Day in the Life

Day in the Life: The Funeral Director Who Can't Source Enough Coffins

"Having to tell people that they can’t carry their dad’s coffin or that they have to un-invite people from the funeral is really hard."

by Victoria Mellor; as told to Sirin Kale
19 May 2020, 4:36am

Photo: Poppy's Funerals

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Victoria Mellor is a 51-year-old funeral director at Poppy’s Funerals, based in south London.

Coronavirus has made things challenging, for sure. More people are dying, for starters: around half of the people we’re dealing with right now died from coronavirus, maybe more. Dealing with those extra requirements as a small firm is difficult.

There’s so much uncertainty around what’s allowed right now. Regulations are changing all the time. At the moment, you’re only allowed 10 immediate family members at funerals, all spaced out two metres apart, to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Every morning we start with a 9AM team phone call, to keep up to date with the new regulations. Things are changing so fast that you have to stay on top of things. Afterwards, I had a phone call with the family of an 83-year-old man who died of coronavirus. I chatted through the arrangements with his daughter, ahead of the funeral next week.

With coronavirus, even basic logistics are so difficult: her father’s funeral is being held at a cemetery, but it’s been locked to the public to stop people breaking lockdown rules. So we had to coordinate how the family will actually get into the funeral, which is difficult. Imagine going to your dad’s funeral and having to wait outside a locked gate to be let in.

The daughter was really sweet, but afterwards I had a phone call with another family whose 70-year-old mother had died of coronavirus. When I explained the 10-person restriction they were really upset. They have more than 10 people they consider to be immediate family that they wanted to be there. I suggested that they planned a wake or memorial for a few months time, after the restrictions were lifted. Some families have been writing notes to their loved ones, and placing them in their coffins, so they can be with them at the funeral, even if they’re not there in person.

Having conversations like that on the phone is particularly hard. Under normal circumstances, families would come and see us to arrange a funeral and have face-to-face meetings. Now we’re doing all those meetings virtually. As a funeral director, your job isn’t just to coordinate logistics, but support families emotionally as well. That’s much harder if you can’t meet them face-to-face.

I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories of people who’ve not been able to see their loved ones before they died of coronavirus, due to the visitor restrictions. They’re really struggling because the death doesn’t feel real. It’s hard hearing that sort of thing. And last week, I had to explain to a family that they have to un-invite family members from a funeral, because of the visitor restrictions.

It was really, really sad. Their father had died of coronavirus in his sixties, and they’d planned to have a beautiful ceremony in the crematorium, with a wake afterwards. Having to cancel the wake, and un-invite people from the funeral, is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Funerals are so important to the grieving process – they don’t have to be sombre affairs. Right now, coronavirus is denying people the opportunity to participate in that ritual, and to celebrate the person’s life that has been taken away from them.

Over lunch I spent a lot of time trying to track down PPE for my staff to use. Although people in funeral homes are defined as key workers, it’s been a total nightmare trying to get old of PPE for my staff. Everywhere is sold out! If people do have equipment it tends to go to care homes and the NHS, which is absolutely fair enough, but people in funeral homes handling people who died of coronavirus are also at risk of contracting the virus, so we need supplies too. If someone’s died of coronavirus, we need to wear a mask, eye protection, and disposable gowns. I eventually managed to source some stock, but it took hours.

Coffins are also proving tricky to get hold of. We’re not currently able to offer the full range of coffins we’d normally to our customers – our suppliers are struggling to manufacture them due to increased demand and staff shortages. Flowers are also a problem, as all the florists are closed. We’ve been suggesting relatives bring in flowers from their gardens, or purchase silk or plastic flowers online.

In the afternoon, I had the funeral of a 60-year-old man, who’d died of coronavirus. It was held at a crematorium, with 10 people there. The celebrant acknowledged what everyone was going through, and the fact there weren’t many people there. We had other attendees dialled in via videolink: lots of crematoriums already had video conferencing software before coronavirus, but the pandemic has really accelerated its use. Although there weren’t as many people there as the family would have liked, it did feel like the concentrated essence of a funeral. I think the family got what they needed from it.

Most families have been really understanding. We’ve had boxes of chocolates saying, “We recognise this wasn’t the funeral we’d have chosen, but you made it as special as you can.” That does count for a lot.

You go into this job because you want to help people. For me, my job has always been about supporting families. So having to tell people that they can’t carry their dad’s coffin into the crematorium, or they can’t have a wake, or that they have to un-invite people from the funeral, is really hard. The restrictions are in place for everyone’s safety, but it’s been challenging.

I love my job, and it’s a privilege to help people, but lately I’ve been going home at the end of each day wondering if I could have done more for anyone given the circumstances.

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death
funerals
Coronavirus
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COVID-19