Police investigate shocking 'coffin switch' claim
JANICE Cecilia Valigura's family wanted to give the Rockhampton woman the funeral she deserved.
After Mrs Valigura's New Year's Eve death from a stroke, the 74-year-old's loved ones gathered and decided on a "gorgeous" silky oak casket, lined with white silk and ornate religious features, costing $1700.
But the family says things went horribly wrong after Mrs Valigura's coffin was switched to a $70 pine box shortly before cremation.
Capricornia Crime Coordinator Detective Inspector Darrin Shadlow yesterday said police were investigating a complaint of fraud against a Rockhampton funeral business.
The owner of Harts Family Funerals, Tony Hart, yesterday declined to comment.
The close family of Mrs Valigura, a devout Catholic, joined more than 100 people to farewell her at a special Requiem Mass at St Mary's Catholic Church, North Rockhampton on Monday.
A priest blessed the coffin before it was carried out by Mrs Valigura's grandchildren and taken to the Rockhampton crematorium.
But the family was told there would be a delay in the body arriving there.
Kerry Rothery, Mrs Valigura's niece and god- daughter, said when the coffin finally arrived "an hour late", a family friend saw the cheap box and thought something was wrong.
He called Ms Rothery about the coffin, questioning the choice.
"He knew the family would have gone to a huge effort to give Janice a respectful send-off and what she was put in was absolutely degrading to my aunty," Ms Rothery said.
She immediately contacted the crematorium to postpone cremation so she could see the casket for herself.
Upon arrival, Ms Rothery said the top of the casket had been screwed in place.
She said Ms Valigura had been wrapped in plastic in the cheaper coffin, silk wrap discarded.
Ms Rothery said family members, including son Mick, met Mr Hart the next day where they claim he told them the practice was "commonplace".
A number of industry business owners said the proper practice was for someone to be cremated in the casket that had been purchased.
While one industry owner yesterday said he had heard less reputable funeral operators did make switches in the largely unregulated field, others said it was an industry myth with little substantiating evidence.
Owner of Fitzroy Funerals, Colin Dean, said there had been talk in recent years of coffins being switched.
"There has been talk about this happening, but I'm not aware of anyone reporting this," Mr Dean said.
He encouraged people to always use funeral directors who were part of larger industry associations that upheld certain standards.
A spokeswoman for White Lady Funerals said they believed coffin switches were a myth and they had seen no evidence that it happened.
Meanwhile, Whitsunday Funerals and Crematorium managing director Jeff Boyle said the industry lacked regulations. "It happens far more often than people think, I've seen it happen myself," he said.
*After an investigation, police cleared Mr Hart and Harts Family Funerals of legal wrongdoing and said they would not be laying charges.
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