Co-operative undertaker inquiry after documentary

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co-operative air balloon and funeral directorDavid Parry/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Tonight's Dispatches on Channel 4 will apparently expose some shocking goings-on at a warehouse owned by Co-operative Funeralcare - the country's biggest funeral company.

So what went on, and why are customers so shocked?

Big business

Co-operative Funeralcare is a massive business, organising over 100,000 funerals a year and running 1100 funeral homes. One in four people will use the service at some point.

The organisation arranges funerals themselves, and also offers advance payment funeral plans, where you can pay a single sum of up to £3,620 to ensure your loved ones don't have to fork out, or you can spread the cost over 12,24 or 36 months. Business is booming when it comes to funerals, and Co-operative Funeralcare saw a 34% increase in sales of its most expensive plans in 2011.

In order to service such a large business, it operates a number of warehouses known as 'hubs' where bodies are stored in a huge refrigerated area - side by side with the funeral cars and coffins.

The documentary

The programme, Undercover Undertaker, filmed undercover at one such 'hub' and outlines how bodies are stacked in huge racks. If a relative requested to see a body it would be transported to the relevant funeral home, where the relative would assume the body was being stored in a more traditional setting.

Reporter, Jackie Long, said ahead of the programme going out: "We discovered funerals on an industrial scale. The bodies of the deceased, not lying in a silk-lined coffin at a chapel of rest as their relatives thought, but stacked in metal racks in a warehouse or 'hub', as it's known in the industry."

Disrespect

She also said she had seen some practices which failed to show due respect to the dead. She described one: "As one elderly woman's coffin is to be transported from the 'hub', staff are forced to take the lid off her coffin. As they squeeze the coffin into the packed van, the sight of her exposed face just centimetres from the coffin above is really uncomfortable viewing."

And she said there was evidence of chaos in the system, which in one instance meant the wrong body was delivered to a funeral.

Finally, she alleged that staff were trained in the art of selling more expensive options. She says: "In the programme we see staff under pressure to sell. They tell our undercover reporter how they're actively encouraged not to tell customers about the cheapest funeral package the company sells."

The managing director of Co-operative Funeralcare George Tinning, told reporters that it was not representative of the service his company offers and has ordered an immediate investigation.

A spokesman added: "We are shocked and disappointed by the information provided to us by this programme, which goes against everything we stand for. We do not believe that the instances shown in the programme are representative of our many caring staff. We have however, launched an immediate investigation into the programme's findings and will take any action necessary to ensure our high standards and our policy of enabling clients to make informed choices is maintained.

"We will also seek the independent views of the National Association of Funeral Directors on these issues. We will not tolerate any individual actions which undermine the professionalism and commitment shown by our staff to the bereaved on a daily basis."

The programme is being shown on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight.

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