effect on the funeral profession.

As custodians of the dead, funeral directors are responsible for making the arrangements for transportation of the body, completing all necessary paperwork, and implementing the choices made by the family regarding the funeral and final disposition of the body.

Ensuring that the ceremony is carried out with the utmost respect is absolutely paramount for funeral directors and dealing with someone who was overweight is no different.

This, of course, throws up a challenge. However, with the introduction of a number of innovations, listed here, the funeral profession is poised to keep moving with the times.

Larger coffins and caskets – Until recently, the average coffin was typically 22 to 24 inches wide, but now 26 inches has become much more common, with larger ones (typically up to 40 inches) also available.

More powerful crematoria – As the bodies of overweight people contain more fat, they need to be burned for longer and at higher temperatures in order to be turned into ash. More powerful ovens with larger doors have been pioneered in America, but at the moment there are still only a few of them in crematoria around the UK.

Lifting equipment – A coffin can weigh several stone, so the combined weight of that and a large passenger inside means it can become too heavy for traditional pallbearers to carry on their shoulders. As a result, some funeral directors may have to refuse to provide a pallbearing service if they could be held liable for putting their employees at risk of, for example, back injury. A growing number of funeral directors now use trolleys to wheel the coffin into the funeral venue, while they can also use sophisticated lifting and winching equipment to lower the deceased into their grave during burials.

Funeral transport – Unfortunately, some hearses may not be able to accommodate larger sized coffins and caskets, meaning that alternative methods of transport will have to be found – all leaving funeral directors with extra costs.

Super-sized graves

With the affect obesity is having on the UK’s funeral industry a growing problem, some local councils are taking things into their own hands with the introduction of super-sized graves.

Sutton Bridge and Wingland Parish Council was one of the first councils to announce plans for a new three-acre burial ground in 2015 because space was running out at the cemetery in the local church – where plots measure 9ft by 4ft.

The authority planned to become the first in Britain to create a cemetery with graves dedicated to larger bodies to accommodate the nation’s growing obesity crisis.

The larger graves have been requested by funeral directors who have been struggling to haul coffins over long distances in the Lincolnshire village.

As plans were drawn up for 30 super-sized plots near to the roadside, the local council was aiming to alleviate some of the problems funeral directors are faced with, such as back problems and general injury.

As well as hundreds of standard graves, the authority revealed plans to dig extra wide 9ft by 8ft plots near to the entrance of the burial ground.

This came shortly after Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, Staffordshire, installed a new £12,000 lift table to handle wider coffins for obese people.

The authority said the decision came after Bradwell Crematorium was unable to accommodate the funerals of 15 overweight people back in 2013.

Some funeral parlours in Britain have even had to install hoists capable of lifting 50 stone, purchase reinforced steel trollies and increase the size of their fridges in order to manage larger corpses.

Hospital morgues and crematoriums have already had to make alterations to deal with the changes, such as installing extra-large furnaces.

And ambulance bosses have also started paying out millions to ‘supersize’ their vehicles to cope with the growing number of obese casualties.

The East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) introduced a fleet of 128 larger ambulances, each capable of dealing with patients who weigh up to 55 stone.

The UK’s growing obesity problem shows no sign of slowing but, with the introduction of a number of innovations, the funeral industry is poised to keep moving with the times.

In Ireland the trend for oversized coffins is also growing, with the World Health Organisation reporting in 2015 that some 89% of Irish men will be overweight by 2030.

In some cases, traditional wakes have also been affected. The Irish Examiner newspaper revealed in January this year that one funeral director had to call a glazier to fit a super-sized coffin through the window as it would not fit in the narrow doorway.

Although the roughly 90cm-wide plots in modern graveyards are big enough to accommodate large bodies, a number of older cemeteries – such as Glasnevin in Dublin which has 60cm-wide plots — cannot accommodate bodies more than 16 stone.

And this issue looks set to continue for all SAIF members, with funeral directors having to pay out for the alterations to their equipment and the possible health and safety issues of dealing with larger bodies.

Did you know?

  • Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980
  • In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight and 13% were obese
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight
  • 42 million under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2013

Source – World Health Organisation:

Is obesity a disability?

There are different levels of obesity – obese, morbidly obese or very obese. The levels are measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI).

Anyone with a BMI of 30 to 40 would be considered to be ‘obese’.

Those with a BMI of more than 40 would be considered ‘morbidly obese’ or ‘very obese’.

Under the Equality Act 2010 people are classed as having disabilities if they have physical or mental impairments that have substantial and adverse long-term effects on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Using this definition, would people count as disabled if their obesity were affecting their day-to-day activities? A recent tribunal case concluded that a worker with a BMI of 48.5 and a number of health conditions relating to his weight was disabled, and it upheld his claim for harassment related to disability. So employers need to consider whether their employees have an impairment that is making their everyday lives difficult for them, and whether the negative impacts have been ‘substantial and long-term’.