FUNERAL directors in the UK have spoken of the “heartbreak” of watching hundreds of mourners grieve alone, and of their own physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion under an unprecedented workload, as deaths from the coronavirus continue to rise at catastrophic rates.
The Assistant Curate of St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, and St John’s, Elton, in Durham diocese, the Revd Daniel Ackerley, has experienced all sides of the crisis. He has just been through a family bereavement. He is also the principal funeral director at John Duckworth Funeral Directors, in Sunderland.
“The last months have been the toughest and most challenging yet in my ten years as a funeral director,” he said. “Throughout the pandemic, funeral workers have gone about their vital work supporting the bereaved and taking care of those who have died, often with very little recognition.”
He, like many of his colleagues, had undertaken “record numbers of funerals” over the past nine months, all under the strain of meeting strict government limitations.
Since the start of the first lockdown, 30 people have been permitted to attend a funeral service or burial in England — a figure which, unlike limits on weddings, has remained consistent. People who are vulnerable, shielding, or who have symptoms or a positive test result, however, are not allowed to attend. Limits on wakes have fluctuated: currently it is no more than six people in England.
In Scotland, the limit on funerals is 20; in Northern Ireland, it is 25; and, in Wales, it is limited to the Covid-safe capacity of the building.
“Family members have had to grieve alone due to self-isolation and lockdown measures,” Mr Ackerley said. “It is difficult to observe families leave separately from a funeral and go home, rather than support each other and share memories together at a reception.
“I for one — and I know that I speak for many of my colleagues in the industry — have been exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally for weeks on end without any sign of the workload quietening down. Some crematoriums have opened seven days a week, and have been open into the evening in order to accommodate the high demand.”
Last week, on Thursday, 1325 deaths were recorded within 28 days of a positive test, exceeding the peak in April of 1224 deaths in one day. The total number of Covid-related deaths in the UK since the start of the pandemic exceeded 80,000 this week — the capacity of Twickenham Stadium.
This has contributed to the largest annual rise in excess UK deaths since the Second World War — up 14 per cent to a total of 697,000 in 2020.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said on Monday that “the worst weeks of the pandemic” were before the UK. Fran Hall, who is the chief executive of the Good Funeral Guide, a not-for-profit company that works for the interests of dying and bereaved people, said on Tuesday that this would stretch into many more months for those working in the funeral sector.
“Temporary mortuary space is already being utilised in parts of the UK as the numbers of dead exceed capacity in hospital morgues, and with so many people testing positive in the last few weeks, the situation can only get worse. We have heard of whole teams of staff in funeral-director companies, bereavement offices, and mortuaries, being off work in isolation, all adding to the delay and distress for grieving families.”
Funeral directors had been under huge pressure to adapt their work to include PPE, remote arrangement meetings, and other safety precautions, Ms Hall said. The thought of an ever-increasing workload, “and the corresponding numbers of bereaved people to whom they will be unable to offer their usual comfort and support must be devastating and exhausting after the long months of 2020”.
A funeral director at Rosedale Funeral Home, in Norfolk, Anne Beckett-Allen, concurred. “Everything we know about how we do our job has had to change, overnight,” she said. “Ours is normally a very hands-on, caring role, but now we’re using full PPE when we visit a family home to collect someone who has died, and we’re very aware of the impact this can have on grieving loved ones.
“We’ve had to have very difficult and distressing conversations with next of kin about whether they can visit their loved one in the chapel of rest, or how many of their family and friends can support them at the funeral service — and we’ve had to find ways to make very restricted funerals still feel meaningful.
“Like all key workers, we’ve also been managing our own concerns about keeping ourselves, each other, and families safe as the pandemic has unfolded, too.”
Everyone was exhausted, she said. “Being a funeral director is not an easy job. You deal with death and grief every single day — and so we do make sure we give staff chances to decompress and talk about their experiences. But, my goodness, 2020 has been something different altogether, because added into the mix has been the pressure of so many funerals to arrange, under challenging restrictions — and, certainly in the early days, there’s been genuine fear, too.”
A funeral director at Allcock Family Funeral Services, Paul Allcock, who is a former president of the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF), said on Monday that the limit on funeral numbers had had its own challenges.
“For funeral directors and families alike, managing the control of those attending can be both time-consuming and stressful. For the next of kin, there is the very difficult question of where do you draw the line, particularly if you have a large family. . . For the funeral director, it is extremely difficult to ensure that those present at the funeral are both the correct attendees and are all following Covid safety precautions.”
There were some benefits to smaller funerals, however, he said. “Provided all the appropriate people can attend, the funeral is invariably more intimate, and becomes a very personal occasion with just the closest loved ones together.” He had heard comments such as “I felt much more comfortable, just having my family here and not people I’ve never met before,” and “There is no way I could have spoken today if there were a hundred strangers here.”
None the less, the knock-on effects for people unable to attend and mourn properly would be felt long into the future, he said. Ms Hall agreed. “There will undoubtedly be a long-term impact for many, many people, and, for some, irreparable trauma,” she said. “The small, separate ceremonies that are permitted under the coronavirus legislation go only part way towards fulfilling the role of a funeral, adding to the enormity of the loss which people bereaved during the pandemic already feel.”
Others had opted for a direct cremation, with no remembrance, to minimise the risk of infection, she said. “This is fully understandable, but how difficult will it be for these people looking back? Will they feel they were denied the closure that a funeral ceremony brings? It’s very likely.”
Ms Hall continued: “In addition, there is a huge amount of grief involved with the death of a loved one in hospital where visiting has not been allowed. In forums and Facebook groups for people bereaved by Covid, there are many, many comments from desperately sad people who never had a chance to say goodbye to the person they loved, and who now wonder whether it was definitely their body in the coffin. We are still in the midst of this horror. . . The trauma to our society, our sense of what is normal, will be felt for many, many years to come.”
David Barrington, of Barrington Funeral Services, Liverpool, who is the president of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), said that he was “in awe” of bereaved families, “who are being so stoical and brave in the face of so much additional distress. But, although the families are now fully aware of and understand the restrictions, it still doesn’t make it any easier to conduct these funerals — witnessing their distress at not being able to physically console anyone outside their household because everybody is seated two metres apart.
“Helping families, friends, and loved ones to say goodbye is a massive privilege. Being allowed into their grief to support them is a humbling experience. . . Our role has become about helping families to make sense of a situation they have no control over, and trying to make these small, brief funeral services as special as possible, because the importance of being there to the grieving process can’t be understated.”
Leaving home to attend a funeral is one of the exceptions to the advice to “Stay at home” issued by the Prime Minister at the start of the lockdown. Travelling and staying overnight is also permitted in these circumstances.
The chief executive of the NAFD, Jon Levett, said that the organisation was “urging bereaved families to invite as few attendees as possible, and to see the upper limit as an absolute maximum rather than a target”, to mitigate the increasing risks.
“Even accepting that there may be lower numbers of deaths from other causes normally typical at this time of year, it’s sadly now extremely busy for funeral homes across the UK. In addition, the requirement to shield, isolate, or home-school children is having a significant effect on staffing numbers, and it’s not clear when the number of daily deaths stop rising, all of which adds to the growing pressure.”
The news that frontline funeral workers had been classified as a priority group for vaccination was a relief, he said. “They are in direct contact with people who have died and their loved ones, and they come into contact with extremely vulnerable people as they regularly go into care homes, hospices, and people’s homes.”
But, while vaccinations had started to take place, “it’s very patchy. . . The same is true of asymptomatic testing, as this could make the different between funeral homes’ being able to remain open and working, and not.”