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COVID, Nail In The Coffin Of Poland's Underground Funeral Industry

A total lack of regulation has meant that virtually anyone can sell funeral service, even people without refrigerated rooms, hearses or pandemic safety measures.

Photo of two funeral home workers carrying a deceased man in Wroclaw, Poland

Funeral home workers carrying a deceased man in Wroclaw, Poland

Piotr Twardysko-Wierzbicki/ZUMA
Justyna Sobolak

The law governing the funeral market in Poland is nearly 100 years old, and de facto the industry has long been unregulated. As the gray market has continued to grow through the pandemic, shocking practices multiply. “Companies keep corpses in garages or barns," says Robert Czyżak, president of the Polish Funeral Industry Board. "This is what has been happening in Poland."

It is very easy to organize funerals in Poland. Almost anyone can do it, without any certificate, training or official permission. All you need is an entry in the CRIBA (Center of Registration and Information on Business Activity). Even without any facilities other than an office where the families of the deceased will be received, you can offer funeral services.

This causes the multiplying of one-person businesses that do not employ workers, do not have a refrigerated room nor elementary conditions to take care of the deceased.

A Poland-specific situation

“My uncle died before the pandemic. We signed the contract with a funeral company at the hospital, because someone from the staff recommended it. We went to bring clothes and personal belongings to be put in the coffin. As it turned out, the "cold storage facility" was just a slightly converted barn, and outside the funeral home, at the same address, was a truck parking lot. We were horrified by this sight, which in no way reflected the seriousness of the situation,” claims Małgosia.

This is not an isolated case. During the pandemic, many people started a funeral business.

“We are dealing with a very large multiplication, especially now, during the pandemic, of one-person companies that strangely enough provide funeral services without employing anyone. This is a phenomenon on a national scale,” notes Czyżak of the Funeral Industry Board.

The data Gazeta Wyborcza obtained from the Polish Funeral Industry Board shows that the sector is worth over 9.1 billion PLN ($2.2 billion), an amount calculated on the basis of the average cost of a ceremony, and funeral and cemetery services. There are about 4,000 registered companies on the market.

Two people were dressing the deceased on a desk.

So how do such companies organize funerals? They employ random people, paying them a “daily rate.” Rates vary, most often from 100 to 150 PLN ($25 to $35). Dariusz, who lives in a town in the Subcarpathian province, in southeastern Poland, is one of them. He earns extra money this way, in addition to his pension. He gets jobs on the phone.

“If there is an assignment, they call me and I drive there. Most of the time, I only deal with the burial service; I take the coffin to the church, carry it out, carry wreaths and flowers, and put the coffin in the grave," he explains. "I don't take care of the corpse itself." Such undeclared income allows him to receive a nice allowance in addition to his pension.

From bad to COVID worse

Involving random people is only one of the problems connected with the unregulated funeral market. “Companies sometimes take corpses to hospitals, where they illegally keep them in cold rooms, concluding silent agreements with the hospital employees.” says Robert Czyżak.

The problem, he says, is serious. In the eastern Polish city of Wyszków, where he works, there are several funeral companies, and only two of them have proper conditions for storage, preparation of corpses and regular workers.

In the morning he drives a van to pick up vegetables, and in the afternoon, he transports corpses in the very same car.

“Once, my employee went to pick up a corpse at one of the companies. He walked in and could not believe what he was seeing. Two people were dressing the deceased on a desk. Stories like this are common," he said. "I personally know a man who runs a sole proprietorship and has a car that doesn't meet any requirements. It's a 7-passenger van. He drives his family to church in that van on Sundays, then on Monday he folds up the seats and transports corpses. I also heard of a man who runs a vegetable store. In the morning he drives a van to pick up vegetables, and in the afternoon, he transports corpses in the very same car.”

Such behavior is even more shocking in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We get phone calls asking us to pick up corpses from private houses. We don't know whether there is someone in quarantine or infected in the house. What we do know is that the person whose corpse we are asked to pick up did not, according to the family's statement, die of coronavirus, but we still don't know if the other members are infected," Czyzak explains. "We, as professionals, go in full gear, protected. But one-man companies send random people. They pick up bodies and deposit them God knows where. Later, these people go outside and spread all the germs they might have picked up."

A man wearing a protective mask seen in Krakow's Rakowicki cemetery

Krakow's Rakowicki cemetery

Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

A tombstone controversy

Although the problem is not new, it is only now that the authorities decided it was necessary to amend the current law regarding the funeral industry. The one governing the sector dates back to the 1930s. Perhaps the government was influenced by the numbers: The Funeral Industry Board, together with the Center for Legislative Analyses and Economic Policy, have calculated that the gray zone may cost the state budget 960 million PLN ($235 million) a year.

The bill is already written and has returned from consultations, and ruling PiS party is expected to address the issue right after the new year. The work had been halted by a controversial provision according to which all tombstones would become the property of cemeteries, and not the people who erected them.

The idea was criticized by the Legal Council of the Polish Episcopal Conference: "The Church is not seeking to be granted ownership of monuments." quoted the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. Robert Czyżak notes, however, that in the face of the underground economy, the problem of tombstones is secondary. “We are dealing with a total lack of control over what really constitutes a threat, now that the possibility of COVID-19 infection is becoming more and more real," Czyżak said.

Regulations ahead

What will the new act change? It will regulate funeral homes. The law states that a funeral home should be equipped with a proper room for storage and preparation of the body, have a hearse and a minimum of four places in the refrigerated room. The Polish Chamber of Funeral Industry has also proposed a minimum of four employees. It is unclear at this time whether the PiS party will accept this proposal. The functioning of crematoria would also be regulated: There is going to be an official cremation certificate form and an obligation to report data concerning exhaust emissions to the local Inspection for Environmental Protection.

Additionally, a sequence number for cremations will be installed, which will be important when proving the authenticity of the ashes that are given to the families.

The industry is also demanding the abolition of the obligation of a so-called "consular clearance" in Polish diplomatic posts in case of transporting the deceased from abroad. Currently, it is necessary to cover a distance that can go up to several hundred kilometers from the place of death to a consular post, representing an unnecessary additional cost that — according to the current law — is charged to the families of the deceased.

A “death e-card” and the institution of a coroner are also to be created. The coroner would confirm death outside hospitals and social welfare centers, since nowadays people would sometimes have to wait more than ten hours for the statement of a death.

What the final form of the bill will be, we will find out in January. The industry hopes that the PiS party will not abandon its plans and will bring the matter to a conclusion. The sooner, the better.

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