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Undertakers feel strain of coronavirus death toll

24 April 2020

Funeral directors find government guidelines difficult to implement

Church Times

The window of a monumental mason in Shirley, Southampton

The window of a monumental mason in Shirley, Southampton

FUNERAL directors are being put under “incredible strain” to manage the increase in deaths resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) reports.

More than 17,300 people in the UK have died after contracting the virus. It is predicted that more than 20,000 will have died before infections begin to slow.

This week, the Office of National Statistics reported that one third of all UK deaths (33 per cent) were related to the coronavirus in the week ending Good Friday. In London, in the same week, more than half (53.2 per cent) the deaths involved Covid-19. Care-home deaths, which stood at about 2456, have now doubled (News, 17 April).

SAIF’s chief executive, Terry Tennens, said on Tuesday: “Many funeral directors are under an incredible strain at the moment as a result of the necessary precautions they are having to take around caring for deceased people, and the sheer volume of deaths they’re having to deal with.

“We have long offered our members a free counselling service, but I fear that many will need support when things calm down and they start to process what they’ve been through.”

Mourners would usually be invited to visit the deceased in a chapel of rest, he said. “So it’s heartbreaking to have to tell families in many cases that they are unable to do this because of infection risks. Other aspects of a funeral director’s work have been hugely affected, such as collections from hospitals, which are now being conducted in full PPE [personal protective equipment], and which places a barrier between the funeral director and the deceased person. It’s a really difficult time.”

The owner of Mortons Funeral Directors in Birmingham, Derek Case, said: “Seeing a mother screaming on the pavement because she is unable to attend the funeral of her son, or having to arrange the funeral of a mother and daughter who have both been taken by Covid-19 — these things are taking an immense toll on families and the people who care for them. When normality returns, we are going to have to find a way of turning the clock back to deal with a huge amount of unresolved grief.

“In my 40 years of funeral directing, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s devastating.”

Mr Case has organised a daily debriefing to ensure that his staff are comfortable talking to management about their mental health. “We also have trained counsellors waiting in the wings, along with a number of clergy and other professionals, and the SAIF Support helpline.”

On Sunday, the Government updated its guidance for managing funerals during the pandemic. Attending a funeral — if you are a family or household member of the deceased, or if no one else is able to attend — is currently on the list of legal exceptions to the restriction of movement in the UK.

Key changes from the previous guidance, issued at the end of March, include that local authorities should ensure that mourners can attend funeral services in person, and that funeral services should “facilitate” attendance for those who are self-isolating or in an at-risk or vulnerable group.

It states: “Mourners who are in an extremely clinically vulnerable group should be facilitated to attend, should they wish to do so.” The official list includes solid-organ transplant recipients; people with specific cancers, severe respiratory conditions, and rare diseases; people on immunosuppression therapies; and pregnant women who have significant heart disease.

Mr Tennens said that this was “incredibly risky” and prompted questions. “For instance, the advice states that someone who is self-isolating because a member of their household has coronavirus, but not is showing symptoms themselves, can attend a service, which has left us wondering how this might be facilitated. It also states that shielded people can attend. It seems incredibly risky.”

SAIF had “erred on the side of caution”, he said, “and advised our members to use body bags for all Covid-19 cases. Many funeral directors are sealing coffins, too, to minimise the risk to their staff.”

Church TimesThe window of a funeral director in Shirley, Southampton

The chief executive of the Good Funeral Guide, Fran Hall, went further, describing the advice as “unhelpful, unclear, and potentially destructive”, because it put clinically vulnerable people at “unnecessary risk” of contracting the coronavirus.

She said on Monday: “These people are now being told that they should be ‘facilitated’ to leave home — where they have been told to stay for up to 12 weeks, sheltering from the risk of being exposed to Covid-19 — and attend a funeral ceremony if they are a ‘close family member’ or a member of the household of someone who has died.

“We cannot understand why this is now deemed to be a safe thing for them to do; nor do we understand what ‘processes to reduce the risk of transmission’ need to be put in place as stated in the guidance, nor by whom. . .

“We also do not understand who is to be responsible for this ‘facilitation’ of people previously advised not to attend funeral ceremonies, but now being advised that they can do so. Is it the funeral director’s responsibility to ensure the safety of people attending the funeral in ‘facilitating’ their attendance? This seems a wholly unreasonable burden to place on funeral staff.”

The Government does not specify a maximum number of people attending, but instructs venue managers to set these caps depending on the size of the facility, to ensure safe social distancing.

Ms Hall said: “These restrictions vary considerably around the country, and are changing frequently as local authorities and venue owners and managers react to changing guidance and circumstances: some families may be able to have up to 25 ‘close family members’, while others may only be allowed four or six people in attendance.” The definition of a “close family member” had also been left to the “interpretation” of families concerned, she said.

The Government insists that funerals should not be delayed, but Ms Hall warned that this was inevitable. She concluded: “This new guidance is unhelpful, unclear, and potentially destructive and damaging. . . The absence of clear directives leaves everyone involved in providing funerals in an unsafe and unfair position, and vulnerable bereaved people potentially exposed to unnecessary risk.”

The updated guidance also states that mourners should also be permitted to have a minister or celebrant of choice in attendance, but any aspects of faith rituals which include close contact with the deceased should be restricted to people who are wearing PPE — and under supervision. This should not include vulnerable or high-risk individuals: for example, clergy over the age of 70.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, who also chairs the Strategic Coordination Group’s Faith Cell, explained: “The Funeral Standards grew from the need to mark the end of a loved one’s life with dignity, compassion, and respect, coupled with the requirement to minimise the spread of infection and to save lives. They set out that even funerals without congregation should have a celebrant or minister in accordance with the faith or belief of the one who has died. No one should journey alone.”

The group was set up by the London Resilience Forum,which is co-ordinating public bodies in London to respond to Covid-19. It welcomes the government guidance. In addition, it states: “Ceremonial words should be said in line with the family’s choice, but these may be truncated from usual funeral rites. An offer to facilitate livestream via social media should be made. However, it is recognised that not all crematoria/cemeteries have adequate WiFi/signal to achieve this.”

It agreed that faith and belief communities should offer memorial services for a later date, as well as bereavement support. There should also be consistency in costing.

The advice from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that funerals should be conducted at gravesides and in crematorium chapels only, owing to the difficulty involved in cleaning church buildings, is unchanged (News, 3 April).

Under Section 28 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, local authorities are legally bound to respect the wishes, beliefs, or religion of the deceased, including whether their body is buried or cremated. The accompanying guidance, also published this month, states that if the local authority is unable to discover these wishes after reasonable attempts have been made, they may issue a direction for committal of the deceased.

In a letter to faith leaders, the minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Simon Clarke, said that these additional powers should be exercised only in “exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, when all other efforts have been exhausted”. He wrote: “I truly hope we never have to activate these powers.”

Meanwhile, temporary mortuaries are being established across the country to accommodate the coronavirus dead. Last week, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, blessed and dedicated a temporary mortuary set up by the council in a former aircraft hangar in Norfolk.

Bishop Usher said: “The tragic reality of the Covid-19 pandemic is that people are dying in increasing numbers. The county council has made contingency plans for a temporary mortuary where the deceased of all faiths and none can rest peacefully and be looked after with care and dignity.

“Chaplains will also be available to support bereaved families. I am enormously grateful to all who have worked so hard to build this facility, and those who will be staffing it. In this week after Easter, my earnest prayer is that this facility will not be needed; but, if it is, that the light, hope, and peace of the risen Christ will be felt there.”

Temporary mortuaries are also being established in the Port of Poole and in the Old Radio Station in Dorchester should they be needed at the peak of the pandemic.

In Spain, where more than 20,000 people have died from the coronavirus, in La Almudena cemetery — the largest in Madrid — up to six funerals an hour are taking place, Sky News reports. One mourner said: “It is too hard. . . It is worse than a war.”

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