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Funeral industry 'a mess' and rife with 'dodgy' operators - insiders

Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a senior reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Regulations for the funeral sector cannot come soon enough say a group of insiders who are trying to blow the whistle on "dodgy" managers and practices and are desperate for sweeping changes to clean up the industry and provide better protection and support for workers.

They say some of the practices they see on a daily basis are "appalling" and grieving families would be "disgusted" if they knew what was going on behind the scenes.

Some industry workers have even gone as far as reporting their bosses to the Serious Fraud Office and IRD in a bid to stop what they say is "morally and ethically" bad behaviour including mismanaging funeral prepayments and cash payments and fiddling with records to hide transactions.

They say the "hard" industry is also rife with bullying and threats, stressed out staff who are overworked and underpaid and not afforded any kind of pastoral care.

The Herald has spoken to a number of sources within the industry in the Canterbury area who do not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

They have also asked that their employers are not named as they are terrified of what may happen if they speak out.

They say they are at their wit's end and want - and need support - going forward.

Alongside treatment of staff, the group raised the issue of mismanagement of money - and accused some directors of fraud and blatant theft.

In one case the Herald has viewed evidence showing how money families had prepaid for funerals was spent by managers on personal expenses and only paid back after the death of the person the money was for.

A text message shown to the Herald confirmed more than $200,000 was owed to prepaid accounts at one point.

The funeral services went ahead as planned and the money was eventually returned - but the sources said it was "appalling" and created stress, mistrust and anxiety among staff who knew what was going on behind the scenes and had to work with the unwitting families.

Sources in Christchurch claim prepayments and cash handed over for funerals are often misappropriated. Photo / 123RF
Sources in Christchurch claim prepayments and cash handed over for funerals are often misappropriated. Photo / 123RF

Sources also spoke of cases where they had seen families pay for funerals in cash that was "pocketed and not put through the books".

They say not all funeral directors are problematic but the issues are widespread in the industry as it was currently completely unregulated.

The issues around the handling of money were reported to the Serious Fraud Office but it fell short of their threshold for an investigation.

It is understood the IRD is now looking into the financial operations of at least one South Island funeral home after staff alleged there were "serious breaches" of the law.

The Ministry of Health was "concerned" about the issues raised by the whistleblowers and hoped to engage with them directly.

"The people you have spoken to, or others working in the industry who have had similar experiences, are welcome to contact the ministry in confidence about this," a spokesperson said.

"We can take their experiences into consideration when considering our proposals for regulating the funeral sector."

That regulation may come later this year after an extensive and long awaited review.

In 2015 the New Zealand Law Commission published its report Death, Burial and Cremation: A new law for contemporary New Zealand, making 127 recommendations to modernise the law that governs death, burial, cremation and funerals.

Sources say money is commonly misappropriated across the industry. Photo / 123RF
Sources say money is commonly misappropriated across the industry. Photo / 123RF

In 2016, the then-Government accepted most of the Law Commission's recommendations - but directed officials to undertake further policy work and consultation on specific elements.

In October 2019 Cabinet agreed to release a consultation document proposing - among other things - regulation of the funeral services sector.

That consultation, overseen by the Ministry of Health, opened in November 2019.

It was due to close in February last year but was extended to the end of October due to Covid-19.

The ministry spokesperson said 196 submissions were received - and more may be called for.

"These submissions are currently being analysed," they said.

"As part of this, we will be identifying if any additional targeted consultation may be required – for example, if we need further information to identify the preferred options for change.

"At this stage, we anticipate finalising the analysis of submissions and providing advice to ministers in the second half of this year."

The insiders said the industry desperately needs a strict body of rules to prevent staff - and families of the dead - being "used and abused".

One source said the industry was "a real mess".

"We are all here because we are passionate about the job and the families - but we are not looked after, we are not respected," he said.

"The families have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, what we are putting up with.

"Enough is enough, it's just so wrong."

He said some people high up in the industry were "just evil".

"And they need to be exposed.

"We've had enough and we want to get this issue out there… Good people are leaving the industry in droves, they just don't want to be associated with these sorts of pigs.

"Behind closed doors, it's horrible."

Another said the behaviour would not be tolerated in other industries, but because death was still "such a taboo subject" people were loath to talk about it.

"But it's 2021 and we need to talk about it - people are pushing back all around the world at the moment and telling their truth, people have had enough and so have we," she said.

"What they are doing with the money… it might not be illegal but the fact is, it happened and there needs to be changes in the industry - it's long overdue, these guys need a kick in the ass."

There is no union or governing body ruling over the funeral industry in New Zealand. Photo / 123RF
There is no union or governing body ruling over the funeral industry in New Zealand. Photo / 123RF

The insiders turned to the Herald as they felt no one else would listen to them.

While some had raised the issues directly with managers, others were too scared to speak up.

"We have to deal with enough stuff in this job - grieving families and seeing the things we see - it's a heavy job," said one.

"To be treated like this, it's not good enough."

Another woman said the lack of regulation and what some people got away with was "a joke".

"I was bullied [when I raised the issues] because ethically and morally what they were doing didn't sit well with me.

"The whole industry is turning to s**t."

The group said people who chose to work in the funeral industry - especially those in Christchurch who had been confronted with mass death over the past decade after the fatal 2011 quake and the 2019 terror attack - were "inherently kind and empathetic".

So seeing things operate behind the scenes as they were now was upsetting.

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood said the situation was "concerning".

He said MBIE's free Early Resolution service is available to any employer or employee and could help resolve a workplace issue "early, quickly and informally".

Further, Employment Services can provide information on employment rights, and what employees and businesses can do in the event of a dispute and WorkSafe also had advice on what steps employees can take and who to talk to for support.

DO YOU NEED HELP

The Ministry of Health is concerned by the issues raised by funeral industry insiders.

They say people with similar or other concerns are welcome to contact the ministry >in confidence about this.

Anyone who wishes to speak out can contact: burialandcremation@health.govt.nz

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