Coping with a pandemic – a funeral director’s perspective

Fran Hall

The GFG Blog has been unnaturally quiet during the last months. The unfolding catastrophe of the UK’s experience of Covid-19 has rendered us almost completely silent. Whether it is 44,220 as today’s official figures show, or many, many more – over 65,000 as suggested by the Financial Times analysis – the magnitude of the numbers of dead and bereaved is beyond comprehension. Our thoughts and observations will add nothing to the awfulness of our collective experience.

But there are those who do have something to contribute. And we think it is imperative that their words are collected, recorded and shared here as a record of the experiences of those who work with the dead and the bereaved during the global pandemic that we are all living through.

We have invited all of our Recommended Funeral Directors to use this platform to reflect on their work and how they have coped with the abrupt changes to funerals since March.

We hope that many of them will do so. We have committed to making this Blog available to them to share their thoughts whenever they feel ready to do so. Some may not wish to. Others may need time to gather together the right words to express the enormity of the experience. Today, we are proud and humbled to present the first account that has been sent to us.

It is written by David Holmes, of Holmes and Family Funeral Directors, based in the South East of England.

The photo is of Alex and Josh – ‘trying to dress appropriately on day 1’.

“I don’t recall anyone calling it lockdown in the beginning, although it was obvious something was coming. On that first Monday morning, I set off from home as normal, although it didn’t feel anything like normal.   

The ferry I normally use from my home in the Isle of Wight had stopped running, the service was withdrawn.  For the first time in 23 years of commuting, I needed to make my own arrangements.  Thankfully, I have a 21 ft RIB, an inflatable boat, capable of making the crossing even on rough days, and so I used it.  Over that weekend, I heard that the harbours on both sides of the Solent had gone into lockdown too, boat owners were legally prevented from accessing their boat, using it or mooring it elsewhere.   This news greatly stressed me; how could I sit at home idle at a time like this, I emailed the harbour masters, explaining my predicament, ‘I am a key worker; level 2, I need to be at work’ was my plea.   Both Lymington and Yarmouth harbour masters responded quickly, they were wonderfully understanding, in Lymington, they even allocated me their number one mooring space!

The night before that first day at work I barely slept, wondering how we would manage, fearing the unknown.   I knew we had an obligation to the people who had already booked a funeral.  I feared for my staff, the brilliant caring people who are Holmes and Family, would they just resign and run away?   I feared for my eldest daughter, who following an illness, had a lung removed.  I worried about my disabled Mum, who fairly recently suffered a stroke.   Would I get Covid19 and pass it on to them both?  I am almost 60, by far the oldest person at work, I’m a little overweight too, which seems to put me in the at-greater-risk group.

Driving up to work, it was eerily quiet, I have never seen anything like it.  The M3 motorway was virtually empty, except for supermarket lorries.  It only took an hour, and when I arrived, I could tell everyone was feeling as I did, nervous, anxious and fearful for what was to come.  I think we all assumed we’d get it quickly, and then what?  How would we complete the already booked funerals, who would replace each of us as we fell like dominos?  

A team talk seemed essential, we gathered in the kitchen and I told everyone that the merry-go-round of life had stopped, and as funeral directors, we were among the chosen few.  Our duty was to the people who had placed the dead in our care, and to those yet to do so. We had all freely chosen this path, and now we should fulfil our duty, just as those in the NHS and other essential services would do.  I reminded them that what we do is a privilege, to be entrusted with someone’s funeral arrangements is a great privilege.  They responded brilliantly, as I knew they would.  We thought about the practicalities, how we would do our jobs while protecting ourselves and our own families.   Like me, everyone has someone they need to shield, and we’re still doing so, this is nowhere near done yet, nor will it be for some time. 

We ordered coffins, we bought and begged as much PPE as we could find and practiced using it.  We agreed between us that we were only as strong as our weakest link, and so we all washed, cleaned, sanitised and created new routines and still stick to them rigidly.  I have never been prouder of those who work with me, not for me, with me, after all, what use is a one-man undertaker?  It’s a team effort, without the team, I’m no use to anyone. 

Our families, well they’ve been brilliant too, we’ve arranged funerals in a completely new way, we’ve talked, we’ve emailed, skyped and worked closely together but apart to make sure we do the best we can.   

There have been tears, some of the families’ situations have really touched us. The end of a life must be marked in a meaningful way, and in recent months, that’s not always felt possible.   I choked-up when I drove the hearse to the house of parents who had lost their beautiful adult daughter.  There would be just 6 people present, including her partner, parents and brother, not even flowers allowed, which seemed particularly cruel.  On arrival, we turned into the road and saw family, friends and neighbours lining the street, heads bowed, silently paying tribute and supporting the incredibly dignified parents.  As we crept along the road, these people threw dozens of flowers in our path, something I hadn’t witnessed since Princess Diana’s funeral procession.  It really moved me, and it’s happened since, moving me again.  

Many humans have great inner strength, a way of adapting to impossible situations and just dealing with things.  Most of us have found a way to cope and have responded wonderfully well to this dreadful virus but our fight continues.”

David Holmes

5 3 votes
Article Rating
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Hannah Ditch
Hannah Ditch
28 days ago

What an amazing account of your experiences David, thank you for sharing. Huge admiration for how you coped through this, and I hope things get easier.