A funeral director accused of switching out a grandmother’s “gorgeous” $1700 coffin for a $70 pine box between the funeral and cremation has broken his silence.
The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin this week reported that police were investigating Harts Family Funerals in Australia after the family of local woman Janice Cecilia Valigura made a fraud complaint.
After a requiem mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church for the 74-year-old, who died of a stroke on New Year’s Eve, the ornate casket lined with white silk was carried out by Valigura’s grandchildren for transportation to the crematorium — but family were told there would be a delay.
When the coffin arrived an hour late, a family friend saw the cheap box and realized something was wrong. “He knew the family would have gone to a huge effort to give Janice a respectful send-off and what she was put in was absolutely degrading to my aunty,” Valigura’s niece Kerry Rothery told the paper.
She then called the crematorium to postpone the cremation so she could see for herself. When she got there, she claimed she saw her aunt had been wrapped in plastic in the cheaper coffin, with personal letters — written by her grandchildren and placed on her heart — tossed inside.
Rothery claimed the next day when they met the funeral director, Tony Hart, they were told the practice was “commonplace.”
Hart told The Courier-Mail on Thursday he performed the swap to prevent the expensive coffin cracking in the cold, as a delay at the crematorium meant Valigura’s coffin had to be returned to the freezer.
“The coffin she was cremated in was the same one that the family bought,” he said. He denied ever cremating someone in a different coffin to the one their family had paid for, or ever re-using a coffin.
The news was just the latest scandal to rock the $1.1 billion industry, which has long been accused of taking advantage of vulnerable people.
Timothy Button, founder of cut-price cremation business Just Cremate Me, on Thursday described the alleged coffin switch as “a new low.”
“That’s disgusting if that’s what the funeral directors are doing,” he said. “I don’t really sell expensive coffins, we use environmentally friendly cardboard caskets, but if there are any sharks in the industry doing that, that’s completely disgusting.”
Button said there was “no regulation at all” in the industry. “You’ve got industry professionals that form associations but there’s no requirement to be part of an association. I think they’re just money-hungry, they don’t really provide any requirement for you to do anything.”
Greg Inglis, co-founder and managing director of Uber-style funeral start-up Picaluna, said the funeral industry had “as a whole tried to protect itself from regulation.”
“To put it bluntly, if you wanted to be a funeral director tomorrow, you could,” he said of the regulations in Australia. “You don’t need a licence, there’s very little in the way of regulation.”
Inglis said some minor rules, such as requiring itemized bills were brought in by governments following media coverage in the 1980s, but “they were pretty loose.”
Funeral directors got around those rules by charging huge mark-ups on coffins, and categorizing everything as a generic “funeral services fee," which does not need to be itemized, he said.
On claims of the coffin switch, Inglis said “you hear urban myths” about it happening but he hadn’t seen it himself. “That $1700 coffin was most likely bought from the manufacturer for $400 to $500. They have a 300 to 400 percent mark-up for doing nothing.
“I feel really sorry for the family. My personal opinion, I don’t believe there’s any value in [an expensive] coffin, and I don’t think most families do until a funeral director gets in front of them and starts upselling.”
It’s not the first time Rockhampton has been in the news for questionable funeral practices. In 2011, a Brisbane funeral director was accused of loading his hearse with several bodies and driving eight hours for cheap cremations.
The funeral director was believed to have hatched a deal to pay $100 to $200 per cremation in Rockhampton, but charged the families in Brisbane more than $1000. He was accused of breaching the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act by allegedly falsifying the location and date of cremations.
It comes amid growing calls for greater price transparency in the industry, in which funeral providers are accused of “obfuscating” costs to charge anywhere up to $15,000 to vulnerable families.
“They should disclose prices and have a product information statement, to give people an opportunity to buy only the items they want,” University of Sydney Business School Professor Sandra Van der Laan said last year.
“It’s quite impenetrable. Everybody’s emotionally fragile, people aren’t in a good place to be making what for some is a significant financial decision — because they’ll have to pay it off or borrow money to pay for it.”
At the time, Australia’s biggest funeral provider InvoCare, the parent company of funeral home brands including White Lady, Simplicity and Guardian, defended its pricing while supporting calls for “greater industry-wide transparency."
InvoCare said its operators “provide price transparency upfront so that our customers can select an option to best suit their needs."
“We are fully aware of the vulnerability of people when dealing with the loss of a loved one and we go to great lengths to ensure they have a complete understanding of what service they are to receive, whether it’s the most affordable option or a full-service funeral,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
“InvoCare believes every family has the opportunity to farewell their loved one in the way they would like and to have as much choice available to them.”