Coping with a pandemic – a funeral director’s perspective (ii)

Fran Hall

In our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic, today we hear from James Showers, of Family Tree Funerals in Stroud. 

The photo is described by James as ‘Funerals now outdoors. Still beautiful!

“Thank you for inviting us to share our experience of recent months. 

Family Tree Funerals ran in all directions at once to prepare for the imagined tidal wave of corpses. Staff immediately switched to home-working, leaving just myself in the office. We paid £20+ each for masks that were promised as virus-protection and – arriving a month later – were floppy and ill-fitting. We ransacked every cupboard and drawer for body bags and bought every one we could find. One person was full time sourcing aprons (and got ones that would do well in an abattoir), dust suits from Screwfix, ‘Type 5/6’ body suits, cheaply-made visors, more masks, and boxes of gloves (powdered were all we could find at the time). We bulk-ordered a total of 24 coffins, housed in a domestic garage. We bought a refrigerated trailer and were generously offered space in Michael Gamble’s unit to store it. We imagined double-bagging everything, with gloves in triplicate – and scaring the care home residents by pushing our trolley along the corridors dressed like Ghostbusters. 

When we finally stopped our headlong rush and looked around, all was pretty quiet. And while we were still busy arranging funerals, Covid hardly featured in these early weeks.

So very early on, and to try out ‘the look’, I put on every piece of hazard equipment (including air-defenders and blue plastic shoe covers) and rang the bell of a good friend in Clifton, Bristol, who came out onto her balcony for – eventually – a laugh, but not before frightening the neighbours who thought she was infected. In hindsight, a prank in rather poor taste.

When we began getting ‘Suspected Covid’ cases, we faced a decision about the appropriate – and responsible – levels of protection for ourselves and families. We took a decision to allow visits to the person in their coffin at a two-metre distance and five days after death. We closed off the deceased person’s airways and dressed them in their own clothes while wearing PPE.

We have been conscious of the greatly reduced risk from working with a person who has stopped breathing – and that several days ago – compared to the nurses and doctors bending over a living, breathing person who actually has the virus.

If visiting care homes, we decided we would wear our normal clothes with a mask, visor and double gloves until inside the person’s room when we would put aprons over a hazard suit, block the airways, cover the person’s mouth with a disinfected cloth, and transfer them in a sheet to our stretcher or trolley with a cover as normal – and not in a plastic bag. Back at the parlour we would double-disinfect everything, put the person into their clothes and coffin after five days, then allow visitors @2m.

So far so good. Have we been cavalier? I don’t think so. We have been careful, though it could be argued that we took a slightly greater degree of risk than many funeral directors and observers; we chose this quite consciously after considering the way the virus transfers itself.

We expect another wave. We expect coronavirus to feature for a decade – or until a vaccine has been found to work. But we live in Stroud – a rural town which is not densely populated and has plenty of green space – and it seems we have been very lucky to date. 

We have flinched at comments such as ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, and ‘you must be doing well out of this’, as this is simply not the case. We believe our work to be a ‘community service’, and this is true now more than ever.”

James Showers

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