2020: A Funeral Director's experience

Abi Pattenden reflects on some of the changes that funeral directors have had to introduce during the COVID-19 pandemic

When news of the Coronavirus began to spread, we started making plans for what we then hoped was a worst-case scenario. I manage an independent funeral director in West Sussex on behalf of the family who has owned it for several generations, and I felt very lucky to have some of the company’s previous experiences to inform us. Outside roles like ours, and other linked sectors, people can go months or even years without being affected by a death. Sadly, this has been one of the significant changes over the last few months, as many people have been bereaved and have found their experience of a funeral to be significantly different- especially in the early parts of the pandemic when there was significant curtailment in provision.

Even before the pandemic really took hold in my area, we started working differently. I spent a lot of time digesting the early information about best practice in looking after people who had died of- or with- COVID, and ensuring that this was communicated to my team of Funeral Operatives, whose day-to-day work involves the caring for people who have died. The first time we were asked to collect someone who was suspected of having COVID, in mid-March 2020, my team rang me for reassurance because they suddenly had to put in place what had only been discussed in theory. I think it hit home to all of us after that. The next day, several of the team were quite shocked to have reality thrust upon them, while I felt the weight of trying to keep them safe against an uncertain and shifting landscape. Particular concerns included accessing nursing homes which were completely locked down, and entering private homes where someone had died of COVID and not knowing if the whole household was contagious.

The way that our teams worked had to completely alter. Many of our staff are multi-skilled and work across more than one role in the business. As it became necessary to ‘social distance’, this had to change. In particular, social distancing is difficult when carrying out funerals or collecting a person who has died. We are protecting our teams by significantly reducing their mixing through a recognised working practice called ‘cohorting’, part of which involves minimising contact with other cohorts as much as possible. This does have impact, though, as instead of working with lots of different people, most of your time is spent with only one other.

Something which became apparent early on is that we would not be able to liaise with customers in the same ways as we always have, and this was hard, especially for my team of Funeral Arrangers and Directors who feel a key part of their job is sitting down with people and lending a sympathetic ear as they guide them through their early stages of grief and funeral decisions. A handshake, reassuring pat on the shoulder or sometimes even a hug all soon became impossible- and we still miss doing them. We now arrange all funerals remotely by phone and email, and have a brief follow-up appointment with one person. Although this is not something which we ever expected, we are lucky that most of our customers understand why this is needed. One potential advantage of this is that, in some cases, customers’ decision-making has included more people as the conversations have broadened out by email. Therefore, more people may have a say over the shape of the funeral. I wonder whether this has been cathartic for some- and an experience they may not have had in past times when decisions were typically made by a few people.

As it became impossible to update every person on every change in rules and processes, communication with customers became reactive rather than proactive. In April and May 2020, rules were altering almost daily and we had to tell people that we would let them know if and when what they were planning was no longer feasible, rather than keeping them informed about everything. Some of us struggled with this.

When things had to alter, it was often significant. One of the main changes included the closing of places of worship, which meant that funerals had to change venues. When the decisions were made by our business rather than externally imposed, I often phoned the customers personally to explain. One day I rang about 16 families one after another to tell them we couldn’t continue to operate our limousine service (it has now been revived with the installation of screens which separate the driver from the passengers). That sticks in my mind as a particularly hard day. Withdrawing services we had committed to providing was unprecedented- and went against everything we had ever done.

One thing that I am proud of is that we never stopped facilitating visits to the Chapel of Rest. If someone had died in a hospital or other care setting, visits before their death had often been prevented so there was more of a need to say goodbye. Once we had guidelines in place for the safe treatment of COVID-positive deceased persons, we were able to assess the risks that preparing them entailed and adjust our procedures accordingly. Our customers were grateful that we were able to do this.

The ban on non-essential travel and reduction of numbers of people that venues would accommodate meant attendances at funerals were significantly reduced. This led to a massive increase in demand for online access, and providers sometimes struggled under the demand, including venues having the necessary bandwidth and the operators of the service dealing with the increased workload. A majority of services in crematoria are now broadcast online, a change which I think is here to stay. People also found unique ways to include personal aspects into smaller funerals, such as the occasion when a cortege of red Royal Mail vans followed a local postie on his journey to the crematorium as they could not attend the service itself. (You can view footage of this here.)

It seems too early to talk about any positives from this terrible time, but I wonder whether it may lead to people being more willing to discuss their wishes for their funerals with those who might be arranging them in future. This can benefit the people themselves for peace of mind, their representatives who will know their wishes, and professionals who in due course help facilitate those wishes and will be dealing with people who are well-informed.

However, the downside of knowing someone’s wishes is the consequences of not being able to carry them out if circumstances prevent that. This is especially pertinent to religious and traditional activities such as having the service in your place of worship, ritual washing and dressing, or having an open coffin at a funeral, all of which have been impeded at various times in this pandemic. There are some communities for whom these activities are an essential part of the funeral rituals. Other customs, such as sitting shivah or visiting the next of kin with gifts of food are also considered necessary but were also not permitted. This was very, very hard for those people, and also difficult for our team. When your job revolves around doing whatever you can to fulfil people’s wishes, saying no feels strange. Sometimes we were given no justification for why something wasn’t permitted, so we could only inform rather than explain.

In spite of the difficulties we have experienced, I am trying to look forward with hope, and be optimistic that some of what we have learned will be helpful when we navigate funerals post-COVID. Certainly, some of the more creative solutions we have seen to issues around restricted attendances can be taken forwards. Whatever happens, I am certain that we will continue to support those who need us.

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Published by Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen


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