Across Australia grieving families are dealing with the reality of farewelling their loved ones with just 10 people at a funeral.
Mourners are spaced 1.5 metres apart in church pews and even tearful hugs are forbidden under the strict social distancing guidelines in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We have never been through a time where funeral attendance has been limited to ten people.
“We have never been limited to meeting with one family member to arrange a funeral because the gathering rule is two.”
‘It’s about focusing on what is possible’
For Mr Pinder, who is the Australian Funeral Directors Association national president, one of the most poignant moments of the crisis so far came when his funeral home was asked to prepare a farewell service for a man who died after contracting the coronavirus.
All of the man’s family members had either been placed in isolation or were overseas.
“The family contacted us because one funeral home said they wouldn’t dress their father,” Mr Pinder said.
“There is no reason not to dress somebody who had the coronavirus.”There is more chance of our staff members contracting the coronavirus from a live person than it is from a deceased if we follow proper PPE procedures.
“So we were very happy to dress their dad and to organise a viewing.”
As no relatives were able to attend a funeral, a viewing was held over FaceTime where the man’s children sang, spoke to their dad and each other.
“I was speaking to them over the phone and holding my phone around their dad for 45 minutes, walking around the coffin and showing them the letters they had written that I was able to place in his hands.
“To hear people upset, over the phone, openly weeping, and sharing that moment even though they weren’t physically together, it was very important to them.
“That was a ceremony that they were able to have to say goodbye to their dad as opposed to not being able to do anything at all. I guess it’s about focussing on what is possible these days rather than what isn’t.”
Streaming funerals online becoming more common
Fourth-generation funeral director Adrian Barrett from Bunbury, Western Australia, said technology was helping some families include more people given the tiny number of people allowed to be present at funerals.
“Most funeral directors would have been able to offer webcasting in the past, but it was more of a rarity. Whereas it’s becoming a lot more common these days to webcast a funeral so as many people can be present digitally as possible,” he said.
Online tributes, where people could interact socially and leave photos and messages, were also becoming more common, Mr Barrett said.
More families opt out of funerals
For many families the restrictions were proving too much to bear, with some funeral homes estimating a doubling in the number of burials without funerals, known within the industry as “direct cremations”, Mr Barrett said.
“Unfortunately, some people are deciding that they just won’t have a funeral. They would have wanted to, but because of the restrictions it’s just too hard either deciding who is and who isn’t going to attend,” Mr Barrett said.
Many of these families had indicated they planned to hold a memorial service after the restrictions had been lifted, he said.
‘Funerals are a privilege, not a right’
Mr Pinder said funeral directors were mindful of having to strictly adhere to the social distancing restrictions,
It’s an additional responsibility that the funeral director has because if the funeral numbers are breached then the funeral home can be liable to a very hefty penalty as well.
While penalties varied from state to state, funeral homes could be liable for fines of more than $10,000 if restrictions were broken.
There was also a wider responsibility for the industry to follow the rules or risk funerals being banned altogether, Mr Pinder said.
“In a sense we are the gatekeeper for the ability of 10 family members to attend a funeral to remain in place. And if we don’t manage that that, the risk is that funeral attendance won’t be allowed at all which has been the case in some parts of some countries such as Italy, US and England,” he said.
“Having a funeral for 10 family members is actually a privilege at the moment, it’s not a right.”
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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