Funeral homes across UK investigated for mistreatment of dead

Anne Gibson with wrong ashes
Anne Gibson, 66, was given the wrong ashes for her deceased mother by Ashleigh Milne, an independent funeral director with offices in Dumbarton and Balornock in Scotland - TOM FARMER/NEWS GROUP NEWSPAPERS LTD

Funeral homes across the country are being investigated for mistreating the dead, The Telegraph can reveal, fuelling calls for the “Wild West” industry to be regulated.

Six police forces are investigating allegations that bodies have been stored in self-storage units, left to decompose, and ashes have gone missing.

Funeral directors in London, Oxfordshire, Newcastle, Hampshire, East Yorkshire and Scotland are under investigation. In a seventh case, three relatives who ran a Northumberland undertaker have been charged with defrauding customers for allegedly non-existent funeral plans.

Many of the funeral directors under investigation appear to be in financial difficulty. Three have unpaid County Court Judgment debts, while the premises of another were raided after the undertakers failed to pay rent for over a year. One filmed a video of his makeshift premises in a self-storage unit in an apparent attempt to try and drum up investment.

The investigations suggest that the case of a Hull funeral home, where two people were arrested after concerns were raised over the storage and care of dead bodies at a family-run business, is a widespread practice.

Humberside Police recovered 35 bodies and ashes from Legacy Independent Funeral Directors in March after a call reporting “concern for care of the deceased”.

Grant Shields, a Blyth funeral director
Grant Shields, a Blyth funeral director, faces charges alongside Trevor Shields and Kevin Shields including fraud by false representation by selling pre-paid funeral plans on the basis that the money would be held in a separate account, which was false. He has pleaded not guilty - TIM MCGUINNESS

The inquiry has shone a spotlight on an industry that operates without any regulation and no statutory inspection regime for funeral homes. Businesses can choose whether to join trade bodies that carry out these checks.

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) are the two main trade bodies for funeral directors and can strike off members if they find wrongdoing. However, this does not stop them from trading.

‘Grieving families are being left traumatised’

The Government is now facing calls to bring in tighter controls of the funeral industry.

Emma Hardy, the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, who has taken a lead role in trying to get justice for her constituents affected by the Legacy scandal, said on Friday: “There is an urgent need for the funeral sector to be regulated. There are still rogue funeral directors operating in a Wild West industry leaving grieving families traumatised by their experiences.

“The Government was told four years ago by the Competition and Markets Authority that regulation was needed so they need to act urgently.”

The Government said it is “currently reviewing the funeral sector to ensure the highest standards are always met, including looking at options for regulation”. The Ministry of Justice is expected to launch a consultation in the next few months, The Telegraph understands.

In 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority said it had “serious concerns” about the sector and called for the Government to introduce an independent inspection regime as a first step towards regulating funeral directors.

The Telegraph has established that concerns have been raised about the way bodies have been treated in funeral homes in regions all over the country.

The Metropolitan Police arrested Victor Perry, 52, after four bodies were recovered from a self-storage unit in North West London during the unprecedented heatwave in the summer of 2022 when temperatures soared to 40 degrees in the capital.

In a video seen by The Telegraph purportedly showing the funeral director giving a tour of his storage unit, Mr Perry gestures to a blanket with a pillow on top and says “look at that, you wouldn’t even know there was a body there”. In another shot, a body is lying on what appears to be a pallet on the floor with a small office fan by its feet.

He added: “So it is four bodies in total I have here. But they’ve been all hygienically treated … I keep the place fresh, and clean. As you can see it’s bloody spotless up here. All the bodies are embalmed, I’ve put ice on each of them. They’ve been ice-packed.”

When approached by The Telegraph, Mr Perry said: “The day before the bodies were being transported, that’s when somebody informed the police and said that I had them on pallets. They weren’t on pallets, they were on stretchers.”

He added: “In that storage unit, they were there for about a week. But all the bodies were embalmed. Some were meant to

be cremated, some were meant to be buried.”

After The Telegraph asked the Metropolitan Police for an update on the investigation a spokesman said detectives expected to pass a file to the Crown Prosecution Service “later this month in relation to an offence of fraud by false representation”.

The deaths are not being treated as suspicious.

Victor Perry
Victor Perry, a 52-year-old funeral director, was arrested in 2022 after four bodies were recovered from a self-storage unit in North West London

Police in Oxfordshire raided two premises in Didcot and Wantage last month, reportedly removing two bodies.

Matthew Norris, whose mother Angela died in November 2020, told The Telegraph that his family’s experience with the funeral home had been “a nightmare from start to finish”.

He added: “When we went to visit [the funeral director] had dressed my mother’s body wrong and instead of doing what a normal funeral director would do, which is to say ‘Oh, I’ll fix that’ he just asked us to help him lift her up to change it.”

“We had her body brought back to our house overnight before the funeral. He had done the makeup on her but he had spilt it over her clothes … When she arrived at the house her body was very degraded and the way he had put makeup on her face was horrific. So much so that another funeral director came out and fixed it for free. They were absolutely horrified at the state of the body.”

‘Shocking lack of regulation’

Mr Norris said the lack of regulation of the funeral industry is “frankly shocking”.

Other customers complained about their care, with one family writing in a Google review: “The stress [and] upset this man has given us. Dropped my late father in wet mud, never cleaned him. My brother and brother-in-law had to carry their own father out to the hearse with just a bed sheet over him. No body bag provided. Coffin too small, list goes on.”

A spokesman for Thames Valley Police said its focus was on fraud offences and one offence of prevention of a lawful and decent burial relating to one individual.

He added: “At this stage of the investigation we have found no evidence of any criminal offence and no arrests have been made. While the investigation is ongoing the funeral directors are unable to carry out any business.”

Two decomposing bodies were found by bailiffs who entered the Elkin and Bell Funerals home in Gosport, Hampshire, in December after the undertakers failed to pay rent for more than a year.

Christopher Lucas-Jones, founder and managing director of Absolute Enforcement, told The Telegraph that his agents were “shocked” when they discovered the corpses at the back of the shop under some plastic sheeting.

He said his staff noticed there was a “strong smell, which alerted them that there was a problem”, adding: “Then when they went around to the back they moved some plastic sheeting and saw that there were two bodies that had been left there, decomposing.”

A Hampshire Police spokesman said officers were investigating after receiving a report in December and had arrested a man and woman in their forties “on suspicion of fraud and preventing the lawful and decent burial of a dead body”. They have been bailed with conditions until June while enquiries continue.

Patricia Alison, the mother of Anne and Brian Gibson
Patricia Alison, the mother of Anne and Brian Gibson. Her daughter claims she was not given the correct ashes by A Milne Funeral Directors in Scotland

In Newcastle, police officers raided the In Loving Memory funeral parlour in August 2022. A Northumbria Police spokesman said a man in his twenties, named Jordan Lillie, was arrested on suspicion of preventing a lawful and decent burial.

Mr Lillie denied any wrongdoing and said he could not comment on specifics while the investigation is ongoing.

Police Scotland have launched an investigation into A Milne Funeral Directors after several families reported allegations of ashes going missing and financial misconduct.

Anne Gibson told the BBC she had an urn of what she believed were her mother’s ashes in her house for five months before being told her ashes were still at the crematorium.

A Police Scotland spokesman said that they were investigating the “storage/return of cremated remains and allegations of financial misconduct”.

In Northumberland, three former undertakers are facing trial next year for funeral plan fraud.

Trevor Shields, Grant Shields and Kevin Shields, who ran K&T Shields Funeral Directors, face charges which span a decade including fraud by false representation by selling pre-paid funeral plans on the basis that the money would be held in a separate account, which was false. Trevor Shields has withheld his pleas, but the other two men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Additional reporting by Cameron Henderson