Pandemic Funerals: A Tragic Comedy of Errors?

There’s a public footpath alongside the yard of my funeral home and after many years of washing the vehicles out there I’ve lost count of the times some passing wag has called out “I’ll bring mine down in a minute”. I just smile and chuckle politely. But they come armed with a new one-liner now: “You must be busy with all this Covid around”.

I’m not wired for dishonesty, so once again my reply is automatic and delivered without hesitation: “Not with Covid we’re not. We never were.” The passer-by will then stand there gaping like something from a Sainsbury’s fish counter and I have to explain that my company’s experience of the Covid outbreak was confined to a 5 week period between the last week in March and the end of April; and that of the 23 funerals we handled during that time, 11 of them were classed as Covid deaths; that with one exception (a person in their 60’s with chronic underlying conditions) they were all in their 80’s and suffering serious, pre-existing conditions; they all caught Covid after being admitted to hospital; we didn’t deal with a single Covid death out in the community and we only had one nursing home death where they thought the person probably had Covid.

As a child of the 1970’s I grew up in an era of sinister public information campaigns about catching rabies, the risks of playing near electricity pylons and what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, but am I alone in feeling that social distancing and mask wearing has all the hallmarks of a Monty Python sketch? It feels like the Government has entered the country into a shadow boxing match and then withdrawn us in the second round due to risk of injury.

pandemic funerals
pandemic funerals

I still shudder at the memory of seeing a hearse arriving at the crematorium with the driver and the funeral director both wearing surgical masks. It was established by then that Coronavirus was droplet-borne, so what did they think was going to happen? That the virus would try drilling its way out of the coffin during the journey to the crem? In the later stages of the pandemic we actually had families thanking us for NOT wearing masks and excessive PPE when performing call-outs. Who would tolerate watching a loved one being handled like a plague victim after nursing them through cancer?

One of the Covid funerals I conducted only came my way after my sister’s Facebook page picked up an appeal for help from a family living on the opposite side of the county to where I’m based. She promptly messaged back with: “My brother’s a funeral director. I’m sure he’ll help.” The family concerned were faced with having to have their mother buried – entirely against her wishes, and in a cemetery that wasn’t even local to them, simply because they couldn’t find a funeral director willing to remove the cardiac pacemaker from her body and thus enable cremation to take place.

I had no such qualms and duly obliged. Removing a pacemaker is a very minor procedure and the infection risk was almost non-existent. But to add insult to injury, when I arrived at the crematorium to conduct the funeral itself, I found that due to social distancing measures the 100-seater chapel had been reduced to just 20 widely-spaced chairs, the remainder all stacked at the back of the room. It looked like a village hall where the caretaker hadn’t been back to tidy up after the previous booking, and it meant the funeral ceremony itself had all the warmth and intimacy of a séance in an aircraft hangar.

The deceased was a stalwart churchgoer, but hymn singing wasn’t allowed either, so the family had to settle for choral recordings. We even had difficulties in obtaining the services of her parish priest; the strict precautions governing clergy involvement meaning that I’ve since spent the duration of the pandemic playing Spot-the-Church-of-England.

Covid’s most deadly legacy may yet prove to be the grotesque perversity of leaving thousands of seriously ill people going undiagnosed and untreated in order to ‘protect the NHS’. But it’s also given licence to a very particular and self-serving form of virtue signalling that masquerades as ‘protecting the safety of our clients’. The following email was sent by a funeral firm in my county during the early days of the outbreak: “In the interest of protecting not only our staff…but also the crematorium staff, who are under a lot of pressure during this unprecedented time, we have taken the heart-breaking decision to tell our families to stay away physically (from funerals). This allows us to adhere to the social distancing guidelines and to avoid any unnecessary contact where possible… If any FD’s are happy to have mourners present then please let us know so we can direct families to your services if they are not happy with our decision.”

Well, when I read that I got straight on the phone: “Hello, is that the Guinness Book of Records? I’ve got a contender for the most kinds of wrong you can fit into an email.” And I worried then as I worry now, that Coronaphobia has left the qualities so vital to funeral work – professionalism, common sense and basic human compassion – hooked up to a ventilator, gasping for breath and potentially dying in front of us.

James Baker is a funeral director and the author of two books: ‘A Life In Death – Memoirs of A Cotswold Funeral Director’ (2012) and ‘The Unmourned’ (2020)

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