- Nicholas Wibberley
Striving for truth - busting the myths about funerals during COVID-19
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
We are hearing more and more, almost every day, reports in the media, in newspapers and particularly in 'call-in' radio shows, about people being prohibited from having any form of meaningful funeral. We hear horror stories about families being told that they cannot attend the funerals of their loved ones, or that they cannot have flowers, or cannot visit the chapel of rest to spend a final few minutes with the parent/child/husband/wife they could not see in the final moments of life.
In recent days, I have become more forlorn with these reports, both public and personal. I recently heard of a family informed by their funeral director that they were not allowed to view their father, despite the fact that he did not have COVID-19 when he died. For this family, spending time with their father's body prior to his burial was a very important personal, cultural and religious need, and they were being deprived of it by their funeral directors. This, and countless other similar stories, point to a nationwide problem of funeral directors not allowing families to have the services they really want and need, and using the global pandemic as an excuse for it.
So, lets look at the reality of the funeral industry's advice and guidance on dealing with coronavirus.
Public Health England (PHE) published advice on 31st March 2020 directed particularly at the funeral industry and those handling the care of the people who have died. In this advice, they were very clear on the following few points about the handling of deceased people with COVID-19:
We DO NOT need to use sealed body bags PHE are very clear that the risk of transmission is sufficiently low from those who have died that the use of sealed body bags is unnecessary. Instead, they advise that the mouth and nose of the deceased person be covered with a mask or similar cover for the first few days after death, to prevent any infected droplets leaving the deceased person as they are moved.
We DO NOT need excessive 'hospital-style' PPE whilst handling the deceased We are advised very clearly that the use of full gowns, aprons and vizors is unnecessary for those handling the bodies of COVID victims. We are advised, of course, that the use of surgical face-masks and nitrate gloves are perfectly sufficient when coming into contact with deceased.
We ARE permitted to embalm the deceased Contrary to what a number of reports are stating, the PHE advice and guidance makes it clear that the embalming of the deceased is not advised against. Moreover, the process of embalming (if done properly by a trained professional) would cause the deceased person to no longer be of any risk of transmitting the disease. For me, then, embalming is extremely advisable, as it removes any risk associated with working with the deceased.
Viewing with an open coffin IS permitted Building what is mentioned above regarding embalming, the viewing of deceased people is of no risk whatsoever to funeral staff or family members alike once the deceased has been embalmed. The only precautions to bear in mind with having family members visiting in the chapel of rest are the guidelines on social distancing. We are therefore advising family members who are not from the same household to come in separately and, wherever possible, one at a time.
In light of these clear guidelines, we are led to ask the question as to why so many people across the whole country are being told by funeral directors the opposite of these key things. For me the answer is simple, and it is a very sad and stark one.
I believe that many funeral companies are not informing themselves of best practices and PHE guidance, and as such are guessing what to do, and are possibly overreacting. Such overreaction is also being shown by some local authority cemeteries and crematoria. I was delighted to hear this week that the government have now forced such places to reopen their gates and to stop prohibiting all family members from attending funerals. For the past few weeks my team and I have found ourselves advising families to steer clear of certain crematoria locally to us in South London who have been insisting that there is no attendance at all for the funerals of people who have died of COVID-19. Such measures are a clear example of the overreaction I am speaking about.
On the surface, banning any family to attend funerals of COVID-19 victims may seem like a sensible measure, but when you dig down into it, it makes less sense. If these crematoria think that the families of the COVID victims are going to be at greater risk if they attend the funeral, then they have clearly not read or understood the PHE guidelines about the risks of transmission from the deceased. I can certainly assure them that if the victims of COVID are of little or no risk to funeral professionals in direct contact with them, then they are of even less risk to attendees of funerals, at which the deceased is sealed in a coffin on a catafalque at the other end of the large chapel.
"this policy is nothing other than active discrimination against innocent people who happen to have been unlucky enough to lose a loved one to this horrible disease"
Perhaps these crematoria consider the families of deceased COVID victims to be themselves a greater risk because they are more likely to have come into contact with the virus. This is also nonsense as the pattern of how COVID-19 infects, weakens and eventually kills its victims is now a well documented phenomenon. After an incubation period of up to 10 days, the immune system's lack of control is developed in days 3-6 of showing symptoms. Hospitalisation usually occurs in days 7 - 10, and very sadly death in days 10 - 16. It is clear, therefore, that the death is several weeks after the infection itself has entered the body. Direct family members of those who have sadly died are therefore often themselves fully recovered from the disease before the death occurs. This is without taking into account the 7 - 21 day wait between death and the funeral itself. Now, of course family members may have caught COVID quite separately to their deceased relatives, and therefore be an infection risk at the funeral, but this is no more likely for people whose family members have died of the condition than it is for anyone else. I strongly feel, therefore, that this policy is nothing other than active discrimination against innocent people who happen to have been unlucky enough to lose a loved one to this horrible disease.
By far the most noticeable place where the funeral industry professionals are neglecting their duty of care and compassion, and using their (apparent) ignorance of the PHE guidelines on funerals and COVID-19 is in the 'corporate' end of the industry. I have been literally moved to tears in the past few days hearing about how deceased people are being treated by some of the largest and most famous funeral companies in the country. The corporate end of the industry is characterised by its much higher prices, much less flexible options, and much more impersonal service. I speak from experience having spent many years working for two of the three largest funeral companies in the country. These companies rely on a dedicated and compassionate frontline workforce trying their absolute hardest to do their best in spite of terrible working conditions and being undertrained, underpaid and overworked. These companies are the very ones instructing their staff to tell their clients that they cannot view, cannot dress, cannot have flowers, cannot embalm and, in some cases, cannot attend.
If you take nothing else away from reading this article, please remember that these prohibitions are not necessary, and if you shop around you will find a funeral director who is happy to treat you, your loved one, and your funeral arrangement with the dignity and respect they deserve.
In a world where we are surrounded by bad news, sad realities and negative headlines, please remember that in your hardest and darkest hour of need, when trying to lay to rest your closest and dearest relatives and friends, there are still funeral professionals out there who will honour and respect your requests, guide you through exactly what you can do, and empower you to give your loved one the most fitting and beautiful funeral possible, even during these unusual and unpleasant times. These examples of caring and compassionate professionals will doubtless be at the 'family-run' and 'independent' end of the industry where they are operating in a much more local and direct level in the middle of their local communities. Fighting against the national marketing budgets of the big corporate companies, we independents shine as a quiet light of truth, flying the flag of true and proper service, helping families the way YOU want, providing the funerals that YOU need to grieve properly, and continuing to serve YOU and your loved one in every way we can.
If you find yourself being told by a funeral director that you cannot dress, or view, or embalm your loved one, or that you cannot have flowers, or that you cannot attend the funeral, stand up and leave their offices. Find your local independent family-run funeral home, and start again. In a world full of misinformation and growing trends of low-quality COVID funerals, find yourself a funeral director still working for you, busting the false myths, ignoring the bad trends, and working transparently and honestly for you and your family.