Undertaker gears up for pandemic

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Dignity, the undertaker, is preparing to work round-the-clock to churn out enough coffins to meet the potential spike in demand if avian flu hits these shores in earnest.

The funeral company, quoted on the Alternative Investment Market, reckons it can handle twice as many deaths if it adopts emergency measures such as cutting the length of its average cremation service by one third and extending the opening hours of its crematoria.

Co-operative Funeral Care, which buries more bodies in the country than any other undertaker, revealed yesterday it was working closely with the National Association of Funeral Directors about how best to handle a pandemic. "We are working on contingency plans," a spokesman said without elaborating.

Peter Hindley, Dignity's chief executive, was happier to give details: "We are making preparations in our coffin factory to introduce double shifts. We will work throughout the night to make sure we have enough coffins available."

However, the deceased will have to settle for a standard coffin rather than a choice of final resting places as Mr Hindley would reconfigure the factory to make just one type of coffin.

Drawing on evidence from the flu pandemic that hit the US at the start of the last century, Mr Hindley said: "It's at the crematoria where we come up with a capacity problem." He said Dignity would extend the opening hours of its 22 crematoria and cut the service from 45 to 30 minutes.