Vic ombudsperson unearths decades of misconduct in gravedigger case

By Shannon Jenkins

November 25, 2019

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A former council employee at the Mildura Cemetery Trust who performed dodgy exhumations and sold his relative’s chairs to grieving families was “disrespectful of the departed”, the Victorian ombudsperson has found.

Deborah Glass investigated allegations about Darren Bock, an employee who worked at Mildura’s Nichols Point and Murray Pines cemeteries from 1993 to August 2018. During that time, Bock performed potentially illegal exhumations without a licence, took money from vulnerable families, and mismanaged record-keeping about where people were buried, Glass said.

She noted that the employee’s misconduct appeared to be “random in nature”, which only amplified her concerns. 

“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,” she said.

In one instance in 2015, Bock buried a woman in the wrong plot. A cemetery officer told investigators that the deceased’s daughter realised her mother was being buried in the wrong space during the funeral, and was so upset she needed to be carried away. A second funeral had to be held to relocate the coffin.

Bock also took cash payments from funeral directors to lift grave lids so additional bodies could be buried in a single grave, despite trust staff not having the authority to do so. He told investigators he had begun taking the payments between 1996-98, and continued to do so until around 2016. He believed he would have taken $150 cash payments between three to six times per year, which was divided among any participating staff.

During the total of four illegal exhumations which Bock conducted or directed, he did not adhere to the necessary health and safety standards, and even invited an audience to attend one, the report noted.

“It is not clear whether the invitation to attend was made at a trust meeting,” it said. “What is clear is that Mr Bock extended the invitation to attend the exhumation to multiple people prior to the exhumation taking place.”

During that same exhumation, he “sifted through the remains”, “plucked [a] bone out from around the bloke’s waist area”, and sent it via Australia Post for lab testing to help a daughter identify her father.

Bock also privately sold and installed memorial chairs made by his relative to the loved ones of people who had died, using fabricated receipts with the trust’s letterhead. He told investigators he had not approached anyone about purchasing the chairs, but those who were interested would find him. Two of Bock’s former colleagues said they had watched him attempt to sell the seats to families, while a former Sexton told investigators they had caught Bock trying to relocate ashes so that he could install a chair. 

Approximately 175 of the memorial seats were installed during Bock’s tenure. One witness described the cemetery as currently having “an abundance of chairs”.

Glass said the employee had justified some of his actions by viewing them as favours to grieving families. 

She argued inadequate supervision and a lack of governance controls allowed the misconduct to occur for so long, and made five recommendations to the council and trust. This included referring the employee’s conduct to Victoria Police, providing support to affected families, and working to improve governance, training and processes for the cemeteries.

They accepted the recommendations, apologised to affected families, and arranged for further support:

“Although council and the trust are separate legal entities operating under different legislative structures, both council and the trust are committed to working together alongside the Department of Health and Human Services to clarify and improve the governance arrangements around the Nichols Point and Murray Pines Cemeteries,” council chief executive officer Sarah Philpott and trust chair Min Poole wrote.

“Council has made, and will continue to make, available counselling to those families directly impacted by the matters raised in the report.”

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