It’s six months now since I wrote my last piece for Farewell Magazine and what a six months for our sector it has been. What I wrote last time was entirely personal and written in a time when we had the luxury of being able to imagine the funeral of our choice. As I write, we only have small funerals with the dreaded social distancing. How do families decide who to invite? How do you cope with not being able to hug your fellow bereaved, the most basic human expression of sympathy and support?
Funerals were never by invitation; anyone could turn up and often did. I’d got into the habit of always going to the funerals of my dwindling number of elderly relatives; it’s pretty much the only time I got to see my distant family. Who knows if and when I’ll see them again? I was expecting a short period of isolation personally, whilst I received chemo and immunotherapy during January, February and March; I then had a summer of travel planned. I didn’t expect the world to join me in lockdown. I’m one of those who now has to ‘shield’ until a vaccine is found.
Those who know me well, will know of my ability to rant. Also, of my annoying habit of inevitably being right. I ranted for years about a particular pet hate – glitter. You only have to get one card at Christmas with it on and you have it in your house for ever. I suggested that our age, when it passes into the geological record will be known as the glitter age, because the stuff will still be there in the rocks, a thin glittering line recording our folly. I was of course just talking of one type of what we all now know as microplastics; biodegradable glitter is now more commonly available and plastic pollution is now an issue.
My other major rant for the last ten years has been the fact that a pandemic was coming and that we needed to prepare. After the Bird Flu pandemic in the mid noughties, I was asked to sit on the County pandemic planning group. We were tasked with creating a watertight plan in advance of the next pandemic which we all, from Government down, knew was inevitable. The County engaged a logistical wizard to coordinate this and we began to meet regularly with the great and the good of the County. We discussed supplies, the likely effect on our workforce and the storage and disposal of the deceased. We were given likely numbers to model with. Expect an entire year’s deaths in three months, we were told. Also, that the Government did not want to see mass burials in trench graves and that where possible people were buried where they would have wanted to be buried, in a family grave or the local churchyard. I was given the responsibility of managing the burials across the County. I had a team of six trained gravediggers and the promise of staff and equipment from the Highways department.
The wizard and I were sceptical about the whole process as we sat and watched others at the table squabble in the defence of their own little empires. We, nevertheless, produced a plan which was duly distributed. Then, nothing. At work I’d procured anti-viral handwash and masks for my staff but no one else in the Council seemed to be planning ahead. I heard nothing else until 2014 when I got a call from the wizard. He’d decided to review the plan even though the County had made him redundant a few months after producing the report. He decided I was still in the best position to fulfil my role even though I too was now a victim of the cuts and my team had been scattered to the four winds or retired. We were more than sceptical by this time.
I kept on reminding people that a pandemic was inevitable and that we needed to be ready. Whatever solutions we had were always dependent on acting in a timely manner as soon as it was obvious that we had a problem. I can illustrate this by looking at the provision of graves. If a cemetery decided to dig graves as they were needed, they could have real practical issues in the peak weeks. This may mean that the deceased ended up being buried in a grave that was not the families’ choice and worse, that the pandemic would be followed by dozens of exhumations and reburials to correct this. Graves needed to be scattered around a cemetery so that the environmental impact was lessened. The key to having sufficient graves on any given day, was to excavate ahead of time. The equation is simple: take the number of new graves you normally provide in a whole year, divide by the 14 weeks of the pandemic and dig the resulting number of graves every week, starting in week one.
This was the plan I developed for my cemeteries and the one I’ve advocated wherever and whenever I could. It has been gratifying to hear that several burial authorities have adopted this strategy. Whilst, eventually, it seems that we have everything in place; it’s been an awkward and unnecessarily slow process. Certainly, people will have died because we never dusted off that plan; never reviewed it properly, never had training exercises and quite frankly, never took it seriously.
There are some positives, however. The recognition that the use of IT means that our geographical location is less relevant. Those of us who fly desks for a living can do it from anywhere. The video call has gone a long way to replacing the phone call at last. I would say that not only has our business not been affected, we are probably communicating more efficiently and more often than previously. We’ve had to improve a few procedures, but this was arguably overdue anyway. We’ve been able to support and enable our clients in their new circumstances. I’m never going to use these writings to be commercial but if there’s anyone out there struggling with IT, drop EDGE a line and if we can help, we will. We have a philanthropic heart.
My lesson learned; I have to be more productive with my rants.