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.

Creator’s ashes in foundations of Warwick sculpture

If you’re driving through Warwick these holidays, 130km or so west of Brisbane, this fantastic tribute to the region’s horses is worth a stop. Not only is is magnificent to see, it’s also the resting place of its designer.

It’s hard to miss. The wonderful sculpture is at the town’s entrance, on the eastern side.

After campaigning for the sculpture for 14 years, sadly John Simpson died just one month before the foundations were laid. But not only is his vision and years of work captured in the metal which pays homage to the Light Horse troop, farmers during World War I and Warwick’s famous horse sports, John Simpson is in the sculpture itself.

Horsepower: Warwick’s Story of the Horse

Some of John Simpson’s ashes are cast in its foundations.

Some of sculptor’s John Simpson’s ashes are mixed in the foundations of the Horsepower: Warwick’s Story of the Horse. Photo via: https://www.facebook.com/Warwickhorsesculpture/

A plaque on the sculpture, written by his daughter Fiona, reads:

“John had a dream to give the community and massive town entrance culture that could be used as an educational tool for generations and be a traffic stopper. His vision was to create a memorial to the relationship between horse and man. He wanted the sculpture to help citizens, visitors and tourists to celebrate the historic contribution of horses in the region, to pay homage to the mighty pioneers who opened up the land so that the horsemen could flourish and to appreciate how the horse is an integral part of life on the Southern Downs. Standing 15 m tall and spanning 23 m wide this was more than an artistic piece designed and drawn by John, it was also an engineering challenge. 

“Over the course of the project John Drew on all his strength, courage and determination to see it completed as he continually face health issues. Sadly he lost his fight on 26th February 2019, just one month shy of the foundations of this magnificent sculpture being laid. His ashes are buried in its foundations.

“Remembered as a passionate community member, a dynamic art teacher and loving husband, father and Grandfather, John Simpson was a man that inspired, a man worth knowing. “

Fiona Simpson (daughter), on behalf of the family.
A plaque on the monument tells the story of John Simpson.

In John’s words: “This is my legacy to art, my legacy to the equine industry, my legacy to history.”

This world class monument is a salute to the relationship between man and horse.
Because most funding grants were rejected, the local community raised the $180,000 needed to commence work on the Sculpture. Utilising expertise from the local community including steel fabricator peel tribe, John’s vision has become a reality for all to see.  It took 14 years for John, with the support of Henry Osiecki and his local community, to fund the monument.
Horsepower: Warwick’s Story of the Horse. Horses played such in important role is years gone by – the Cobb and Co coach, ploughing fields, the Light Horse, for example.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist 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 (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

The foundations of a monument in the Queensland town of Warwick contain the ashes of its designer. 
John Simpson worked for 14 years to make his "traffic-stopper" dream a reality. Sadly he died one month beofre the foundations were laid.
Blogger and author Lisa Herbert is a death literacy advocate.

Coffins and company: the coffin club changing lives.

“See you next week… with a bit of luck.”

The cheery and optimistic farewell brought big chuckles from members of the Community Coffin Club in the north-west Tasmania town of Ulverstone. 

Jokes about death and dying are common-place here. The inevitable is approached in good humour.

Every Thursday a bunch of like-minded people get together for fun times, companionship, coffin making and learning. The group also provides a wide range of reading material and ‘death literacy’ resources for anyone who may drop in.

The Community Coffin Club operates out of the Central Coast Community Shed in Ulverstone every Thursday.

Meeting Ed

Coffin club member Ed King and I bonded over Kingston biscuits. A guest of the club, I’d been invited to talk about and my funeral planning guide, The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, and my cemetery wanderings. There’s always cakes and biscuits at these things and Ed and I were happily devouring the Kingstons one after the other.

An artist, sculptor and painter, Ed has been attending a well-provisioned shed to work on his coffin every other Thursday for the past two years or so.

“I’m on my way out,” he declares.

While his early onset dementia leaves Ed struggling to find some of his words as we chat, he’s engaging, witty and warm.

“Sometimes I can’t get up, sometimes I can’t do anything, but today I can talk,” he grins.

Ed King attends the Community Coffin Club where he’s building a boat-themed coffin for himself.

Six hours a week he’s assisted by support worker David and it’s clear Ed enjoys the time they spend together.

They share a love of art and enjoy bouncing ideas off one another.

“I look forward to it,” Ed says earnestly.

“And I look forward to it too,” David replies.

Support worker David and client Ed. Good mates.

They both reminisce and shake their heads about their first attempts to build Ed’s coffin.

“The first coffin didn’t quite work. It was a bit flimsy. We used the wrong wood,” says David.

But Ed’s second coffin is coming along nicely. He’s a creative artist so it’s no surprise that there are interesting little twists added to his coffin.

Coffins and company

But, as Ed explains, Thursdays aren’t just about building coffins. They’re about companionship.

“Everyone’s here for the same thing. You have a bit of a laugh. You meet people and you’re all in the same pot. We’re all going down eventually.”

I asked Ed how he’d describe the coffin he’s making.

“Getting there,” he quipped, which received widespread chuckles around the group.

Because he can’t afford a boat, Ed’s coffin has a rudder. Photo: Community Coffin Club Facebook page

“I can’t afford to buy my own boat. So we started to turn it more into a boat than a coffin,” he said, which explains why there is a rudder, made of King Billy pine, at the feet end of the coffin. Or should that be the stern?

The coffin itself is made from a combination of timbers – recycled pallets, a little bit of huon pine, and some wood that Ed had in his shed.  

“I got it for free, it’s oregon pine, beautiful. They were pulling down some old buildings and I got this and put it away for 18 years.”

As well as a rudder at the coffin’s stern, a set of horns will decorate the bow.

There are two shallow holes drilled into the coffin’s bow, just behind where the horns will be positioned.

“They’re for the two pennies. You know, to pay the ferryman,” Ed grins, clearly amused by this creative and mythical addition.

There are horns and holes for two pennies at the bow of Ed’s coffin.
Photo: Community Coffin Facebook page

Ed is quick to point out the help he’s received to build his coffin, er… boat.

“Dave is great, fantastic. He’s the engine of this thing,” he said gratefully.

Knowing his early onset dementia will bring about his death sooner rather than later, Ed faces his mortality very practically.

“I’m going to be cremated and chucked in the ocean, I hope.”

Because of restrictions at the crematorium, the horns and the rudder have been made so they can easily be removed. Ed’s two young sons will be able to keep those.

“David’s got it built so that as soon as it’s time to ‘go under’, they can just pick it up and the boys can take it (the horns and the rudder) with them.”

Shrouded in art

As an artist, Ed has travelled widely and has an extensive body of work from his overseas wanderings.

“I did do drawings in France, Spain and all over England, and all over the world really.”

David explained that Ed will be laid to rest in the coffin, wrapped in some of this artwork.

“A lot of the canvases that Ed painted, lovely churches, cathedrals and things, have a really lovely Gothic feel to them. There’s a lovely lady who’s cutting them up and stitching them together to make a shroud for Ed,” he said.

Ed nods and smiles knowingly at me. Again, he seems chuffed with this idea, chuffed to be sharing it with me, and chuffed to have a mate like David who’s able to help him when the words won’t come.

Ed shows me his awesome coffin.

And support worker David’s more than happy to spend a couple of hours on Thursdays at the Community Coffin Club with Ed.

“The feel of this place and the way they make you feel when you come here, it’s fantastic,” said David.

“And there’s lots of coffee and cakes,” interjects a smiling Ed.

The Community Coffin Club meets at the Central Coast Community Shed at the Ulverstone Showgrounds from 10 on Thursdays. All are welcome.

A gift to the Coffin Club, artist and sculptor Ed has crafted a miniature coffin artwork. A tin soldier rests in the top, there are pennies for the ferryman, a coffin handle, a bell and a drain, plus splashes of paint make it look like it’s been eaten by worms.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist 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 (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert has written The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide and workbook.