By NICHOLAS WOOD
NOVI SAD, Serbia, Feb. 26 — Dragan Peric was shocked to learn that his father, hospitalized for a mere stomach ulcer, had died. But the call came from the hospital, the city's Institute for Internal Medicine, so his mother and uncle began a sad round of calls to relatives.
Then two men appeared at the front door, offering the services of their funeral home.
The family had not called them, said Mr. Peric, a 21-year-old carpenter, but since funeral services were needed, they got the job. But when they went to the hospital's morgue, there was no Peric registered. After a confused search, the family discovered that the man declared dead was quite alive, just in a different ward.
Senior hospital officials later explained what had happened: a nurse had seen Mr. Peric's empty bed, and, assuming the worst, phoned the tip into the funeral home for a cash reward.
She had the dubious good manners to let the family know, too.
The hospital said the nurse would be disciplined, and the lawyer for the funeral home denied it had paid for tip-offs of deaths.
But medical workers at Serbian hospitals say it is routine for nurses, doctors, ambulance staff members and even postal workers to cash in on news of the dead.
Funeral companies pay the equivalent of $70 to $100 for information that gives them a crucial edge on their competition. It would not take many tips for a nurse to equal her monthly salary of around $250.
Medical workers say the collusion between hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes began a decade ago, when the economy was reeling from international sanctions put in place to pressure Serbia into supporting a peaceful resolution to the Bosnian conflict.
That was when private funeral companies began to compete with Lisje, the city-owned funeral home that is Novi Sad's largest.
"It is usual in Serbia that such information is worth money," said Sladzana Cabrilo, a Lisje spokeswoman. She accused the private companies of taking advantage of families when they are "confused and sad." The reality is, she said, "if you come first, you will get a job."
There are about 30 funeral homes in this city of about 300,000 people. The typical cost of funeral arrangements is $320, and much more for an expensive coffin.
Doctors, nurses, pathologists, workers at hospital call centers — even postal employees who read outgoing telegrams informing families of death — are all in a position to trade in death tip-offs, said a 53-year-old nurse who asked not to be identified because she did not want her colleagues to know she was discussing the practice.
"I have heard of cases where families were called by two or three companies before they were formally told their relative had died," she said.
The collusion between health workers and funeral homes echoes a scandal that emerged in Zodz, Poland, in 2002. Prosecutors there investigated a similar trade and found that ambulance workers were deliberately arriving late at emergencies to increase their chances of finding business for funeral homes.
Prosecutors also discovered the widespread use of a muscle relaxant, which they believe was used to kill patients. Two doctors and two ambulance workers are on trial charged in the deaths of 18 people.
No evidence of such practices has come to light in Serbia, and its economy is now growing.
But corruption in medical care is regarded as deeply entrenched, with doctors expecting additional payment from patients for services that are already paid for by the state.
Slobodan Curic, a senior medical director at the Novi Sad hospital where Mr. Peric did not die, said neither the police nor the senior medical staff took the collusion with funeral homes seriously enough.
"In Novi Sad we are being more open about this," he said. "It exists throughout all of Serbia. I think only the police can do something. But they think it is a small issue."
The Peric family said it planned to press charges against the funeral home, named Miran San, or Peaceful Sleep, whose directors came to its door.
The funeral home's lawyer, Nebojsa Karanovic, denied wrongdoing and said it was the hospital, and not his clients, that was responsible for the mistaken death announcement.
The company "never gave a single dinar for any piece of information," he said. "All this case shows is that private funeral companies are quick at doing their work."