Covid-19: Funeral staff under pressure

By Tim Maby

As the number of deaths from Covid-19 is quickly increasing, undertakers are worrying that they, like health staff, lack adequate protective equipment and training.  The need for the speedy disposal of bodies is also causing considerable concern among some faith groups.

In a briefing for the Religion Media Centre, Jenny Uzzell, a funeral director from Durham, said that her staff needed disposable full body suits, body bags, gloves, sanitiser, anti-viral wipes and specialist face masks.  Hospitals in her area are still able to place the dead in bags for safe transport, but supplies of the other equipment is already in very short supply, especially the FFP3 highest-grade filter face masks.

She explained that bodies expressed air carrying dangerous fine spray when they were moved and there were no bags available when funeral teams collected them. Few staff have the specialised training for dealing with such situations. Orders for new equipment face delays of more than a month.

Unless a proper autopsy is carried out, staff do not know how dangerous the body might be. The Lancashire coroner is reported to have advised using towels or bin liners to cover mouths and noses if no proper bags are available, on the assumption that all bodies are now to be presumed dangerous. The Good Funeral Guide recommends that undertakers suspend their business if they cannot get the right equipment.

Severe restrictions on the conduct of funerals have now been introduced. The Institute of Cemetery and Cremation Management has told crematoria not to allow mourners to touch coffins, because the virus can live on surfaces for up to three days. Curtains around the coffin before cremation are to be kept closed.

The ceremonial washing of bodies, traditional in the Muslim and Jewish faiths, is now strictly limited, and participants should wear two sets of gloves, face masks and waterproof gowns. The numbers of people attending funerals is now limited by government recommendation to close family only, as Ms Uzell says that the biggest danger to her staff is by infection from mourners. Many undertakers will not allow family to visit their mortuaries.

The problem in disposing of bodies is causing much concern within religious communities. Professor Douglas Davies, director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, warned that we may look back on this as a time of “bad deaths”. The bereaved may be “psychologically uneasy” because they will feel an improper ceremony will leave a soul unhappy in the afterlife. Parliament pulled back this week from giving local authorities the right to insist on cremation of all those killed by Covid-19, because so many believed the right to burial was important.

It is likely, Professor Davies said, that the need to deal with so many deaths at once would mean that the growing practice of “direct cremation” becomes the norm. Over the past two years funeral directors have begun to take bodies for immediate cremation and then bring back the ashes for ceremonial farewell. Last year about five per cent of funerals involved direct cremation.

Professor Davies said fewer families felt the need for expensive ceremonies and liturgy, and that there was a popular declining belief in the afterlife. Many no longer sought an “identity in heaven, but a retrospective identity”, such as when the ashes were taken to a place important to the deceased, for example where they fell in love. However he acknowledged that this was more of a middle-class than a working-class phenomenon.