Hart-felt apology after cops clear Rocky funeral director
FUNERAL director Tony Hart has apologised to the Rockhampton family at the centre of a "coffin switching” complaint after police dropped their investigation.
Mr Hart, catapulted into worldwide headlines in the wake of the saga, denied his business had ever coffin swapped, instead detailing a series of events that led to an "unfortunate mistake”.
The Hart Family Funeral director said Janice Valigura's body had been moved into the cheaper coffin to prevent the expensive coffin's lacquer cracking when it was moved into a cold room.
The family of Ms Valigura claimed the 74-year-old's body was switched from a $1700 silky oak coffin into a $70 pine box between her funeral service and cremation.
The family is expected to issue their own statement later today (Thursday) and has indicated it will push further for law changes.
"In future, we will never take another body out of a coffin before cremation for any reason, to ensure this never happens again on our watch,” Mr Hart said.
"Dignity, respect and care have been the hallmarks of our business for the past eight years, and we are determined to learn from our mistakes while continuing to provide our services to the Rockhampton community.”
Mr Hart's statement came after police concluded there was "no evidence to substantiate a criminal offence”.
In issuing a heartfelt apology to the bereaved family, Mr Hart called for tougher funeral industry regulations and said he had donated $3000 to the Independent Funeral Directors Association of Australia to "take the first steps towards making that regulation a reality”.
Fitzroy Funeral Homes director Colin Dean, who raised the concerns, says investigations into "coffin swapping” in the funeral industry must continue despite police not laying charges. He said he had "never heard” of a body being moved out of a coffin to avoid it cracking.
"This is a very major issue in the industry. It's ridiculously major,” he said.
"I ran a funeral home in Charters Towers - it doesn't get much hotter.
"I have never, ever, ever heard of a coffin cracking because of the heat. And even if it did - it's about to be cremated, it shouldn't be a problem.”
Mr Hart said when Harts Family Funerals realised the mistake it acted quickly to rectify it, with Mrs Valigura being cremated the same day in her original coffin.
"Like many summer days in Rockhampton, Monday 8 January was a hot day,” he said.
"The Valigura family held a private viewing of Mrs Valigura prior to her funeral and as the body was returned to the Harts Family Funerals mortuary, the eight-hour time limit set by Queensland Workplace Health and Safety for a body to be out of the cold room was approaching.
"There was no plan for the family to attend the cremation, as they had already blessed the coffin and said their farewells.”
Mr Hart said due to a mechanical breakdown of the Harts Family Funerals transfer vehicle earlier that hot day and a desire to preserve the body and expensive coffin, Mrs Valigura's body was placed inside a "transporter shell” before being transferred to a cold room.
"This was never intended to be permanent, and was simply a step taken to stop the lacquer on the expensive coffin from shattering (in going from 32+ degree heat to the 4-degree cold room),” he said.
"The transporter shell coffin was placed in the cold room with a cloth cover and flower arrangement on it, and the expensive coffin was placed beside the cold room with a similar cloth cover for protection.
"When Mrs Valigura was taken out of the cold room and transferred to the crematorium, the two similar cloth covers meant our employee was unaware that Mrs Valigura was still in the transporter coffin and not in her intended coffin.”
"The family was advised of the mistake and witnessed the cremation of Mrs Valigura in her original coffin.”
Mr Hart said his primary concern was for the well-being of the impacted family, as well as ensuring a situation like this never arose again.
"After apologising to them privately as well as publicly, we ask that their privacy now be respected by the media as they continue to mourn the passing of their beloved mother, grandmother, aunt and friend,” he said.
Mr Hart said he was not concerned about any potential detrimental effect to his business, before admitting it had been a stressful week for his small team.
"I'm not concerned at all (about negative fallout) because of the support we've had from the families who have been calling us and the ministries of this town supporting us,” he said.
"I'm more concerned with the conditions of the families who have been left with misconstrued stories that have been caused by the media.”