Exhumations and payments on the side - cemetery worker’s disregard for due process added to burden of grieving families

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A former Council employee at the Mildura Cemetery Trust misused his position for personal benefit and made careless mistakes that distressed grieving families, Ombudsman Deborah Glass has found. Her investigation looked into allegations about the employee, who worked at Mildura’s Nichols Point and Murray Pines cemeteries from 1993 to August 2018.

She found he:

  • undertook potentially illegal exhumations
  • took money from grieving families for memorial chairs made by his relative
  • received cash payments which were not paid to the Cemetery Trust
  • mismanaged record keeping about where people were buried.

“People engaged in the emotional process of burying a loved one should not face the added burden of those in charge making careless mistakes, breaking the law, or behaving in a manner disrespectful of the departed,” Ms Glass said.

“The seemingly random nature of the transgressions does not diminish their seriousness,” she said. “If anything, the disregard for due process in handling the most sensitive of human experiences – death, grief and remembrance – only amplifies concerns.”

Tabled in the Victorian Parliament this morning, Ms Glass’s Investigation into improper conduct by a Council employee at the Mildura Cemetery Trust details several concerning matters including:

  • A woman was buried in the wrong plot due to the employee’s error. During the funeral, the woman’s daughter was so upset when she noticed her mother being placed in the wrong plot that she needed to be carried away. A few days later, the family faced a second burial, accompanying the coffin as it was moved to the correct plot.
  • The employee sold memorial chairs made by his relative to the loved ones of people who had passed away. The cemetery did not receive any of the sale proceeds, despite the employee creating purported receipts on Trust letterhead. A witness interviewed as part of the Ombudsman investigation described the cemetery as now having ‘an abundance of chairs’.
  • The employee received cash payments on the side from funeral directors to lift ledgers (grave lids), enabling interment of additional people in a single grave. The Trust had not set a fee for this service, which should have been provided by external stonemasons.

She said the employee rationalised some of his actions as being in keeping with the deceased’s or the family’s wishes. “Transgressing regulations, even if rationalised as doing a favour for a grieving family, can do a great disservice to the community,” Ms Glass said. “They undermine public confidence at a time when people are more vulnerable than usual, and where trust and sensitivity are typically assumed.”

She said the employee’s improper conduct was only able to flourish for so long because of inadequate supervision, as well as an absence of governance controls. Ms Glass made five recommendations to Mildura Council and the Mildura Cemetery Trust, all ofwhich have been accepted. They include:

  • referring the employee’s conduct to Victoria Police for investigation
  • providing support to people affected by what has occurred
  • working to improve governance, training and processes for the cemeteries.

In accepting Ms Glass’s recommendations, the Council and the Trust also apologised to affected families. They have put in place arrangements to support everyone who has been impacted. The Ombudsman’s office contacted families who may be directly affected by the report’s contents, to discuss the issues raised prior to its publication.

Read the report here: Investigation into improper conduct by a former Council employee at Mildura Cemetery Trust

Please note: Ms Glass will not be available for interview regarding this investigation, due to it being about an individual’s conduct and the requirement of parliamentary privilege.

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