Funerals adapt to COVID-19: “We’re about connection and care. The pandemic is really testing us”

Categories: Care, Community Engagement, and Featured.

One of the most difficult consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic is not being able to say goodbye to those who die. Hasina Zaman, the CEO of Compassionate Funerals, explains how they’ve had to adapt their services while maintaining their humane approach.

Current government guidelines state that only people from the same household as the deceased or immediate family are allowed to attend their funeral, and while each cemetery or crematoria can stipulate their own numbers, the advice is to limit ceremonies to 10 people.

Hasina explains that the impact of having to restrict numbers is “absolutely devastating”, and puts her in the awkward position of following rules that involve heartbreaking decisions for families. “People want to challenge the regulations. I was just speaking to someone who lost his mum yesterday within about two hours of being admitted to hospital, and I told him he could challenge it, but then I would be putting him and his siblings at risk. I could be taken to court over this, because I’m not fulfilling the rules that we’ve been given by the government on social distancing and exposure, and although they probably all come from the same household, I don’t know that for sure.”

It’s particularly distressing that at a time when people most need to feel close to others they have to abide by social distancing, a pretty much unknown concept until the beginning of this year. “At the crematoria people are having to sit two metres apart, and there’s no hugging or any form of physical contact allowed. It’s so surreal” Hasina says.

The risk of infection posed by COVID-19 means that it’s almost impossible to respect the traditions of different faiths. Jewish and Sikh burials, for instance, decree that the body must be cleaned and groomed beforehand, which simply can’t be done if the person is suspected to have had Coronavirus. “For anyone that has died of COVID-19, we’ve been told that we are not allowed to take them out of the body bag and we’re not allowed to do any form of preparation” Hasina says. “This really goes against everything that Compassionate Funerals is about. We are totally about maximising involvement in terms of the care and the preparation of the deceased, and having family be completely involved.”

“Even for a Muslim service, you have a particular prayer that is very short but families are asking where is the prayer, where can it happen? We can have it at our funeral home, or it can happen at a graveside service but people are used to going to the mosque, where there are large gatherings because the belief is that the more people attend the prayer, the easier it is for the person who’s passed away, it helps with their journey onwards. There’s a whole set of practices and rituals that can’t happen at the moment.”

“This pandemic has taken us to a really uncomfortable place where we’re having to explain this to family members” she adds. “I’ve just been speaking to a Muslim gentleman to explain his mum would need to have a dry ablution. I was having to apologise so much for what we’d have to do.”

As an alternative, funeral companies have arrived at other creative ways to deliver services, such as livestreams. “We did a Facebook Live funeral last week for someone quite well known, so it had 1600 views.  We can also record the service. I would encourage having a memorial service straight after, even if it’s online, so people can have some level of ceremony, and some form of eulogy and prayers. It’s a coming together of people to experience some form of goodbye.”

Digital alternatives have become essential for more than just the service. “In the past the family would go and get the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD) from the hospital so they’d have some connection from the bereavement staff” Hasina explains. “They would then guide them to make an appointment with a registrar, and that would give them the time to process that death.”

“As tough as it is, as harrowing and despairing and as numbing as all of it is, there used to be more time to process the deaths, but there isn’t now. It’s all out of their hands and is between institutions, authorities and organisations.”

“We don’t really like what’s going on, but we have to follow protocol, we have to be able to protect ourselves and we have to protect the public.“

This dramatic change to how they operate is having an effect on their wellbeing too. “Every morning we talk as a team and say, as long as we’re calm, and as long as we’re caring, it’ll all be ok. It makes such a difference” Hasina says. “This morning, I went to a hospital to collect somebody to bring them into our care, and I’m so glad I did because this hospital had calm and order. As a funeral director, I needed to see that, because yesterday I visited three hospitals and it was a very different experience, I’d never seen anything like it.”

“We’re talking about a pandemic that is affecting the whole world, and families being separated. Compassionate Funerals is all about connection, care, living by the word compassion, and being compassionate all the time to ourselves. That’s really being tested at the moment.”

“These are very challenging times, but we’re doing our best to serve people.”

For more information visit Compassionate Funerals

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