Funeral directors say they are being forced to re-use “single-use” medical equipment, like body bags and plastic gowns, as the coronavirus emergency challenges how they deal with both the dead and the loved ones left behind.
- Coronavirus control measures are impacting on how funerals are conducted
- Concern that staff collecting potentially infectious bodies don’t have adequate protection
- Funeral directors are demanding recognition as essential service providers, like hospital staff
As bans on large crowds and other emergency measures impact funerals, behind-the-scenes staff are facing challenges due to a shortage of protective gear.
National Funeral Directors Association of Australia president Nigel Davies said the industry was being forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic because the Federal Government didn’t recognise it as an essential healthcare service.
He said new health guidelines stipulated eye protection, mask, full-body gown, gloves and leak-free body bags to be used when moving a body suspected of having coronavirus.
But the guidelines failed to take into account the equipment was in short supply and reserved for hospital and nursing home staff, not funeral home staff who retrieve the deceased.
“We’re already getting requests from places to be wearing PPE (personal protection equipment) that we can’t get because, theoretically, nobody has bothered to notice we’re essential-service workers as yet,” Mr Davies said.
“The issue is our staff – that spend their entire time going and collecting deceased, some of whom may be infectious, we don’t know – are walking into nursing homes that are in lockdown without necessarily having the adequate equipment (because we can’t get it).
“We’re already at the point of trying to re-use things that are theoretically disposable, but if they can be sterilised or re-used in any way, we’re having to do so.
“Cheap plastic gowns are supposedly one-use disposable items but, if you can’t replace them, you take them back and you spray them clean with the chemical and you hang them out for a day and you put them back in the vehicles.
He said there was also a shortage of leak-proof body bags for handling bodies confirmed or suspected to have died as a result of COVID-19 and the bags were “too valuable” to dispose of after a single use.
Mr Davies said he wanted the government to work out who was part of the essential services chain and for funeral directors to be covered under the essential care healthcare network, so they could access PPE.
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“Funeral directors are trying to do the same things that any hospital or ambulance person would, but we have to have access to the equipment to do that,” he said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office was contacted for comment, but did not reply before publication.
Funerals hit by rules on crowds
It’s not the only issue confronting the funeral industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Davies, who also runs Lonergan & Raven Funerals in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill, said he’d changed venues for funeral services to allow for social distancing.
He’s also live-streamed funerals to keep numbers below the government-mandated 100-people gatherings.
He says he holds one funeral service a day to allow time to clean the fabric-covered furniture and carpets, which he is considering removing to allow for more efficient cleaning and more services.
Some funerals are now invitation-only, with online condolence books to prevent people sharing a pen.
“Some of the families are obviously finding it quite difficult, but they’re all being quite reasonable,” he said.
Tobin Brothers Funerals director James MacLeod said his company had suspended catering and its limousine service for families.
“We’re talking to families about 50 people attending (funerals), because we know it will escalate to 60 or 70,” Mr MacLeod said.
Mourners going online
He said he was expecting a rise in funeral webcasting.
“We have the ability to record funeral services and we’re offering to client families to upload them so they can be distributed and watched online (by) those that couldn’t attend the funeral,” Mr MacLeod said.
“Webcasting’s been available for over a decade now … and it’s worked very successfully. We do it on multiple occasions each and every week.
“You think there would be an uptake (on live streaming funerals) given the new attendance numbers and a cap on 100 people at any event, including funerals.”
Sunraysia Funerals owner Elvira Iamarino said the new rules for crowd numbers made already challenging times potentially more difficult and the bereaved would need to be understanding.
“If people are mindful of what is expected, it will be a lot better outcome for the mourning families and also for everybody else because these things are put in place for everyone’s safety,” Ms Iamarino said.
“People have to be aware that they may be asked to be outside the building if the service is going to be held inside a building.
“People (need) to be courteous, respectful and understanding, and not only just for funerals but generally in every day things we do, because at the end of the day we’re all in the same boat.”
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