By Linas Jegelvicius
KLAIPEDA, LITHUANIA–Viktoras Stulovas had been in a medically induced coma for three days following vascular surgery when his worried son, Ramunas, received a phone call he will never forget.
“A woman who introduced herself as a staffer of a local funeral home extended her condolences to me for the death of my dad and, with great sympathy, offered to handle all necessary funeral arrangements,” Ramunas Stulovas told 100Reporters.
Stulovas recoiled in shock. “You have the wrong number – my father is alive!” he sputtered.
In truth, his 72-year-old father had indeed passed away. The first to hear the tragic news, however, was not the man’s own family, but a funeral home looking for business.
“Someone from a funeral home called the family first?” said Raimundas Pocius of Lithuania’s Funeral Services Association. “That’s not the most extreme thing in this business.”
Far from it.
Former Interior Minister Romasis Vaitekunas recalled an episode when a hearse traveling from Lithuania to Latvia was stopped by funeral home workers who removed the body, dressed it in cheaper clothes and laid it in a low-budget coffin. Relatives reported the case to investigators. “But,” Vaitekunas said, “how many similar or more callous cases have never been brought to light?”
The competition within Lithuania’s funeral industry is so intense that it has boiled over into threats, corruption, vandalism, arson and murder. It is a business known worldwide for turning large profits with relatively low levels of investment, expertise and staff.
“Death is a big money-maker,” Vaitekunas said. “It has always been so.”
Social commentator Tomas Viluckas 100Reporters agreed, but added that Lithuania presents a special case. “Death has been commercialized in all of Western Europe. But what makes things worse in Lithuania is that we still haven’t developed strong business ethics,” Viluckas said. “Therefore we see funeral homes waging war against each other.”
One high-profile skirmish was recently played out in here in Klaipėda, a historic city along the Baltic coast.
In October 2013, funeral home owner Liudas Statkus was arrested and charged with torching a $60,000 Mercedes Benz hearse owned by business partner-turned-rival Valdas Ceponis. Ceponis said this was his fourth vehicle destroyed by fire in recent years. He said he had long suspected Statkus, who has since been released from custody and now awaits trial.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have also charged Statkus with operating an illegal morgue in a garage among the blocks of apartments in northern Klaipėda. There, according to police records, he disemboweled cadavers, flushed remains down the toilet and dressed bodies in preparation for burial. The local cadaver registry shows that until the police investigation began, all corpses from a certain medical examiner were sent to Statkus’s funeral home, according to a witness in the case.
Federal investigators are also looking into Statkus’s other activities. In an alleged scheme involving a local medical examiner and former Statkus colleague, the remains of poor or unknown persons were given to Statkus for preparation. Pretending to be relatives of the deceased, the medical examiner or his accomplices would collect government benefits of around US $500 per body, police records show. The medical examiner was arrested and later freed pending further investigation.
A resident of the nearby town of Skuodas told 100Reporters that the medical examiner is known for requesting extra payments in exchange for expedited services – including to handle the body of her brother, who had died in an automobile accident. “He rubbed his fingers mischievously,” said Vilma Pranckuniene, “signaling that we should grease the palm.”
In a business known for unusual individuals and tactics, such payments are business as usual. Some funeral homes pay medical staff and the police 700 litas (US $270) for tips on the whereabouts of new corpses – known as “fresh commodities.” They then call the relatives or dispatch their representatives to sell their services while the vulnerable families are still in shock.
“Statistically there’s a shortage of cadavers,” said Pocius of the Funeral Services Association. “That has triggered this sick competition.”
A former Klaipėda County police officer told 100Reporters that as a rookie, he was approached by a senior officer who asked him if he wanted some “legal” perks to pad his salary. When he became curious, the older officer explained he could make US $120 – equivalent to a week’s salary – each time he leaked information about a new corpse to a funeral home on a secret list of preferred contacts.
“I was not particularly keen, but I ultimately gave in,” said the former officer, who would only be identified by his first name, Algirdas.
The officer said that on several occasions he was handed more than US $100 at the end of his shift, adding that in Kaunas, the situation is “even crazier.” Still, despite his initial misgivings, Algirdas said, “I don’t think I did something illegitimate. A funeral home would have been called in anyway.”
A funeral home owner in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, says many doctors in local reanimation wards and hospices work hand-in-hand with funeral homes that pay for information on recently deceased patients. There is even a type of internal regulation within this black market.
“Doctors get really upset if a junior medical staffer breaks the unwritten rule: informing a relative of the death or its imminence,” Egidijus Rolandas Grybas told 100Reporters. “This is strictly the job of a few doctors who always have business cards of selected funeral homes handy.”
Corruption in the funeral business is hardly limited to Lithuania.
In October 2013 police in Italy charged 34 people – including morticians, doctors and funeral home owners – for their role in a bribe-for-kickback scheme. Five morticians in the town of Pesaro each took in more than US $10,000 a month from the operation.
In the US, an army officer was charged in 2005 with demanding bribes to send the bodies of fallen soldiers to a funeral home near Seattle. And in Chicago in the 1980s, five funeral directors and 30 police officers faced bribery charges in an investigation that targeted dozens of suspects.
In South Africa, chaplains were reportedly caught accepting bribes from funeral homes in 2011.
Similar cases have been reported in other countries, but undertakers in Lithuania have been particularly active. Last month, a former boxer was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the 2011 murder of a prominent Vilnius attorney who was planning to buy a stake in a funeral home and potentially expose the owner’s questionable business practices. Though the owner was cleared of conspiracy charges related to the killing, he was sentenced to seven years for other crimes.
Former Interior Minister Vaitekunas told 100Reporters that Lithuania’s funeral business has always been “extremely” competitive and that despite the recent string of violent crimes, the situation actually is not getting worse. Bribery and “gruesome forms of competition,” he asserted, were not limited to the funeral industry.
Opinions vary as how to well regulators are dealing with the problems.
Darius Petrosius, a member of Lithuania’s Parliament who also operates a funeral home in Taurage, contends that oversight of the industry is adequate. In Taurage, for instance, Petrosius said local authorities swiftly shut down “shady undertakers” that began operating in the city.
Pocius of the Funeral Services Association is less optimistic. He said he believes the industry can be reined in, but only with combined, sustained efforts by police, public health watchdogs, lawmakers and the public.
“Unfortunately there’s a big mess in funeral sector,” he said, “and I don’t see it being cleaned up anytime soon.”