Co-operative Funeralcare apologises after Dispatches investigation


Co-operative Funeralcare - the UK's biggest funeral company - has apologised and launched an inquiry after an undercover investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches exposed ‘shocking' treatment of the deceased and pressure selling to the bereaved.

Undercover Undertaker - Channel 4 Dispatches, which airs Monday 25th June at 8pm, reveals an industrial approach to funerals; cases of chaotic and undignified practices for storing and transporting remains; and staff lying to a grieving family.

The programme also hears from a family that had a funeral of their mother ruined when the Co-operative Funeralcare director stopped proceedings because the coffin and the lady in the coffin was not that of their loved one.

In an interview with the Channel 4 Dispatches George Tinning, Managing Director of Co-operative Funeralcare, says he was ‘shocked and disappointed' by the things uncovered, and has launched an inquiry to address these issues. However, he defended the use of industrial warehouses - known in hubs - ‘premises fitted out to a high standard' and ‘not unique to the Co-operative.'

Industrial Hubs

When your loved one passes away, you might expect them to stay in a Chapel of Rest. The Co-operative Funeralcare website says that the deceased can rest in peace in ‘one of their funeral homes'.

However, what they don't tell you is they could end up in a hub where bodies from more than a dozen Co-operative Funeralcare branches are brought for storage, and preparation, before the day of the funeral.

Over three weeks, our undercover reporter worked in Hampshire, as a funeral service operative to reveal funeral care on an industrial scale.

Instead of working in a funeral home - our man was based at a hub in a large industrial estate just off the M3.

This Co-operative Funeralcare hub is a huge warehouse containing a garage with a fleet of limousines and hearse, storage rooms for dozens of coffins; and a large refrigerated area - that was the mortuary, with rack upon rack of bodies.

From day one - he was expected to handle bodies and carry coffins with no formal training. He saw bodies being slid in and out of the rack just centimetres apart. Some were uncovered. He also experienced a chaotic working environment with staff rushed off their feet.

Professor Geoffrey Woodroffe, the former funeral ombudsman says: "I had no idea, that they're treating people as if they're stacking television sets really."

"I'd hate to think that a member of my family would have been treated in that way. No, I find it shocking."

"I think everybody watching this footage will be terribly surprised...Obviously, it makes it commercially more profitable... I think perhaps the funeral directors ought to alert the public as to what would be happening to the deceased", adds Geoffrey Woodroffe.

Lack of care while transporting the deceased

Many families choose to view their loved ones one last time. At the hub in Hampshire it means another trip for the deceased - of up to 30 miles - back to the funeral home.

Our undercover reporter filmed rushed staff treating bodies like luggage.

On one occasion staff had to take four bodies to the funeral home in Reading - including two bodies that were due to be visited by family that particular day.

After two minutes trying to make enough space, a solution was found. The only way staff could get four coffins into the van, was to lift the lid of one of the coffins resulting in a deceased old lady's nose being centimetres away from the van's upper platform. On arrival at the funeral home staff unloaded the lid-less casket in full view of a block of flats, with one member of staff trying to hold the lid over the casket to preserve some dignity.

The code issued by the National Association of Funeral Directors, or NAFD, states that: ‘all funeral directors must act in a courteous, sensitive, dignified and professional manner'.

Professor Geoffrey Woodroffe says: "I'll tell you what I think, that isn't dignified, it isn't sensitive. I'd be shocked if I thought that any member of my family, my mother and father had been treated in that way... There is an act called the Supply of Goods and Services act...and that says that a service, and this is a service, should be carried out with reasonable care and skill. Well I can't see there's care and skill going on there, it's chaotic."

Channel 4 Dispatches asked Co-operative Funeralcare's managing director George Tinning, exactly what he thought of a body being transported without a coffin lid. He says: "It's not right, it's not right. Shouldn't happen and we will address that. I'm very sorry about that. That is not the way that we would behave and certainly not the way I would want our funeral directors to behave."

Tinning adds: "Lies have no place in our organisation. We pride ourselves on being open and honest. We will investigate that and deal with it appropriately.

When asked how honest and transparent is the Co-operative the hub, Tinning says:

"The hub is a bit of a misnomer. It's an industry term, and if I can put it in context, it's not unique to the Co-operative.... We have over 150 hubs that we have up and down the land, we have six that are not at, associated with funeral homes.... I don't believe it's industrial, I believe the premises are fitted out to a high standard...I think the key here is the care that we take with the deceased when they are in our premises.

In response to criticism that Co-operative Funeralcare literature was misleading, Tinning says: "If we need to address that impression and change it, and change the literature to, make them more aware of the process, we'll do that."

Pressure selling

In Hayes, Middlesex, another Channel 4 Dispatches undercover reporter worked front of house as a funeral arranger. Behind the scenes this branch also served as a hub for 16 branches - storing up to 40 deceased in a refrigerated area.

Under the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) Code of Practice - every funeral director must offer a simple funeral service. At Co-operative Funeralcare this package is called ‘the basic' which should be offered to every customer.

But in Hayes, our undercover reporter, and another trainee, were told by an area manager not to mention the basic package to customers.

"It's virtually a council funeral, but we just call it a basic funeral. You try never ever to sell it [Basic funeral package].... Don't mention it", the area manager says. "The bottom line is we're a business and we need to make money".

And even if the customer does request the basic - staff were told they still needed permission from management, because as manager put it "It's to stop people doing it. Bottom line is we're a business and we need to make money."

Despite costing £2010, our reporter was also told the basic package wasn't flexible.

It was at a set time, and no extras, such as a limousine or some flowers could be added. Even providing some clothes for the deceased to wear at the funeral is barred.

"He should be training them to offer the full range of services and the full prices. He's doing quite the reverse. He's actually saying to them you'd better break the [NAFD] code because that's more profitable."

Other staff in the branch told our undercover reporter that the pressure on basic funerals came from above.

Member of staff says: "What are you doing basic funerals for, why can't you up it a little bit? That's what they [Co-operative Funeralcare management] want you to do. They want you to sell, sell, sell."

Under the NAFD code, arrangers: "mustn't pressurise or exploit clients in the difficult circumstances following a bereavement".

However our reporter was also given sales training in how to sell the more expensive coffins and witnessed the pressure selling of unnecessary embalming called hygienic treatment to bereaving families.

Professor Geoffrey Woodroffe: "There's a clear breach of the code there...because the code says, I'm paraphrasing, that the funeral director should use their best endeavours to ensure that the customer is aware of the full range of services, including prices."

Channel 4 Dispatches asked Co-operative Funeralcare about their approach to sales. They say they had statistics showing coffins sold across the range, from the cheapest to the most expensive. They also told us that managers should offer basic funerals to all customers.

Consumer Protection Regulations should prevent traders from engaging in aggressive or misleading sales tactics.

Co-operative Funeralcare's managing director George Tinning says: "It should be about customer choice, the customer will choose which coffin they require, and which level of service".

"It [pressure to sell] is happening and I have said I'm sorry about that and I will address it."

"I'm very proud of the operation which I run, but equally so, I'm shocked and disappointed by the things that you've uncovered, and in order to address those items I have launched an inquiry... This is not representative of the service we provide....I've got customer client feedback telling me that we provide a great service to the bereaved and to the deceased," he adds.

Facts about Co-operative Funeralcare

The UK funeral market is worth £1.2billion a year. With glossy ads and 900 funeral homes nationwide, the Co-operative Funeralcare is Britain's biggest funeral director. Last year they helped more than 100,000 of us say goodbye to the ones we love, and they posted profits of over £52million.

Case Study

A family speak out about after a funeral of their mother wasruined when the Co-operative Funeralcare director stopped proceedings because the coffin and the lady in the coffin was not that of their loved one.

Like many families, Mandy Rowden and her family turned to the Co-op after the sudden loss of their mother Olwyn three years ago.

Mandy Rowden says: "The Co-op has always been in our world as the funeral place to go."

On the day of the funeral, at Teeside Crematorium, everyone gathered as the coffin was lifted from the hearse. But then the Funeral Director suddenly stopped proceedings.

Sync Mandy Rowden says: "He just sort of pushed her back in again. I said what's he doing that for? And then the vicar came out to me and said we've got a bit of a problem. And she informed me that the coffin and the lady in the coffin wasn't my mum.... I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it."

The mourners were told there would be a delay while Olwyn was located. Thirty minutes later, funeral staff returned, but not in a hearse, but in a van.

Mandy Rowden says: "Me mam arrived in just a van basically. They just swapped bodies over. But, they forgot to put the flowers on me mam...the other lady got them."

Olwyn's funeral could finally go ahead. But it was far from the perfect send off the family had planned.

Mandy Rowden says: "It was awful. Terrible. It's just like a recurring dream. And it's never going to go. Because I can't do nowt about it. I can't change it. I can't make it right for my mam or my brothers."

The Co-operative Funeralcare apologised - waived the costs, paid compensation, and disciplined staff members...but the damage had already been done.

Mandy Rowden says: "I couldn't cry because I was so angry. When I should have been thinking about mam. Should have been about her. But it wasn't. It was about the co-op screwing up."

Undercover Undertaker - Channel 4 Dispatches, Monday 25th June at 8pm

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