How We Adapted: Funerals and Covid-19

In late March 2020, the whole county was preparing to go into lockdown. However, I took the decision to keep working and keep Compassionate Funerals open to the public as I felt funeral services provide a vital and essential role – even sometimes referred to as the fifth emergency service. In addition, I was in the process of preparing a funeral for a client who was very close to death, and knowing her both professionally and personally, I couldn’t let her down.

In retrospect, I felt scared at was happening in the world, it was all so surreal. I did my best not to panic buy anything, but at the same time we needed to make sure we had ample PPE. This proved to be a struggle to find – but like everything, we found a way.

Then we had to implement governmental guidance and adapt our funeral home, where both we and the public would be safe. We communicated the changes on online platforms. Initially we were tasked to report regularly to the PMART Team regarding our capacity. This process highlighted our capacity and our flexibility of increasing the volume of the mortuary. As a way to keep safe, the Compassionate Funerals team quickly re-arranged our premises. The majority of enquires and arrangements were carried out online or over the phone, attendees to the funerals were severely reduced. With so many restrictions in place, we did our best to steam ahead.

The first Covid-19 funeral we did was a close friend of mine, who originally died from kidney failure but according to his death certificate he had contracted the virus in the hospital as his family all tested negative. I viewed Fuad like my brother, so this was an emotionally testing funeral to organise and manage. If anyone died from Covid-19 it meant that we could not carry out any faith based ritual washing or viewing. This was difficult to convey to the family and it felt like we were being disloyal to the way we normally work, which is infused with hands-on compassionate care, with the family’s wishes at the core of everything. At the time of Fuad’s funeral, only sixteen family members were allowed to attend the funeral. I asked the family to film and livestream the funeral, and so allowing others to view and be part of it. Fuad was a highly regarded journalist, activist, and worked deeply within the UK’s and global multi-faith communities promoting peace, unity and reconciliation. Under normal circumstances, his funeral would have attracted thousands of mourners. The best we could do was to stream it online – where approximately 16,000 mourners watched and sent their goodbye prayers.

From early on we decided to respond to the pandemic head on and take each day as it comes - we felt it was important to keep our service available for as long as we could. We didn’t know if things would get so bad that the government would take over managing all funerals, so for as long as we could we wanted to give people our time and care. It was simply a case of adapting our services to be Covid-19 safe and a waiting game to see what was going to happen. During the initial days, it was eerie going into work, the streets and roads were empty, and it felt like I was in a novel or a Hollywood movie, where life stood still, and I didn’t know where the storyline was going.

About two weeks into lockdown we were inundated with funerals and had an unusually high number of referrals from the Muslim community. The way we responded to the work was to split the team into two sub-teams. Due to the Islamic funeral rites the funeral needs to take place immediately and where possible we made this happen. There were a few cases where we couldn’t initially locate the person who had died, or they were in the care of the coroners. Both of these situations caused a delay with the funeral taking place. I must mention that the GPs, Coroners, Registrars, crematoria, cemeteries and the hospital and hospice bereavement teams all worked diligently in adapting and issuing the legal paperwork online. It certainly felt like we were all working tirelessly to make sure that both the bereaved and their loved ones were getting their needs met. People’s ability to adapt under pressure is really incredible.

In retrospect, the early days of Covid-19 were certainly testing times. The situation we found ourselves in was unchartered territory, coupled with personal loss and a high volume of diverse funerals which had and still have restrictions.

The togetherness of the team at Compassionate Funerals is what made our challenge seem possible. At the time I can remember a colleague saying, “you can’t stop me from working, this is my skill set and we have to use our tools to serve the greater good”. With such tenacity in the mix, we had very little choice but to carry on. With hindsight, we preserved through this time, we pulled together, we built strong relationships and we had the privilege of serving lots of families.

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