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The Co-op bruised after TV exposé

The Co-op bruised after TV exposé

The Co-operative Funeralcare is facing one of it biggest public relations problems for years following the screening of Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Undercover Undertaker.

A report into the division’s operations involved two undercover reporters – one working as a funeral arranger in Hayes, Middlesex, the other as a funeral operative in one of the hubs.

Both revealed activities that even The Co-operative Funeralcare managing director George Tinning said made him: "shocked and disappointed".

There were two strands to the criticism. One was the way in which the deceased were stored and handled. Hidden cameras showed bodies stored in ‘industrial-scale’ warehouse mortuaries amid chaotic organisation, a body was delivered in a lidless coffin in full view of a block of flats, and viewers were told of a funeral in which the wrong body was presented.

The other was ‘upselling’. Arrangers were given a masterclass in how not to show bereaved families the cheapest coffin, told to skip over simple funerals, and shown how to promote ‘hygienic treatment’ (embalming) as essential.

Much was made of The Co-operative Funeralcare having conducted more than 100,000 funerals last year and having banked £52m in profits.

Coverage extended beyond the small screen, with The Guardian, The Mirror, The Times and the Daily Mail among the news brands who highlighted the story: "Co-op funeral firm piled naked bodies up in grim warehouse morgue" read Mail headlines. "Horror of grieving families at body warehouse probe" said The Sun.

There was an instant outcry among viewers and readers. "Absolutely disgusting," said one contributor to the Mail's website. "This is appalling" read another.

Some online comments came from independent funeral directors, many of whom wanted to stress the difference between their service and the instances shown. Others co-operative groups were also keen to distance themselves from Funeralcare. Julian Coles, chief executive of the Tamworth Co-op, told a local paper the disturbing TV pictures were "a million miles" from its service.

The Co-operative Funeralcare responded rapidly to the criticism. Speaking in the documentary, George Tinning said he was "very sorry" and, in a video address to consumers uploaded onto The Co-operative Group's website, he stressed that the programme's revelations were "not typical" and pledged a "full and thorough investigation" and a review of training and development.

He said the organisation was seeking the advice of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) on further improvements and the group's website also hosted an updated FAQs section to allay customer fears. A later statement said: "We will not tolerate any individual actions that undermine the professionalism and commitment shown by our staff to the bereaved on a daily basis."

The prompt reaction and acceptance of criticism seems to have done something to mitigate the knee-jerk revulsion of early reactors because, despite the anger and criticism, there was also support.

"The staff at the Co-op are genuinely caring people and this programme has done an injustice to them," read a later comment on the Mail's website.

"I wonder how many small firms have had similar mix-ups with lesser numbers?" wrote one contributor.

"The show probably caused more distress than was strictly necessary," read a comment on "It is part of the job of an undertaker to hide as much of the unpleasantness as possible."

Even some independent operators said Funeralcare go a less than fair deal. "I actually feel sorry for the Co-op," said one funeral director responding on "It could be any one of us who got caught out with a poor employee whose actions affect our reputation."

“Almost all funeral directors with more than one trading location use some kind of hub system,” said David Holmes, from David Holmes & Sons, Fleet. “And many seem to operate a ‘hide-the-simple-funeral policy. The question is, did Funeralcare do anything most funeral directors do not?... Our industry does need a long hard look at itself.”


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