Greek-Australian funeral directors say they witnessed discrepancies in official documents stating a deceased’s cause of death.

Four out of seven directors say they were aware of such errors, whereas one raised concerns about the accuracy of the state government’s COVID-19 death statistics.

The inconsistency was in turn causing distress for the families of deceased people and for funeral directors, and raised questions of how one person could die of two causes and whether the government was inflating the number of coronavirus deaths, particularly among the elderly.

But the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) disputed any inconsistencies, telling Neos Kosmos that in Victoria, a death certificate may list multiple causes of death.

Neos Kosmos spoke to seven well-known Greek funeral companies last week as part of wide-ranging interviews.

Owner of Victoria Funerals, Chris Stamelos said he had experienced three cases at the beginning of the first lockdown where there were discrepancies between official documents on the cause of death. He said back then, people were tested before they died and were waiting for results and the medical advice was to “play it safe.”

Mr Stamelos said funeral directors had to wear full PPE if the deceased had or was suspected to having COVID-19.

The owner of Agape Funerals, Theodore Dimopoulos, said he had come across only two instances of inconsistencies between official documents that recorded the cause of death since March. Mr Dimopoulos said since the pandemic started he has conducted four to five funerals for Greeks who died of COVID-19 and three non-Greeks.

He said official documents could put up to four contributing factors to a person’s death, especially with the elderly.

Mr Dimopoulos and his wife, owners of Agape Funerals. Photo: Supplied

Tobin Brothers’ Nick Kourtessis said he had seen “quite a few” cases since March where there were discrepancies between official documents on a deceased’s cause of death. But he said it was a safeguard for funeral directors and staff.

Mr Kourtessis said in the instance of people in facilities, some people in the ward might be COVID-19 positive.

“COVID may have had something to do with the deceased,” he said.

Mr Kourtessis said whether they died from it or not was another matter.

“I believe they are doing it to …protect funeral directors and staff,” he said.

“It’s not so much a stuff up as it’s a safeguard.”

Mr Kourtessis, who has 30 years of experience in the industry, said a case of COVID-19 or suspected case meant a lot more work for the funeral director, from the collection of the deceased to the viewing and beyond.

“It is very involved and takes a lot of time,” he said.

Mr Kourtessis said Tobin Brothers had conducted funerals for about 40 Greeks who died because of COVID-19.

Peter Tziotzis, the managing director of Orthodox Funeral Services told Neos Kosmos last Monday (21 September) that the week before he experienced a situation where the death certificate stated the deceased died of dementia, but the mortuary notes from the hospital stated it was suspected COVID-19 and for the funeral director “to handle with care”.

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Peter Tziotzis, managing director of Orthodox Funeral Services. Photo: Dora Houpis

He said he was confronted with the conflicting causes of death on two documents while organising the funeral of a deceased woman of Greek background.

“The death certificate said: Passed away of dementia,” Mr Tziotzis said. “The cause of death was dementia, however the mortuary department of the hospital stipulated that it suspected COVID-19 and to handle with care. The question I raised to medical records (the section) was: ‘How can this poor soul that passed away be classified as maybe COVID-19, yet on the medical certificate it stipulates it was dementia?”

Mr Tziotzis said he did not get an answer as “there was no conversation” between him and the hospital after he asked the question.

He said there were many precautions a funeral director had to take and many restrictions put on grieving families if the cause of death was COVID-19.

Mr Tziotzis said if a person died of coronavirus he had to wear complete Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and was fully covered in the mortuary area.

“From head to toe,” he said.

“You have to wear special masks, special gloves. It’s the uncertainty on COVID-19.”

He said there were restrictions placed on families for viewing the deceased who died of COVID-19 and families had to avoid contact with the body.

Mr Tziotzis said he could not reveal the Greek woman’s name and would not name the hospital in question except to say it was in the “south-eastern area” of Melbourne.

He said this was the only case he had experienced where two separate documents gave conflicting causes of death and it raised questions.

“If this one case that’s been discovered, are there more like this?” Mr Tziotzis asked.

“How sure are we certain these elderly had COVID-19?”

Mr Tziotzis said since April, only 10 people his funeral business buried had COVID-19, with most of those buried in April.

He said all grieving families, especially in the Greek community, who lost loved ones during COVID-19 were having a tough time.

Orthodox Funeral Services, prepares for Greek Orthodox funeral. Photo: Dora Houpis

The managing director of Australian Orthodox Funerals, Andreas Tziotzis, said he had not had any instances where there were discrepancies on official documents that outlined the cause of death nor did he notice any other inconsistencies.

Mr Andreas Tziotzis and Peter Tziotzis are brothers, but each has their own funeral business.

Co-owner and managing director of Joannides Funerals, Nektarios Georgaklis, said he had not experienced any discrepancies or inconsistencies in official documents outlining a person’s cause of death.

He said facilities should know a person’s cause of death.

“Facilities know or they don’t know,” he said.

“There is no grey.’

Mr Georgaklis said there were a few cases of families disputing a COVID-19 finding, or possible finding, as the cause of death of their loved one.

He said before they died, loved ones may have had a prolonged sickness, but contracted COVID-19 in the final stage and the families therefore believing the deceased did not die of coronavirus and should not be a COVID-19 case.

Mr Georgaklis said these people didn’t want it recorded that their loved one died of COVID-19.

A manager at Allison Monkhouse, Con Caracasidis, said he went by what the doctor’s death certificate said.

Mr Caracasidis said since the pandemic began, he had not conducted a Greek funeral where the deceased had COVID-19.

In a written response, a DHHS spokesperson said every death was a tragedy, and they were doing everything they could to protect the most vulnerable.

“In Victoria, a death certificate may list multiple causes of death,” the spokesperson said.

“All deaths in Victoria with a positive coronavirus diagnosis are included in the state’s toll, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death (for example trauma).

“This reporting is consistent with CDNA guidelines which apply across all states and territories to ensure the figures are comparable.”

CDNA is the Federal Government’s Communicable Diseases Network Australia.

According to DHHS, funeral industry workers are not at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 when handling the bodies of those suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19. The risk of transmission to funeral industry workers is likely to be through contact with the family and friends of the deceased.

DHHS has guidelines and advice for handling the body of a deceased person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

They include: using routine body-handling and infection-control precautions; ensuring necessary hand hygiene and PPE supplies before any contact with the body; and handling of bodies, including transportation and disposal, in line with the relevant legislation.

More further information go to health services handling and transfers, at Department of Health and Human Services Victoria | Clinical guidance and resources – coronavirus (COVID-19)