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

The latest in our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic is from Jo Williamson, founder of Albany Funerals in Kent (top right in the Zoom image below).

“As the government continues to lift the Coronavirus lockdown restrictions this week, now allowing up to 30 people to attend funerals and the reopening of churches for funeral services, it is again time for us funeral directors to reconsider our ways of working, and to readapt once more. Something that we have been doing constantly since mid March.  There is still a lot of fear, tiredness, frustration and anxiety in the air, but we are evolving, and reaching acceptance that this constant state of flux will possibly be the ‘new normal’ at least for the near future.  It has been a strange time. 

Because of our close ties with other progressive funeral directors and the discussions we have regularly on the Good Funeral Guild forum, we had some insight into what was coming back in March. 

Like others, we began to make serious preparations weeks before the government put us into lockdown.  We purchased PPE before the prices went insane and while you could still order full coverings, respirator masks, long gloves etc, and we split the team to work as separately as possible, such an alien concept to us. 

In spite of our relative preparedness, I still see the first two months as dark and frightening times that I will never forget.  The fear of driving through a ghost town to go into people’s homes where someone has just died, weighing up the desire for our own protection and theirs with that of not wanting to alienate grieving families with our CSI or even sci-fi like appearance.  A tricky balance – I just remember constantly apologising.  Funny how now we would not hesitate to wear full PPE even at times of minimum risk, it has become the norm, we all adapt.

Then there was the grappling with what we should and shouldn’t be doing – how far should we be going to help the bereaved say goodbye to their loved ones on their own terms?  We had sleepless nights feeling that we were never doing enough, or maybe too much? The support from other Guild funeral directors was so valuable, we texted, Zoomed and Skyped, sent each other hand creams and encouragements, exchanged ideas.

Although the Coronavirus Bill contained welcome changes in legislation updating the archaic legal and administrative processes for funerals, general government guidelines pertaining to care of the deceased and funerals were confused, unclear and offered little support. 

Could we trust them when the advice was downgraded? Were we putting people and ourselves at unnecessary risk?  Things were constantly changing, we juggled with all of this as the situation evolved, it was obvious that this was a moving target.  It was important that nobody on the team felt pushed into taking risks with their own health to satisfy the requests of those grieving, but on the other hand families were in even more acute pain than usual.  The distress was palpable – the loss was sudden, the goodbyes had not been said in the usual way, grief-stricken families were separated, we couldn’t see them face to face. How can you provide a healthy balance? 

Nevertheless, we did adapt, and so did the families that we worked with, often in the most dire of circumstances.  We have been able to have good and real funerals, in spite of the restrictions. Some people even admitted they loved having something intimate that only close family could attend in a first instance, and not the annoying neighbour or the overbearing aunt.

From the start we were determined to reassure our clients that, contrary to the common belief, you don’t only get one chance to have a ‘funeral’, and that showing up to a crematorium following the death isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ of saying goodbye to someone.  This could be done anywhere, anyhow, and doesn’t take anything away from the love and care you have for that person. 

This was definitely a struggle for the majority, mostly due to the fear of what others would think, because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ and the need to have something tangibly familiar at a time of great crisis and upheaval.  Some could and others could not adapt to this concept, and it was almost exciting to see people who would normally simply go through the motions of a funeral on automatic pilot now thinking completely outside of the box and finding real comfort in that. I really do feel now that there has been a shift, a deeper understanding and perhaps a desire to update our funeral rites – which I welcome wholeheartedly and hope to encourage further.

An unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the media focus on funerals.  As many of us know, funeral directors are usually the forgotten, the unspoken link to death, operating in the dark, behind the scenes, in secret, slipping into care homes in the middle of the night whilst doors are hurriedly shut, or adorned in Victorian outfits – mostly only alluded to in articles about the rise in funeral costs.

This was a new angle, we became……… interesting!  People were not able to have the funerals they were accustomed to, they wanted information, they wanted our opinion. I gave interviews to the Telegraph, the Independent, the Kent Messenger and featured on an NBC global hangout forum with Michael Jackson’s Rabbi friend and a chap who had arranged a Zoom funeral for his brother who had died of Covid. 

It was sometimes surreal being in the middle of a media storm with everything else going on, but refreshing to talk about our work and passion to a newly engaged audience.  It can only be positive to talk about death and funerals more freely and I hope that this will be a start of a new awareness and shift in our antiquated rites of passage.”

Jo Williamson

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

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

Coping with a pandemic – a funeral director’s perspective

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

Not good enough

An official government digital ‘Bereavement Leaflet’ document has just appeared, purporting to provide ‘Information for the Bereaved’ for people in England during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It can be found here.

It’s not a great document to be honest. It doesn’t give very much useful information, but what it does state very clearly is “A first step will be to choose a funeral director. You can find an industry-inspected local funeral director via the following websites:

The National Association of Funeral Directors:

The National Society of Allied and independent Funeral Directors:’

That’s it.

It seems that the government are steering anyone who has been bereaved during the current disastrous situation straight to a member of one of the two trade associations. If a company is not a member of either NAFD or SAIF then according to this document they’re probably not worth contacting.

It seems that notwithstanding the market investigation by the CMA into the funeral industry that has so far been less than complimentary about large corporate companies who all belong to a trade association, the government are now suggesting bereaved people choose a funeral director who is a member of a funeral director trade association. On the premise that they are ‘industry-inspected’.

Just for the record, we think this is wrong.

Some of the best funeral directors feel that neither trade association represents them sufficiently well. Many of these are companies recommended by the Good Funeral Guide who have been through our accreditation process.

You can read a series of guest posts from some superb funeral directors outlining why they choose not to belong to either trade association here.

Finding a way through

Our opinion piece last Friday ignited a debate that has continued throughout the week.

It was picked up by Sky News on Friday evening, then over the weekend, articles appeared in The Telegraph, Newsweek, The Express, The Church Times, and Sputnik News all referencing our blog post, and it was referred to in a letter to The Yorkshire Post.

An article in The Guardian on Saturday by Good Funeral Guild member Rebecca Lee-Wale detailed how difficult the situation is for celebrants, another member of the Guild, funeral director Jenny Uzzell, discussed funerals under the current restrictions on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday morning (around 35 minutes in) and a third Guild member, Lucy Coulbert, spoke on Talk Radio on Monday afternoon about our blog post and her thoughts about it as a funeral director facing this crisis head on.

We have spoken to a number of journalists since last week and been interviewed live on LBC and Radio 5 Live, while in online forums many people have voiced their opinions, both in support of – and strongly against – our suggestion that funerals as they are now are neither safe nor adequate. 

The Jewish Chronicle revealed last weekend that Britain’s Liberal and Reform Jewish Movements had announced no mourners would be permitted at burials- see here, while a number of crematoria around the country have now moved to only accepting bookings for unattended cremations. Bradford, Aberdeen, Yeovil and Leeds have all already suspended ceremonies with mourners attending, while others are set to follow in the coming weeks.

The discussion continues, as more and more people experience just how difficult a socially distanced ceremony actually is. We have heard from numerous people who have found their own personal situation almost impossible to bear, and others who argued compellingly that an unwitnessed burial or cremation would have been even worse for them. There is no easy answer to any of these messages. There is no good solution to what we are facing.

But in response to our request for ideas for how to find ways of commemorating the lives of those who have died without risking the lives and wellbeing of those who survive, we had a message from a celebrant, Helen Wearmouth, who had a ‘somewhat left-field idea’ (her own words).

We invited her to write a guest blog for us. Here it is.


Funerals During COVID-19 – A Crazy Idea.

In her latest article Fran Hall extended an open invite for solutions to a problem; a problem which concerns more than just our industry. A problem which concerns our entire society:

How do we continue commemorating lives without placing mourners in jeopardy?

My idea is further down. It’s far from conventional, but these are desperate, unconventional times:

  • If you see a problem with my solution, please share it.
  • If you think of a better idea, please share it.

In the article below, I’ve tried to describe:

  • The problems posed by the current situation.
  • The problems other solutions cannot address.
  • My proposed solution.

Why can’t funerals continue as they are?

Before even considering the problem, it’s important to have a grasp on what the problems are. In this case, recent government safeguards implemented to protect us all from coronavirus present problems of their own. Any solution must solve these problems in addition to those caused by the virus.

The problems are:

  • Risk of infection between mourners.
  • Only ‘immediate family’ may attend.

This is vague and open to interpretation. Do unmarried partners count? How about step-siblings and foster children? Who gets to decide?

  • People showing symptoms are excluded.
  • Entire households of those showing symptoms can’t attend.
  • Over 70s will be less able to attend.
  • Those concerned about contracting the virus won’t attend.
  • With good reason, travel (whether essential or otherwise) is discouraged.

Other factors we need to consider.

Religious beliefs:

Here in the UK, land is a valuable commodity. Burials are more expensive than cremations and the remains take up more space. For several years now, this situation has been approaching a crisis point even without this strain of coronavirus as a catalyst.

For followers of the Muslim faith or Judaism, cremation is not an option, and people of these faiths represent a sizeable proportion of our population.

The problems with solutions I’ve heard so far.

So far, I’ve heard two main contenders for a solution to these problems. Both options only offer a partial remedy to each problem, and each creates its own problems:

Solution 1: Memorials at a later date

With this solution, the deceased would be cremated/buried immediately, allowing their service to be held at a later date.

Problem 1: When?

Will the end of this pandemic be easy to define? Pandemics often return in waves.

Problem 2: How many services could there be?

Once the pandemic is over, could we expect an explosion in the number of such services? How many services will people be able to attend?

Problem 3: Why are memorials not our ‘go to’ ceremony already?

Memorials have a great deal going for them. They’re cheaper, you have more time to organise; and can be held anywhere, and at any time.

The big difference between a funeral and a memorial is the presence of the body. Being able to say goodbye to someone you cared about when their body is present means more to many.

Problem 4: Will families be able to afford them?

After what is likely months of financial strain, will families be able to afford a memorial service?

Problem 5: What about prepaid funerals?

Will prepaid funeral contracts cover the change from a funeral to a memorial? If not, will this shake public faith in these investments?      

Solution 2: Internet streaming

 There’s been a great deal of discussion about web-streamed services.

The pros:
  • Allows unlimited virtual-attendees.
  • No-one needs to leave their home.
  • Independent of distance.

If the crematorium even has this facility, there are so many ways this could go wrong. This solution relies on the sound working order of:

  • The crematorium internet connection.
  • The webcam(s), sound equipment.
  • Staff with sufficient technical knowledge to ensure the service is streamed.
  • Virtual-attendees having access to a computer.

Here in the UK, 12% of us still don’t.

  • Virtual-attendees having a fast enough connection to stream a service.

The minimum upload speed is about 1.5 mbps.

  • Virtual-attendees having the technical knowledge to ‘tune in’ to the service.


My Solution.

The vast majority of mourners arrive by vehicle. My idea is they simply remain in these vehicles. Much like American ‘Drive-In’ movie theatres, we apply the same idea to funerals.

Benefits of this idea.
  • Everyone assembles in the usual location.
  • No obstructions to reverting back to usual services once the pandemic is over.
  • All currently excluded groups (over 70s, non-immediate family and friends, estranged relatives, those showing symptoms); could still attend.
  • The body is present for people to say their goodbyes to.
  • No risk of contamination between cars.
  • Elderly and/or disabled mourners don’t need to walk anywhere.
  • Service could be held regardless of weather.
  • Whole households could attend together.
  • Allows those in the same vehicle the possibility of physical comfort (from members of the same household).
  • It requires little change.

Everything would continue to work in much the conventional way, except mourners would remain in their vehicles throughout the ceremony.

How it could work?
  • The service could be conducted in the crematorium car park.
  • Sound can be delivered via an amp, Bluetooth to mobile phones, or we could use a short-range FM transmitter to transmit to nearby car stereos tuned to a given frequency (the latest method used by drive-in theatres).
A request?

I believe this idea, crazy as it may be, offers the potential to address most of the problems we face.

Should you agree or disagree, I ask that you let us know. This problem will soon affect everyone in the UK, and only with our combined knowledge and experience can we can find a solution.


Helen Wearmouth