The road ahead
Emerging from what has been a torrid time for so many funeral directors, it’s time to pause, take stock and plan for the future…
“We instigated a buddy system for funeral directors”
Simon Helliar-Moore, Crescent Funeral Services, Taunton
“This has been such a strange time for everyone, but we have learnt so much. I have been part of the Local Resilience Forum and its Excess Deaths Committee, representing 80 Somerset funeral directors. Between us we thrashed out ideas about how we would best cope wth numbers predicted by SAGE [The UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and put systems in place.
“It was a brand new thing for me to be involved with, but it meant I was instrumental in helping the roll-out of positive changes to systems in Somerset. The local authorities initially wanted crematoriums to represent the bereavement sector, but it became quite clear that funeral directors were the ones with a better understanding of families’ needs during bereavement, so were able to suggest things which perhaps had not been thought about.
“From a practical point of view, we knew we had to do something for local businesses. We instigated a buddy scheme – something useful for all funeral directors – so firms could team up with another and be safe in the knowledge that support was there. My husband Robert and I are in a family group, so if one of us got ill we would both have to self-isolate and we never wanted our trainee to be left with the responsibility of running the business. That would have been unfair.
“Of course, it meant that the business we teamed up with would also be secure as we would look after his company, assisting with bringing people into our care – that was of great benefit to us all.
“Having digital certificates from hospitals and the ability for families locally to register deaths by phone was another great initiative. All of the questions can still be asked and, considering the speed the system was rolled out in, the hospitals have done such a good job.
“We’ve certainly not had predicted numbers in this area – although our R rate is higher than elsewhere – so about a month ago the Local Resilience Forum realised that everything was in place so we have helped to create a bereavement support booklet for the profession and a guide for the public.
“The forum now plans to reconvene this autumn to assess the situation at that time and what more might need to be done.”
“As a profession we have performed incredibly well”
Paul Sillett, Silletts Funeral Service, Manchester
“Despite the predictions that regulations would force families into direct cremation at the beginning of the crisis, we’ve managed to maintain services throughout, even though quite a number were basic funerals.
“The support we’ve had from local people has been fantastic. Some have said ‘As long as you’re there I’ll be content’, which is humbling. One lady in her nineties, who couldn’t manage to her husband’s funeral explained it as ‘a bloody sh*t time within a bloody sh*t time’. That sums it up.
“As a profession we have performed incredibly well. I really believe that if other professions were in charge of burying the dead they wouldn’t have been able to manage. We were doing three funerals within an hour at one point – up at the crematorium eight or nine times a day. It has been that busy.
“As the fifth generation of the business, each day we have been dealing with people we know. We’ve found that difficult because in this job you say ‘yes’, but we were having to say ‘no’. We didn’t go down the route of using Zoom, we just talked to families by phone. We gave them a list of things to discuss and left them to talk it through themselves. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback about that because some people feel on show.
“We’ve spent a fair bit of money on stuff you wouldn’t normally buy. Equipment like six-wheel biers aren’t cheap, or air con units to create cold rooms. However, now stuff is in place that never has been before.
“It will be great to get back to speaking to people face-to-face on the premises, but the second wave frightens me – we don’t want to meet anyone we don’t have to meet!”
“First anniversary memorials are the next big consideration”
Don O’Dwyer, O’Dwyer Funeral Directors, London
“We’ve only been in business for four years so the pandemic for us has been a short, sharp lesson.
“With just the three of us here – Anthea, my brother Alan and myself – we have seen a significant rise in funerals during May and June. We had almost triple the number of funerals we normally see for this time of year and for a small independent funeral director that was very overwhelming, but thankfully we hope we are through the other side.
“We learned how to function on very little sleep or rest and managed to eat pretty much when we could. It really has been around the clock, with all the on-call detail to be covered, but with a great team behind me we managed.
“I remember watching the news mid-March, just before the announcement on lockdown in Ireland, and decided that this was going to be more serious than we imagined. I made a list of what we needed to do and supplies we needed to order to get things in place for what was to come.
“We ordered extra coffins and just stacked them where we could – even filling our chapels of rest just to prepare for it. From a small business point of view our only issue was storage of the deceased, but luckily we are surrounded by other lovely Independents and we all helped each other out. Booking funerals was difficult, especially burials, but our local crematorium, Mortlake, was absolutely great and so accommodating because they extended their services to 6pm.
“Staying healthy was another challenge. Larger companies will have a degree of back-up and be able to juggle staff from area to area and, of course, would be able to cover holidays during that period. We decided early on that we would all self-isolate in our own bubble away from the workplace, as did our families.
“Overall, it has been an interesting experience for us and our local community has been brilliantly supportive.
“The new ways of registering a death, arranging cremation paperwork and the slimlined logistics really helped us – and I would like to think that some of the new procedures will stay in place when we come out of this.
“Who knows what the future holds for us, especially over the next few months. During the crisis we reduced all our prices, reflecting the fact that funerals were either small or non-attended. We are still standing by these fees and are not target driven. Instead our main aim is to provide added value to the families’ experience where we can, despite any restrictions.
“The structure of a funeral may have changed and may remain so for a very long time to come. We need to consider offering a memorial-only service and, from the first anniversary of any of our funerals during the pandemic, this will be one of our services available on our website.”Tags: communication, coronavirus, COVID-19, Crescent Funeral Services, Ealing, London, Manchester, memorials, Paul Sillett, Services, Silletts Funeral Service, Simon Helliar-Moore, Taunton