The Queensland funeral industry has been rocked by the public response to a ‘coffin swap’ incident in Rockhampton that has raised questions about inadequate state regulations.
Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA) spokesman Darryn Eddy has kicked off debate about improving industry standards in Queensland, saying New South Wales has led the way in improving outcomes for bereaved families.
“We would certainly like to see some strengthening and uniformity across the country so that everybody is on the same page, has the correct facilities and properly trained staff,” he told ABC Radio Brisbane.
“It hasn’t really been a high priority because [governments] look at the amount of complaints each year and there’s not a huge amount of complaints made to Fair Trading and government health departments.”
Family shocked that oak coffin was swapped for pine
The comments come after police confirmed they are investigating whether a grandmother’s $1700 oak coffin was switched to a pine box for cremation, after a funeral service in central Queensland.
Janice Valigura, 74, died on New Year’s Eve and was farewelled at a funeral service in Rockhampton on Monday.
Her family had bought a top-of-the-range silky oak casket as part of the funeral package.
Ms Valigura’s son Mick said they were told there would be a delay in moving the body from the church to the crematorium. But when the family arrived at the crematorium one of the mourners noticed the casket had been swapped for a $70 pine box.
Mr Valigura said the family was devastated but the undertaker told him it was common practice. He said police officers had taken photos of both coffins as part of an investigation.
Detective Sergeant Craig Strohfeldt said it was the first time Rockhampton police had heard of such allegations.
“I’ve never received a complaint of this nature … It’s quite unusual,” he said. He labelled the complaint “shocking” and said police were taking it seriously.
Regulations in Queensland are unclear
Lisa Herbert, an ABC journalist, blogger and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: An After Death Action Plan, said none of the acts responsible for regulating the industry in Queensland provided clear guidance for families.
“Unlike most of the other states, Queensland has a really confusing web of rules and regulations and blaring omissions,” she said.
“There was a cemeteries act that was repealed back in the 1990s with the intention of introducing thorough legislation soon after but that still hasn’t been worked on.
“Instead a lot of local governments now have responsibility for those cemeteries.”
Dying in Queensland – industry lacks oversight
You don’t have to hold a licence to be involved in the funeral industry in the Sunshine State.
People who decide to start a business have to abide by a list of legal standards, including Australian Consumer Law and workplace health and safety, but the process of opening shop is much less difficult than in other states and territories.
Ms Herbert said this had led to a perception that grieving families couldn’t be properly protected.
“In Victoria, for example, anything to do with the funeral industry, crematoriums and cemeteries, are government regulated,” she said.
There isn’t that desire for anyone to make a quick buck because there’s no incentive, the government owns the crematoriums, whereas in Queensland they’re privately operated.”
AFDA agreed this was an area worth addressing.
“In Queensland you are pretty much able to put a shingle up and say, ‘Here I am, I’m a funeral director’,” Mr Eddy said.
There are now calls for the state government to form an independent, non-government board to inspect these businesses. Mr Eddy said it was a practice already happening in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.
“The mortuary must be listed with the government and it’s inspected every 12 months,” he said.
Funeral directors not bound by code of conduct
In Queensland, there are limits to what you can do if you believe a funeral director is ripping you off.
AFDA recommends contacting the Office of Fair Trading if you suspect someone has breached the industry’s code of conduct.
The code recommends funeral directors “not deceive, defraud or otherwise harm a client, peers or the community” and “conduct their business with the utmost competency and integrity”. However, Mr Eddy said there was no mechanism to stop directors from trading if they are reported by a client.
“Unfortunately … there is no facility for any action to be taken should it be found that a funeral director isn’t doing those things,” he said.
More people opting for no-frills funerals
Ms Herbert said it was hard for Queenslanders to find out their rights when laying loved ones to rest but that the industry was improving.
Many funeral directors now publish pricing information on their websites and are more transparent about services they do and don’t offer.
But she said in the past five years she had noticed more people turning away from funeral homes and caring for their dead loved ones at home.
“No-frills funerals are really taking off,” she said.