COVID-19: Navigating the path

Next steps

The pandemic brought trials, tears and trauma to the front line – with more challenges ahead. SAIFInsight finds out how members in each corner of the country continue to face up to the impact of the virus…

Brian Elwood

Brian Elwood
Elwood & Capper Ltd, Dunmurry, Northern Ireland

“One good result of this situation has been the fact that people have had to improvise in some ways because of the restrictions. The webcam in our funeral home has been been red hot and we have seen people at gravesides using their iPads to stream to their families around the world.

We looked after the service of one man who would have normally had a very big funeral, with many members of the community attending. So when we got to the bottom of his street, we put in a phone call and everyone on that big, long street came out with a Guinness. That was great.

A similar situation saw a family have a wee dram of Hennessey outside the crematorium. They couldn’t have done that inside the building, but outside, under the alcove, it was OK.

I do humanist services, as a celebrant – I think I’m the only funeral director who is also a celebrant in Northern Ireland – and those funerals allow even more variation. We had one service attended by the mourners, while more were there virtually – we had them on iPads and rigged up microphones so they could speak during the service.

I’ve had a battle with my own thoughts as we haven’t been able to do the things we normally would. I had to take a week off work to get my head sharp again. It’s the personal things, like people asking if they can add something to the coffin, when we can’t.

We have had more COVID deaths in the last week than over the whole lockdown period so numbers seem to be on the rise.

I’m a third generation funeral director and, when my dad was my age, he used to tell me ‘in this job you need to find a distraction…’ he’s so right.”

Andrea Hodgson

Andrea Hodgson
Hodgson J & A, Annan, Scotland

“We were certainly busier this year, but it hasn’t all been COVID-related. On the whole, deaths here have been natural and expected. The biggest impact has been on how everything has had to change.

We’ve been really fortunate as our families have been so understanding of why numbers have been reduced.

Online services have been a big learning curve and, while I find them so impersonal, we had no option but to ensure the safety of the families and ourselves.

Our business was established in 1902 and it’s still purely family – myself, my husband Jim, our 17-year-old son, Hayden, and my dad Andie, plus a couple of casual drivers. We have been extra vigilant – we can’t get ill.

We’ve been disinfecting and hand sanitising more than necessary probably. We developed a checklist and risk assessment based on our own strict core of hygiene and implementation and we’ve worked hard at offering our families unique services while staying within the guidelines.

I’ve kept informed using a mixture of Scottish Government updates and the info from SAIFScotland. Joe Murren and Declan Maguire’s work on setting up SAIF Scotland’s communications on Slack has been second to none. It meant that if a funeral director had a problem, we could bounce it off each other. Our local crematorium, Roucan Loch, was on the ball too.

This second phase of COVID has seen people become more complacent, so I hope they consider the consequences and we get through winter okay.”

Gary Ellis

Gary Ellis
L Jackson & Sons, Powys, Wales

“We have two businesses – one in Shropshire and one across the border in Wales, so it has been challenging as both were under different rules and restrictions.

I was part Powys Local Resilience Forum for excess deaths (LRF), helping to collect data and set up a temporary mortuary in the Powys area as the hospitals here don’t have the capacity to add bigger mortuaries to their premises.

Initially, the Government’s predictions were frightening because they were based on worst case scenarios with no restrictions taking place. If they had come to pass and deaths had spiralled, we would have been in trouble.

As the point of contact for funeral directors in the area, I made calls to them to establish how ready they were or how resilient they would be. Some of the smaller businesses were compromised because they had staff or support who were retired, so were shielding and understandably quite frightened by the situation.

It was clear that we had to set up a mortuary, so we set about creating one at an old meat processing plant in Builth Wells, which had capacity for more than 900. There was a lot of planning involved with that, of course. We met twice a week as an LRF and I spent 4-6 hours a week on procedures and training as well as on-site training. That involved setting procedures for what happened when the deceased arrived and what steps were taken on releasing the body.

It was challenging, interesting and quite an honour to have been involved with that, and play a part in dealing with the local authorities, disease control and health and safety side of things.

We’re pretty rural here in Powys, so in the end we weren’t actually too badly affected – cases here have been mainly confined to hositals and nursing homes. Lockdown worked well here and families have been very understanding. It’s difficult as we know most of the people and we would normally go out to the family’s home to go through everything and be a constant face for them. That’s been the hardest thing, that feeling of detatchment, of just being a voice over the phone.

To help the bereaved, we reintroduced driving through the village – that used to happen years ago when everyone closed their curtains and came out to pay their respects. That gives some comfort.

From the first lockdown to the second I have seen a lot more virus within the community, so now I’m wary about what’s going to happen around Christmas. We could well see a spike after that – it all depends on what restrictions we are put under.

As strange times roll on, strange becomes a normality.”

Claire Potter

Claire Potter
F. A. Stockill and Son, Scarborough, England

“It’s been a crazy month – we would normally have between four and six deaths, but instead we’ve seen 14. However, only two were classed as COVID-19. In our area people are predominantly retired and elderly, so have been shielding or avoiding visiting their GPs or hospitals, so I think they haven’t been seeking medical attention. COVID has many prongs, it’s not just the virus that kills.

The difference between the first and second lockdown is stark. We’re seeing neighbours and friends testing positive, so I’m fearful and expecting worse before Christmas.

Before COVID, we were a concierge service, offering bespoke funerals and saying ‘yes’ to families. However, COVID has turned us into ‘no’ people. We’re constantly trying to conjure up ways to give service. A Facebook post went viral when we asked people to stop and pay their respects if they saw a hearse – that meant a lot to the families following their loved one – and we noticed that many people did pay their respects, which was lovely.

The families are suffering because bereavement is a time to come together, so if family members couldn’t attend, having people line the streets and say goodbyes by waving from a window has been important.

Webcasts at crematoriums have been a lifeline to those who are unable to attend; to also assist we are ensuring service sheets are posted out before the service to these too.

We have been trying to think of other ways to help take the heartbreak away, and SAIFCare has been excellent. Having a third party for families to talk to has been wonderful because the person grieving can tell their story to someone who hasn’t already heard it. That helps the grief journey.

What upsets me is that funeral directors are not given the recognition they deserve – we clap for the NHS, most key workers have reductions at shops – but we get nothing. It wouldn’t hurt the Government to tip their hat to the funeral sector which has flexed to their needs. After all, every funeral is like a fingerprint.

People in authority can easily say no to things, but it is us who are having enforce decisions at a crucial point with people already fragile in grief. We’re under recognised in our key role in implementing their decision.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,