In the eye of the storm

COVID-19 views

From concerns over PPE and body bags to fears for staff safety, funeral directors are taking a hit as they man the front line – here they speak to SAIFInsight directly about the impact it’s having.

Daniel Devall, Devall & Son, Nuneaton & Coventry

In 2018, Daniel became the third generation of Devalls to manage funerals in the Nuneaton and Coventry area. This is his COVID-19 experience.

“We’ve been very busy. It really spiked at Easter. We came in after the four-day break to a huge volume of work and that continued for the next three weeks. We average around 12 and a half funerals per week usually, and on rare occasions we can go up to 20 or 25, but for the past three or four weeks we have been dealing with thirty a week. We are working over 100% and at double capacity.

Ten years ago, we invested in our facilities at our funeral home in Nuneaton, and that has proved hugely worthwhile as we have greater holding facilities, although we’re pushing the walls out slightly! We haven’t had to outsource anything, which is good.

Like all funeral directors, we have struggled with the restrictions that our local authorities and councils have set, but we fully understand why the restrictions have been put in place, although it hasn’t been easy breaking the bad news to families regarding the numbers allowed at funerals. We have removed the limousine option and, COVID-19 or not, we have added additional procedures when conveying a deceased person into our care. Our staff have felt comfortable effecting a removal with the additional PPE provided by the company.

To maintain a healthy environment, we adapted our offices and we will come out of this more knowledgeable. Yes, it has been hugely challenging, but we are better equipped if a crisis rears its head again.

It has been upsetting to deal with all of the devastated families and with such a high rate for COVID-19, no doubt.

PPE wasn’t a challenge initially. We had a good reserve of our own which got us through the first 2-3 weeks. Then we called in a few favours – we sourced respiratory air masks from a nearby spray paint company and those were worn, cleaned and disinfected by our staff each day. We got by.

Body bags were the most difficult thing. Finding a good supply was difficult. We paid over the odds for a large batch which proved to be unsuitable. They had a zip down the middle which was difficult to use and that was a bit of an issue, but it got us by. A gentleman who works for us actually remembered he had a supply in his attic, that someone had donated to him. We, like so many others, had moved away from using body bags and prefer the softer way of using plastic sheets and normal soft sheets to dress the body, so body bags were a thing of the past.

To limit footfall in the office we have been making arrangements over the phone, with just a few exceptions. We have accepted up to two people from the same household for a face-to-face meeting if a remote meeting is not possible. We spread out appointments with viewings to limit crossover, too. It has all felt very clinical and impersonal. Instead, we had lots of phone contact with the families in the 2-3 weeks running up to the funeral.

Personally, I took the view that we wouldn’t offer chapel of rest viewings for those who had passed away from COVID-19. Our staff weren’t comfortable with that and I wanted to keep them safe. On the whole, families have also been comfortable with that decision.

It’s difficult, though. You still have a moral compass in you that says, ‘who are you to say that you can’t see your loved one?’ but my staff ’s safety was of the upmost importance. In some procedures, we’ve had to make it up as we go along because there was no rule book, but with help and guidance from our governing bodies, we’ve adapted. We’ve had to adapt.

I long for the day I can get close with clients again. Reaching out to them in a human way.

Financially, we have had enough in reserve within the business to carry us through, but we have had a huge outlay. We’ve had to bring in additional staff, doubling or trebling our funeral part-time staff. I’ve just finished our payroll and we’ve had the biggest ever wage bill by an absolute mile!

The PPE outlay was significant, of course, and while ordinarily not a substantial cost, we were paying up to three times the normal price.

The loss of revenue for limousines was our largest hit. We have lost around £40,000 as a result of COVID-19, and that’s a bitter pill. However, our volume was high, so we recouped a bit of money that way. While the average cost of a funeral was down by £800, we will probably come out the same as normal due to the number of funerals we carried out.

We can see things easing slightly now. For the first three weeks after Easter we were seeing 30 funerals, the following two weeks it was 20 and last week it was 20. Because the funerals are simpler, that has been manageable.

Many more of the recent deaths have been in care homes. Since the peak at Easter, in the last two weeks care home deaths have increased significantly. My heart goes out to the staff that work within them because they are working so hard in such difficult times. It’s so difficult for the staff who are trying to protect the people they care for. There are some near me who have moved in with their residents to protect them. However, once there is an outbreak in a care home, it’s very difficult to control and the virus is spread so easily. It’s such a shame.

When will we recoup and recharge? Well, I don’t know. We are working long hours – on a good day that’s 7am to 7pm, on a bad day, it’s 7am to 10.30pm. On a personal level there has been no respite – I have lived, slept and breathed coronavirus. It has been at the forefront of all of my thinking. There’s a huge burden on me to keep staff safe and I have been encouraging them to take time off, to take holidays, although they don’t seem too keen on the idea, as they can’t go away!

For myself, though, I won’t be taking time off until my conscience allows me to. I’m more than happy for staff to take theirs first. It may all of a sudden get a lot easier.”

Becky Horton, Horton Funeral Directors, Hull

“We started to peak in mid-May, with increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths in general. We would expect around five to eight funerals a week in May, but we’ve been dealing with 10 to 15, split fairly evenly between care homes, hospitals and individuals’ homes.

My husband Mark and I have found this period so hard. We are a family business and we pride ourselves on the way we treat clients as part of our family, but with arrangements over the phone, sometimes we are now at the service and we don’t know who the daughters are, who the sons are. That’s very difficult.

Over the years we have arranged a large number of infant funerals and I would normally pass the coffin to the dad and put a reassuring hand on his elbow. I am finding not being able to offer those important touches the hardest to deal with.

Where possible, we have kept everything as normal as we can. We have been taking the hearse to the family home then on to the crematorium or cemetery, all with correct social distancing and following the guidelines. We can see mourners aren’t observing the rules, but who’s going to stop a daughter hugging a mum whose husband has just died? Have we the right to do that?

Every day we are thinking ‘what more could we do?’, ‘how can we help the living?’. This terrible time has definitely been a learning curve – but we have a great team of supportive staff and suppliers and that has helped us get through it.”

Hannah Leverton, Leverton & Sons, London

“The impact of this crisis has been enormous. We have been dealing with sixty funerals a week, where normally we would be expecting twenty or thirty. And all with the same member of staff, or less – at one point a third of our workforce was ill or self-isolating.

My sister Pippa is the first female director since the family business began in 1789, and she and my cousin Andrew have dealt with this much more complicated and confusing time so well. I’ve always admired them and the teams, but I admire them even more now. The challenges have been enormous. The scale of the crisis was shocking – on a physical and emotional level.

Physically, they and the team have been working so many extra hours, and the clarity of the PPE message – what was required in different scenarios – was difficult to keep up with at first. Our dad, Clive, who is a consultant for the business, took on the role of sourcing PPE which was a great help. He was working full-time on finding that and, of course, the costs were inflated.

We made a decision early on to reduce our professional fee to help people who were struggling. We cut our price by £200 and that, along with the loss of revenue from limousines, was a real financial hit.

We built extra mortuary space over the Easter weekend with the help of some very good service providers, many of whom we have worked with since Princess Diana’s funeral, which was also a challenging time. We know we can achieve so much, but sustainability is a key point. Situations may be manageable for a period of time, but not for peak after peak.

The job isn’t the same any more. Our profession is all about contact, being able to read emotions, and the lack of seeing people is very difficult. We do this job because we love people – we meet them on the worst day of their lives and we look for prompts and visual clues to help read their feelings so we can help them on this journey. But now it’s over the phone and sometimes we only meet mourners at the commital and that is so demotivating. People may have been stripped of their dignity because they couldn’t say goodbye in a care home or hospital setting, then they are denied the chance at the funeral. That has been very hard to deal with and it will have a huge emotional legacy on the funeral profession.

Pippa was psychologically battered by the experience of visiting Brakespeare Crematorium’s supermortuary. To see the deceased stored like that was shocking.

On reflection, this crisis has humbled us. It has shown us we can move mountains and give dignity to families, but at a substantial physical and mental cost to ourselves.”

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