COVID-19s forgotten front line: Claims that mortuary staff and funeral directors have been left unprotected.

The workers who collect bodies from hospitals, homes and accident scenes are not receiving coronavirus protections because they’ve been deemed “non-essential” by the Federal Government.

According the Association of Independent Funeral Professionals, these ‘death workers’ don’t have priority access to protective clothing such as masks, gowns and other protective equipment because they offer a “non-essential service”.

The Association of Independent Funeral Professionals is calling for the reclassification of funeral workers and related industries as essential or critical care.

Association president Carly Dalton argues death workers should be given priority access to personal protective equipment to ensure they’re offered the same protections as health care workers.

“We face the same exposure and risk to the disease as those within the health care environment. We should be given priority access to all the personal protective equipment that is required for our workforce to undertake their roles safely and professionally,” she said.

These include “individuals who work in the industry of proper recovery, handling, identification, transportation, tracking, storage, and disposal of human remains should be included in the health care/public health category with doctors, nurses and others in the healthcare industry”.

In a letter today to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Carly said, “The ability of death-care professionals to safely carry out their duties during a mass-fatality incident is paramount. The government must recognise our role as funeral directors, cemetery, crematory and coffin manufacturing workers as critical to responding to a pandemic response.”

“The safety of these individuals are truly on the front line in helping to care for pandemic victims and their grieving families,” said Carly.

She hopes the Victorian Premier can lobby his Federal counterparts to make death workers essential service providers. I’ve sought comment from the Prime Minister’s office about this.

Just a few days ago the National Funeral Directors Association of Australia expressed similar concerns to the ABC.

President Nigel Davies agrees the industry is 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.

Meantime, Carly Dalton has taken to social media to request homemade masks.

“Who has sewing skills and could start making washable cloth masks? Our whole industry is in need of masks and so is the public. There are no masks anywhere in the shops.. so this really is something that anyone with sewing skills can assist us with. Need to be breathable cotton, high thread count and perhaps 2 or 3 layers,” she wrote on Facebook.

In the meantime the Federal Government has given guidelines about dealing with the deceased. That advice can be found here.

Part of the advice made available by the Federal Government.

Federal Government guidelines regarding COVID-19 contain some contradictions.

“Family members should be advised not to kiss the deceased. If family members touch the body, they should wash their hands immediately afterwards or use an alcohol-based hand rub.”

But the guidelines also say, “there is no evidence of an increased risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 during cremation and routine body handling”.

Yet the advice also says, “It is not clear whether embalming is safe to do on people who have died from, or with, COVID-19. Embalming is not recommended for bodies who died from, or with, COVID-19”.

Clear as mud?

Australian funerals limited to 10 people in total

As of March 25, 10 people can attend funerals. That includes funeral directors, clergy and cemetery workers. That leaves room for about six or seven mourners.

In Italy, where Covid-19 is overwhelming, funerals are not taking place at all. People are being buried or cremated without a funeral. That is a real possibility here and one that many funeral directors are preparing for.

Now, more than every before, technology will play a substantial role in funerals in Australia. Webcasting or the live-streaming of funerals is nothing new and funeral directors are well prepared for this.

Carly Dalton from Greenhaven Funerals in Melbourne says “virtual ceremonies” using a videographer and a ‘virtual ceremony’ may provide limited comfort at this point of time, but a memorial may be held at a later date.

“In six months time, on an anniversary of the death, perhaps a memorial can be held once this cloud has lifted from us all,” she suggests.

Carly Dalton’s new reality of social distancing and offering 4 metres per person. That is about to change at midnight when no more than 10 people can be present at a funeral.

Carly says despite these confusing times, she’s seeing the best in people within the funeral industry.

“We have funeral celebrants who are now out of work putting their hand up to volunteer with us to ensure that people are laid to rest in the best circumstances possible.

“This is new territory for us and everyone is coming together to help grieving families as best we can,” said Carly.

“We’re doing everything to comply with the new rules, despite not being categorised by government as an essential service.

“I’ve got a funeral on Friday and there are 30 immediate family. We are doing our best to find a solution for those mourners. We’ve moved the location to ensure we can ensure a space that caters for four metres for person and we’re seeking clarification about whether we can have the mourners in the cemetery in groups of 10, perhaps 15 minutes at the graveside per group.

“These people are bereft after losing someone and all this on top of that grief they’re having to deal with this.”

Carly says she’s thankful that funerals can still go ahead here in Australia. In countries like Italy where there are an overwhelming number of Covid 19 deaths, the deceased are being buried with no funeral.

My advice

If this blog has upset you or you are concerned your loved one won’t get the send-off “they deserve” because of Covid-19, now is your chance to change the way you look at death and funerals. Say what you have to NOW. Record a video and send it to your elderly loved one telling them what you like about them and how you remember them. Don’t grieve for a funeral that might not take place. Celebrate a life while you still can.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist, death literacy advocate and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage.

Author, journalist and death literacy advocate Lisa Herbert.

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