A second wave

words: Tim Power
Second wave

Can the funeral profession cope with another COVID-19 spike? SAIFInsight speaks to three Independents to find out how prepared they are and get their tips for making businesses more robust.

Keep stocks high

Foresight helped Seb Loram from South Devon-based Stockman & Loram prepare for the worst.

“We were fortunate to already have planned for a ‘what if’ scenario when COVID-19 arrived,” says Seb. “When cases started to spread into Europe we acquired good amounts of FFP3 and fluid type IIR masks before panic buying pushed the prices high.”

Seb also developed a system of allowing non-clinical PPE to be rotated so it was reused, keeping stocks of clinical PPE high in case of a spike in COVID-19.

With three branches in London and five in south-east England, Alex Jones, of Chelsea Funeral Directors, ran out of PPE during the early days of the pandemic, but found that most responsible suppliers were good at rationing stocks to help ease supplies for existing customers.

He said: “It’s really important to have very good relationships with suppliers, particularly paying invoices on time. This certainly paid off for us as some of our suppliers remembered us in our time of difficulty.”

He now holds at least ten times the amount of PPE stock that he would normally do just in case of a second wave. David Barlow, of G. Barlow & Sons in Oldham – a town in the middle of a new COVID-19 spike lockdown since the end of July – ran low in PPE.

“Our biggest problem early on in the crisis was trying to get help with supplies from the council,” says David. “They had a stockpile but wouldn’t give us access as we weren’t as ‘high priority’ as others, such as nursing homes. Other councils near our area assisted funeral directors so it was very disappointing.”

Offer choice but make it personal

When it comes to communicating with families, while some have had success using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Teams, David Barlow and Seb Loram found many families favoured talking on the phone or arranging meetings outside their homes.

David said: “We’ve done a tremendous amount of our work over the phone, limiting face-to-face work as much as possible. When lockdown ceased people were popping in to sign forms but observing social distancing, but with Oldham’s local lockdown we are back to square one again. We often go to our families’ homes to get paperwork signed at the garden gate, which is a nice personal touch we can give at these times.”

Alex agrees, saying the sunny weather in the early part of the lockdown made for a nice opportunity to meet people in their gardens.

Seb said his investment in setting up electronic signature platforms to complete paperwork with families over the past few years really paid off in the lockdown period.

He said: “The majority of families are able to cope with this. For arrangements we offered a variety of formats – Zoom, phone or face-to-face.”

Live streaming of services increased dramatically over the lockdown period and Seb was able to keep this in-house, using Vimeo.

He said: “This has been very effective in both quality and in terms of the costs to us and to the families. We’re able to record services and upload them for families to watch later via a private link. Sadly we also looked after two funerals with no family in attendance due to lockdown, so the service was live streamed to them.”

Staffing: allow breaks and holidays now

David and Alex admit that splitting staff up to work in different shift ‘bubbles’ was difficult during lockdown, instead relying on social distancing – a practice that paid off as their staff were not infected.

Seb split his staff and offices up into site bubbles in the early stages, and changed their on-call cover to make sure the whole team would not be compromised if someone fell ill.

All three have praised the commitment and hard work of their staff and said it is one of the strengths of working for an independent family business that people know, when the chips are down, it’s time to all muck in and help where they can.

Alex added: “Like other independent funeral directors, our staff have been absolutely amazing and worked flat out with early starts and late finishes. We kept our preparedness levels high. Any spare time we had we were making sure everything was ready for a potential spike and we were on top of it; we ensured everything was immaculately clean and serviced to make it easier to keep up afterwards – that paid off.”

Seb said: “We’ve been flexible with holidays and most staff chose not to take this leave in full. We’ll review requests later in the year when we hope they can actually take a proper break when the restrictions hopefully lift.”

Memorial planning: offer to help

With restricted attendances for funerals, directors have been asked to help with memorial services in the future, however, our Independents are doubtful this will happen.

“We found most families don’t want to set up a separate memorial service,” says Seb. “Most are trying to sort out a larger gathering when laying the cremated remains to rest now. Where we did arrange for a memorial to be on a separate occasion this was itemised on the family’s account, allowing easy reconciliation if it is cancelled at a later date.”

Alex is worried that, with the passing of time, many people’s desire for a memorial service will fade. “While I think there’ll be a lot of memorial services in the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these don’t happen as people feel they have done their grieving and are not sure that they want to stir up all those emotions again.”

Working with a range of sector partners

Good relationships built up with local churches, hospitals and crematoria came into their own over the critical period, showing the funeral sector in a good light.

Alex found the change in doctor’s certificates requiring just one signature a great boon, helping to make the funeral process much quicker and more efficient, relieving pressure on GPs.

Seb noted a new cameraderie: “Most of the funeral directors in our area seemed to be on the same page regarding working conditions and best practice. This extended across the independent and corporate sectors and saw informal agreements on process and methods to be used.

We have an excellent relationship with many doctors’ surgeries and have implemented a digital signature system for them to lock the cremation Form 4 when sent electronically, so the electronic version can be sent to crematoria without fear of the information being altered. Our local registrars have also been excellent, with improved speed of the disposal Form 9 being sent to us by email. Everything in this regard has been a vast improvement on the previous system which fails to utilise technology in any way.”

David said hospitals in Oldham were extremely helpful, giving them wider access to the deceased, and praised local churches and crematoria for pulling together: “Except for one, everyone has been extremely helpful because we’ve developed good relationships with everyone over many years. At a time like this there is no point in falling out with anybody – it’s beneficial for everyone to work together.”

Like David, Seb had an issue with his local council.

“Several firms were excluded from a council consultation with only a minority represented in the initial discussion. There is a substantial lack of understanding and appreciation of the work that funeral directors are able to carry out. In the end, full consultation was gained through constant requests for information and access to the working groups. That resulted in the local authority changing their death management plans.

“SAIF and the NAFD have all been very supportive to member firms throughout this process in conjunction with the support and representation of the Deceased Management Advisory Group.”

Three top tips

Seb: “A good website signposts people to services. It’s essential. As the number of face-to-face meetings decreased, we used the website, PDFs and emails to help people understand the process and keep up to date with funeral details.”

Alex: “Just be as organised as you possibly can. When I worked for a small family firm years ago they always said: ‘Let’s get everything done today. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring’. And, my goodness hasn’t that resonated today? When you’ve got a quiet afternoon find something to do because it’ll need doing anyway. And try to take time off when you can, and give staff holidays during quiet times.”

David: “Accept the situation for what it is and just get on with the job.”

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