SCANDAL: Browns Funerals' Branyan Gardens crematorium
SCANDAL: Browns Funerals' Branyan Gardens crematorium PAUL BEUTEL

Claims of coffin swapping in Bundaberg

A COFFIN-SWAPPING scandal has widened with fresh allegations lodged with Fair Trading regulators that a Bundaberg funeral business routinely removed bodies from coffins, which were then "recycled".

The NewsMail can reveal that former employees of F.C. Brown & Co, which also trades as Browns Funerals, have alleged it was "standard practice" to remove bodies from coffins ahead of cremation so the coffins could be re-used.

The former employees have signed statutory declarations, claiming they either witnessed or took part in the practice.

They have asked to remain anonymous but are willing to co-operate with any investigation.

Their statements were yesterday forwarded, at their request, to the Office of Fair Trading.

Fair Trading has an ongoing investigation into an alleged coffin swap at Rockhampton-based Harts Family Funerals, which in January was accused of switching a $1700 coffin for a $70 pine box but police found no evidence to substantiate a criminal charge.

The former Browns Funerals staff worked at the company's Branyan Gardens crematorium as recently as late 2016.

One of the staff claims to have been directed to transfer bodies from their coffins on to a sheet of MDF board for cremation, with the coffin then moved to a storage room to be recycled.

This was in contrast to the usual procedure of burning the body in the coffin.

"The deceased were lying on the board, which had no sides or coverings when put in the cremator," the former employee said. "This became standard practice."

The worker described "rolling" the bodies out of the coffins on to the board as a "disgusting task".

"I felt it was an undignified way to treat the deceased. I also held concerns about whether this process undermined procedures to contain any leakage.

"The removal of bodies from coffins would occur anywhere from one to five times a shift."

Company owner Michael Brown confirmed that bodies were transferred out of coffins on to "cremation trays" for "many years", but insisted only when the deceased was in a "rental coffin".

"The practice of using a tray was used for many years, but we stopped that practice because it was an open tray. So, we now use the closed cardboard coffin," he said.

Mr Brown said the rental system involved using a "ceremonial coffin" that was later "brought back, stripped back, re-lined and used again."

He said rental coffins, used at "our discretion", had been used for at least 10 years, but "job sheets" identifying when a coffin was a rental were only introduced after a "tightening up" of the practice one to two years ago.

"This is a more recent tightening up of what we are doing, where we used to just give a verbal advice as to whether it was a presentation (hire coffin) or whether it was purchased outright, in which case it would be cremated," he said. He denied re-using fully purchased coffins.

"I believe we've done the right thing all the way. You've been given wrong information," he said.

The former employees who spoke to The Courier-Mail say they were unaware of any coffin rental scheme and were not told if a coffin was rented or bought.

Another former employee, Bill Dorron, who worked at Browns for 30 years before retiring two years ago, also contradicted Mr Brown, denying the company had rented coffins.

But he also denied removing bodies from any coffins or cremating bodies on MDF board.

"It's all bulls---," he said. "Once you're in that coffin, that's it. Every coffin gets burnt."

A photograph obtained by The Courier-Mail showed the crematorium's "viewing-room" window, through which bereaved families could watch cremations, obscured by heavy furniture.

Mr Brown said it could be "shifted to one side".

Queensland Funeral Directors Association president Anton Brown said it was "unethical" and "bloody ridiculous" for coffins to be rented. He said it raised health and safety issues.

Mr Brown said he had never heard of coffins being rented.

He has called for the Palaszczuk Government to look at regulating the industry to stamp out issues such as "coffin swapping."

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