Staying safe and reaching out

Helen and Hugo Wathall

Local funeral directors communicate to help one another

Justin Burgess of J J Burgess & Sons’ immediate response to COVID-19 was to protect his staff, then to reach out to other funeral directors – and he found that across the country people were dealing with many of the same concerns.

Setting up two WhatsApp groups, for his frontline funeral staff and for arrangers who would need separate information disseminated, Justin’s priorities were to issue everybody with PPE and then sort out split shifts.

He explained: “We have six frontline staff, and three of them are now off sick – two with coronavirus, and one who couldn’t come in due to COPD (a lung disease). Our split shifts mean we have two in at any one time – prepping the vehicles, doing the collection of the deceased – and the others come in just for funerals. They meet us on-site at the crematorium or burial ground, do their jobs and carry the coffin, then go again.”

Sourcing PPE grew to be a larger challenge over time. Justin said: “When I was SAIF President, I did a lot of work with the Government with the bird flu and swine flu pandemics. I put together a pandemic kit within my company, so we had that tucked away. But that is now starting to run out, so we are looking at other avenues.

“I was seeing cases of profiteering around hand sanitiser, something we’re in very dire need of. So I’ve put requests on Facebook. A friend works for a paint supply provider and I’ve managed to get some masks with her help. It feels like I have to beg, borrow and steal to make sure my guys are safe.”

From using Facebook and sourcing PPE to keeping in contact with staff, technology and social media have played their part in all areas of the crisis. Justin also highlights communications going on between funeral directors. “We’ve set up a group of local funeral directors to share problems; we can help each other and talk about what we have implemented.

“A funeral director emailed this morning and said he was going to a certain hospital and did anybody want anything picked up while he was there.

“It’s funny, I’m a great believer that if something bad happens, something good must come from it, and I think actually we’ve got local funeral directors who perhaps haven’t talked to each other for years working together and helping each other. If something else winds up happening, it’s good to know that we have that community spirit.

“I’m heartened by the camaraderie of funeral directors, both locally and on the national calls I’m grateful that Golden Charter have helped facilitate. It’s a bit of a relief to talk with funeral directors up and down the country dealing with the same things, and see we’re facing the same problems together.”

Repurposing equipment: Wathall’s

Representing the fifth generation in her family business, Helen Wathall of Derby funeral director Wathall’s has no hesitation in looking for support from her family. As she searched for ways to continue offering services to families following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, that support came from the sixth generation: her son Hugo, 15.

Helen told SAIFInsight: “We knew we had to arrange for staff to work from home immediately wherever possible. The most pressing concern for us was that we couldn’t find headsets or speakers available anywhere.

“I asked Hugo for any ideas, and he pointed out that ‘no one uses speakers any more’! Instead, he tracked down 12 sets of gaming headsets for us, alongside webcams.

“The upshot is that all my staff can now work and see each other from home. It’s gone beyond that internal use too: staff can connect with families to arrange funerals, helping us give them the best service we can at such a trying time for them.”

Partner conference calls

As changes to public life mounted day by day, funeral directors’ questions began to grow, as did the local solutions individual Independents were finding. To help those local businesses talk together about their concerns and share knowledge across the Independent community, Golden Charter’s Malcolm Flanders facilitated a group call that led to much more.

Malcolm explained: “It became clear that there was an appetite for funeral directors to discuss these issues with each other in an open forum. So what was originally envisaged as a small peer-to-peer gathering was extended out to interested funeral directors across the country. We quickly put the idea into practice in March, and more than 40 Independents joined our initial trial call.”

Following that call, participants contacted Malcolm to say it was “very welcome”, “a very valuable resource” and “an ideal end to the day”.

Another said: “I think it was constructive and now appreciate even more that we are in this together with the same questions.”

Malcolm added: “We moved onto regional calls later that week, inviting funeral directors in different areas of the UK to more focused discussions.

“We don’t set a strict agenda and we don’t control the discussion – we simply facilitate funeral director colleagues talking to each other, and that’s proved to be the right approach. Many of you are in the same boat, and right from the first discussion the benefits of linking Independents up were obvious.

“It’s been a great way to see the independent sector all pull together in the face of a common struggle.”

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