Covid-19: Funeral directors adapt after surviving pandemic anger

‘We had to act almost immediately to keep people safe ... to keep the general public safe’

Public relations officer for the Irish Association of Funeral Directors Mary Cunniffe:‘People have left their messages’ when it comes to condolences. Photograph: The Irish Times.

Public relations officer for the Irish Association of Funeral Directors Mary Cunniffe:‘People have left their messages’ when it comes to condolences. Photograph: The Irish Times.

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A little more than a year ago, hundreds of Ireland’s funeral directors realised something others perhaps had not; long-held traditions would have to change because of the coronavirus pandemic and deaths it would cause.

In issuing guidelines on March 9th, 2020, for its 342 undertaker members, who conduct 80 per cent of all funerals across the island, the Irish Association of Funeral Directors warned that little about funeral services would stay the same.

Services for Covid-19 victims, it said, should be postponed and the deceased brought straight to a crematorium or cemetery for committal. Members were told the deceased “should always be removed from the place of death in a body bag which is not reopened”. Undertakers’ vehicles “should be hygienically cleaned after the removal of remains and all gloves and other disposable equipment should be disposed of safely”.

Transport for families of the deceased, “eg limousines and saloons”, was not to be provided and funeral instructions should be given by bereaved families “over the phone only”, stated the guidelines, which quickly became public.

Gatherings at churches, funeral homes, residences and crematoriums “should not take place,” while there was to be “no shaking of hands or hugging, sneezing and coughing” allowed.

“These protocols are to ensure that infection does not spread from the deceased or from their close family and friends who may be infected from contact with the deceased or each other,” the association explained.

The guidelines emerged when there had been no deaths from Covid-19 and just 24 confirmed cases in the State. They were dismissed as “not necessary” by State chief medical officer Tony Holohan and John Cuddihy, director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

Within 24 hours, the association was forced to issue a public statement to calm the outrage explaining that its intention was not to “alarm the public or be insensitive to the trauma” families may face should a relative die.

Fourteen months on, after more than 250,000 cases and nearly 5,000 deaths, it is clear that the association was a canary in the Covid-19 coal mine.

Reflecting on the period, most of which has been marked by funeral attendances capped at 10 people, Mary Cunniffe, the association’s public relations officer, said it has been “a tough few months, a tough year”.

She said people were “shocked and horrified” by the guidelines. But the pandemic arrived “so fast and we had to act almost immediately to keep people safe, to keep our staff safe, keep our members safe, keep the general public safe”.

Cunniffe added that a small number of funeral directors had been infected with Covid-19 with a few having been “very, very ill”.

“No fatality, thank God,” she added.

Despite representation to the health authorities by the association, the estimated 2,500 staff working for undertaker firms in Ireland were refused recognition as frontline workers and are being vaccinated by age cohort.

However, Cunniffe, a branch manager with Massey Brothers in Dublin’s Templeogue, is feeling optimistic about the future after an unprecedented time.

“We’re finally seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel . . . but it certainly stopped us all in our tracks.”

The number allowed at funeral services has increased from 10 to 25 and is due to rise to 50 soon. Some families, says Cunniffe, delayed funerals so they could take place under the 25-strong rule.

“It means they are able to have more of their relatives or that members of the family don’t have to stay in their cars or outside or whatever.”

The 10-strong limit made it “hard on families to determine” who would get to be in the church, she said.

“You take it where a parent died and there might be five children in the family. They might have their spouses and the grandchildren. That’s immediate family, without ever going to brothers and sisters or in-laws or cousins or anything like that. It was tough, it was hard.”

They couldn’t understand

Cunniffe was not aware of the restrictions leading to any disputes.

“No, people were very understanding and I think in this lockdown in particular,” she said. “Maybe in the first lockdown it might have been more difficult because people weren’t used to it, they couldn’t understand. They were turning up anyway in the hope they might get in. That kind of thing.”

The issue of people gathering outside churches was and will remain important in public health terms, she believes.

“It’s all very fine allowing 50 in the church but funerals are very different in so far as people want to congregate when they come outside the church, whereas if you go to Mass you are more likely to come out and walk away rather than congregate.”

More than a year on some people are still getting used to the situation, she said.

“Even this evening I had an elderly gentleman come in and he said ‘where’s the condolence book?’,” she said. “We haven’t had a condolence book since last March. We’ve been directing people to the websites for the funeral home and the website for rip.ie or the website for the national papers or the local radio to leave their condolences there.”

But just like with social distancing and wearing masks, behaviour has changed quickly.

“People have really adapted and have left their messages,” added Cunniffe. “It’s lovely to harvest those messages and hand back the memory book to the family two weeks later. It’s lovely for them to have all those messages.”

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