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The Coffin Chasers
Broadcast: 14/10/2002

Reporter: Janine Cohen

They were total strangers who died just a day apart. The 100-year-old woman was to be cremated, the 65-year-old man buried.

But the man was cremated. And the woman was placed in the man’s coffin and buried in his cemetery plot - but only after two heavy bricks were slipped into the coffin to fool the pallbearers.

The incident might seem like black comedy but these people’s families must now suffer hurt, insult and anger on top of their grief. 

As Four Corners reveals, this is not an isolated case – certainly not for the funeral industry generally, not even for the individual funeral director responsible.

It’s just one example of the mix-ups, cover-ups and sleazy practices that beset Australia’s funeral business.

Despite its grey exterior, a large and growing slice of the funeral business is being run by cowboy operators in pursuit of a quick dollar. The industry is now worth $700 million a year; that number is expected to double as the baby boomers thin out. 

This Four Corners investigation shows how unscrupulous operators are thriving in a trade that has almost completely escaped regulation.

If you want to set up as a funeral director, about all you need in most states are a mobile phone and a station wagon. 

Now reputable operators are so concerned that they are demanding government action to help clean up an industry plagued by incompetence, kickbacks and rorts.

It’s a trade where some practitioners exhibit outright contempt for the dignity of the dead and the sensibilities of loved ones: squashing bodies into coffins, preparing them in the back yard open air, leaving bodies naked or in body bags rather than dressing them, leaving a man’s ashes on his widow’s doorstep, misusing pre-paid funeral money, touting for new business… and worse.

Reporter-producer Janine Cohen meets bereaved families and industry insiders who reveal the dark side of the funeral game, then confronts the funeral bosses with the evidence.

"The Coffin Chasers" was first broadcast on ABC TV on Monday 14 October, 2002.

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