by Harry Pope

Harry at Eastbourne Cemetery

Harry at Eastbourne Cemetery

I am writing this on Wednesday morning, 25th March, so by the time you read the situation may have changed, but I don’t think it will have done by too much. Due to the subject there are not many photos.

My sources are speaking to funeral professionals, the media, and keeping up to date with UK Funeral Forum, a Facebook page I started a couple of years ago and now has getting on for 3,000 funeral professionals who share knowledge and information. Please, don’t try to join, because this is only for those directly involved. It is a site run by volunteers who are already overworked. This article is general, not specific to one area, UK regions may vary.

Government guidelines are that only small numbers are allowed to attend a funeral, close family members, and must sit two metres apart from each other. I will explain what is presently allowed, and what is occurring in reality. A lot of the instructions with family are being made over the phone, despite the funeral offices remaining open, however most forms still have to be completed for cremation to occur. Usually two doctors have to sign the certificates, mainly due to previous malpractice by Dr. Harold Shipman, but the second signature has been temporarily suspended due to work pressure and expediency. Registrar offices are not accepting face to face appointments, so families are having to adapt considerably when registering the death, again this varies according to region.

Initially mourner numbers were limited in the limousine to three, but now no passenger vehicles are provided. Inside the hearse will be the driver and the funeral director, others making their own way when possible. Families can’t carry the coffin any more, because of dignity for the deceased. Why? Because the professional bearers have to be able to step in if problems occur, and they can’t get too close to those who are mourning. The service is limited to ten minutes, with the curtains closing mandatory. Why? Because it is common practice for people to touch the coffin as they exit the chapel and this stops the temptation.

The reality is that very soon no mourners will be allowed. I know I am being obvious here, but it really is a precaution to stop the virus from spreading, and contact in any circumstance has to be avoided, which include those at the extreme end of emotion. There is a simple solution however. Have the farewell service as a celebration when all returns to some degree of normality. This could be held at a church, hall, hotel, club, and be a longer service. Arrangements and discussions could occur remotely between family and celebrant/minister, the content such as music, poetry, prayers, life story, all considered while no social contact allowed.

I don’t think that the armed services will have to step in, because the funeral profession is quite capable of adapting under extreme circumstances, especially if the service provided was to be simpler. The army will be occupied anyway with other duties. It certainly seems to me that even if the funeral staff succumb, there will be others willing to assist. There will always be a ready supply of coffins (sorry to be blunt), but the next topic will be a little more sensitive to discuss. Finance.

With household budgets already stretched due to not earning an income, government financial assistance will be needed if the pandemic becomes more fatal. At present the simple basic non-attended service is in the region of £1,500, with crematorium fees approximately half. A lot of crematoria are council owned, the rest owned by a handful of commercial firms connected with the funeral profession. These fees will have to be covered as a temporary measure. A lot more people these days have pre-paid funeral plans, and there has been speculation as to the service that can be provided for the fee paid. If stringent measures are introduced, and the plan covers more than a basic service, then should the plan provider reimburse families because they haven’t got what they have paid for.

Also on a practical note, the funeral profession for many years has worn barrier protection against infectious diseases when handling bodies. Masks, gowns, sanitisers, all have been in very short supply, but why should funeral professionals be regarded any less than those in the nursing line, if anything they need just as much protection for providing a service that no-one else wants to do.

There are two funeral professional organisations, the National Association of Funeral Directors, or NAFD for short (I am an ex London area President), and the Society of Allied Independent Funerals (SAIF). Both these associations have been in recent discussions with the relevant government department, issuing guidelines that have been somewhat ambiguous.

My impression is that funerals is an area that hasn’t really been considered, and that suggestions change frequently according to who is asking the question. Yes, I know that they have a lot on their minds at present, but with some emergency planning all could be arranged far more smoothly and professionally. With lots of unanswered questions, contingencies could be in place for each degree of national emergency. Fortunately, the funeral profession is staffed by people who have a great deal of common sense, a tradition of providing a high degree of caring professionalism, and the ability to raise to an emergency of any degree.

My contact details are harrythewriter@btinternet.com, but am changing service provider next week to Sky and am hoping to retain this e-mail address. I will be posting again in any case with further funeral updates and provide latest address. In the meantime, stay safe.