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Workers push for better standards in Queensland death-care industry

Better standards: “Our goal is to get people in the industry singing off the same hymn sheet.”

A SENIOR professional in the death-care industry says Queensland’s laws are “failing dismally” to protect bereaved families, while putting the health of industry workers at risk.

“There are minimum standards that associations like ours, and funeral directors would like to have in place,” Brisbane’s Nudgee Cemetery manager David Molloy, who is a board member of the Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association, said.

Mr Molloy said transparency and tight regulations were needed because, for most families, the grief and vulnerability that followed a death was often accompanied by impaired ability to make informed decisions.

He said legislation was needed to better regulate family entitlements to graves; exhumations; the storing and disposal of ashes; and, for safety’s sake, the most critical issue, the disposal of bodies in crematoria.

Unregulated practices have allowed the cremation of people who have radiation in their bodies because of past medical treatment – a major health risk to crematoria staff. 

In Queensland, unlike most states, there are no regulations that require crematoriums to be informed about a patient’s past exposure to radiotherapy.

In contrast, in South Australia, a specific question to be answered by the GP in consultation with the family states: “Does the body contain a cardiac pacemaker, cardiovascular defibrillator, drug infusion pump or similar device, or radioactive injectable solutions”.

“Unfortunately, I had to decline a cremation because a gentleman had been treated with radioactive pellets – for prostate cancer,“ Mr Molloy, who follows the strict ACCA guidelines regarding contents of coffins, said.

“Cremation is the process of reducing the body to ash, and these pellets would have survived the cremation process … and been in the presence of our staff.

“We are only crematorium operators. We don’t know what these treatments are going to do.

“We are looking for a review of the Cremations Act.”

Environmental protection safeguards require that South Australian crematorium staff must follow strict safety precautions during cremations and subsequent handling and disposal of remains wearing gloves, masks and protective clothing.

Mr Molloy said the ACCA’s state affiliate, the QCCA, first sought to tighten regulations, and introduced transparency and minimum standards with the State Government in 2007 and with successive Queensland governments since.

The ACCA, of which Nudgee Cemetery and Crematorium is a member, wrote to Attorney General Yvette D’Ath in June last year. 

Mr Molloy said Queensland legislation should stipulate that it was the family that dealt  with cremated ashes of a loved one.

“Let’s just say I want to cremate my dad, which I go ahead and do, family all agrees to that, but I am not interested in memorialising his ashes so if I don’t do anything with dad’s ashes for 12 months,” he said. 

“The crematorium can dispose of them … but if I had a sibling who wanted to do something with the ashes, they can’t, because the Act specifically says I (the applicant) must deal with them.

“It can be problematic, especially with split and melded families. 

“Our goal is to get people in the industry singing off the same hymn sheet.”

The funeral industry was under the media spotlight last month after ABC Four Corners aired “After Death” – an investigation that highlighted undignified practices in the funeral industry including bodies being identified in shopping centre car parks, and vans loaded with bodies being driven interstate for “profit centre” cremations.

Some of the shonky practices surprised Mr Molloy.

“I thought all those guys were weeded out, all gone. And it just rips your stomach out to see there are people like that still operating,” he said.

“What they didn’t show is the other 90 per cent of funeral companies that do the right thing.

“My father was a funeral director, I’ve been a funeral director and I’m now running a cemetery and a crematorium, and I still live by the words my father taught me – ‘If you do your role with the family looking over your right shoulder and everything is okay … then you know what you are doing is right by the family’.”

In a letter to the State Government sent last June, ACCA explained that most of the ongoing issues: “could be rectified with an Act and regulations to cover the cemeteries and crematoria as in most other states and territories”. 

“This would solve many of the recent issues and would give the State Government the overseeing power of all cemeteries and crematoria rather than just at local council level. 

“This would also deliver one standardised set of paperwork across the state, and make the information uniform and simpler for all concerned. 

“This could also include a set of regulations for funeral directors.”

Mr Molloy said case studies explaining the gaps in Queensland industry had been prepared for government, and the ACCA was awaiting a further meeting with state officials.

Nudgee Cemetery is run and owned by Brisbane archdiocse.

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