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.

Digital death: Facebook takes memorial accounts a step further if you die.

Facebook remains ahead of the pack when it comes to managing the social media accounts of those who have died.

With well over 30 million dead people still on Facebook (and predictions there will soon be more dead people on Facebook than those alive), Facebook has today added an extra layer to its memorial pages. I’ll get to that soon.

First, let’s go back to basics.

What happens to your Facebook page if you die?

When you die a family member or your executor can request your Facebook page be either deleted or memorialised. They will have to provide proof to Facebook that you have died, most likely with a death certificate.

Having your page memorialised means your friends can still post on your wall and the page can then become a place of mourning or remembrance. (But that’s only possible if your privacy settings allowed them to post on your wall in the first place.) Your page will look similar to what it always has, though the word ‘remembering’ will be displayed next to your name.

A memorialised page offers Facebook friends a place of remembrance.

No-one will be able to log into your memorialised account and, importantly, your memorial Facebook page won’t show up in the ‘people you may know’ section, nor will your friends get a reminder about your birthday.  

Legacy contacts: Giving a trusted friend a bit of control

Four years ago Facebook introduced what’s called Legacy Contacts. This is when you nominate a friend to manage parts of your account if you die. Don’t worry, they can’t access your messages in Facebook messenger and they can’t delete any unflattering photos of themselves that may be on your page.

Your Facebook Legacy Contact can pin a post on your page eg. your funeral details. They can also change your profile and cover photos and respond to any new friend requests.

How you nominate your Legacy Contact seems to differ depending on whether you’re on your desktop or using the App on your phone, but it’s not too hard to find.

On my desktop this morning I’ve clicked on ‘Settings’, then ‘General’, then ‘manage account’.

On my android phone, I’ve gone to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then’ Settings’ then ‘Personal Information’, and then ‘manage account’.

Legacy contacts are easy to set up. Picture: Facebook News

More information about Legacy Contacts HERE.

The latest: Tributes

Today Facebook has given your Facebook friends and your Legacy Contact a bit more power to add content to your memorialised Facebook page.

Users have started received notices about Facebook tributes.

Tributes is a space on memorialised profiles where your Facebook friends and family can post stories, commemorate your birthday, and share memories. Facebook has just begun rolling out this feature so you might not see it on all memorialised profiles yet.

Posts made after the date your page was memorialised are now included in the tributes section. The introduction of this tributes section seems to have come about in a bid to separate the timeline posts you made while you were alive and the posts that have since been added by your mates after you passed away.

Facebooks says, “We do our best to separate tribute posts from timeline posts based on the info we’re given”.

It also gives someone (your Legacy Contact) the ability to control what’s being said on your timeline – just in case cousin Jerry
gets really pissed one night and posts what he REALLY thinks about you and your family and the affair you had with his sister.

Your nominated Legacy Contact can change who can see and who can post tributes. They can also delete tribute posts or remove any tags of you that someone else has posted.

Decision time

Sure, you’re probably not going to die anytime soon, but it’s not going to hurt to get a little prepared. So, you have to decide what you want done with your Facebook page when you die.

Once you’ve decided TELL YOUR PARTNER OR A FAMILY MEMBER or you can write what you want in The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, written by yours truly. It’s a colourful read with lots of practical information and room for you to write your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan allows you to pen your funeral wishes and life’s reflections.

So get to it. What do you want to happen to your Facebook page when you die?

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$9 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 is the author of funeral planning guide ‘The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.”

Telling stories from the grave: Gold Coast teen’s memorial becomes a technological world first

Strolling through a pretty memorial park nestled between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, I stumbled across technology that will revolutionise how the stories of the dead are told and how the deceased are remembered.

Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott died suddenly from a heart condition aged 15. His memorial is at Eco Memorial Park in Stayplton, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

In between the headstones, plaques, photos, flowers and trinkets at Eco Memorial Park at Stapylton, there was a headstone that had a little white plastic-looking disk stuck to it. The disk is Bluetooth-enabled technology which enabled me to get to know Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott via an App I’d just downloaded on my phone. Sadly Lucas died in class last September.

The Memento is fitted with a Bluetooth beacon which connects to the modUrn App to reveal the story of the deceased. It provides a central place for photos, videos, voice recordings, music, documents – all sorts of things.

The little disk is called a Memento and it’s fitted with a Bluetooth beacon that relays information to the modUrn App (more about modUrn in a sec). Lucas’ parents and friends have uploaded photos, videos, documents and text on to the App. When someone like me comes within five metres of the memorial or grave, that information becomes accessible on my smartphone. But, as someone who’s not connected with Lucas or his family, I could only see a handful of the information that had been uploaded onto the App. Lucas’ family have the final say on who can see what. Just like social media, the information can be either public or private or a mix of both.

I took some screenshots of what I saw when I logged on to the App as I stood at the garden site of Lucas’ memorial:

Who was Lucas?

Sadly Lucas made the news when he died in class at Ormeau Woods State High School last September. The 15yo suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which can cause sudden cardiac death in one per cent of those with the disease.

Lucas liked technology and gadgets. Headphones sit on his memorial stone and his love of his Xbox is written on his memorial plaque. It makes sense that his grave is the first in the world to be using what’s called a Memento (developed by an Aussie company called modUrn).

Lucas would have been 16 a couple of weeks ago so his friends, family, classmates and his dog Leila attended a memorial day for him. Photos from that day have since been uploaded to the App.

Lucas’s mum Agneta Millott says it’s great that anyone who visits her son’s memorial will be able to see life events and photos of Lucas.

“I’m hoping that whoever goes there can scroll through the photos, enjoy great memories of Lucas and sit there with a smile on their face.

“Seeing new updated stories and new images from his friends and also messages when others are visiting Lucas’s memorial in the future is going to be great”, said Agneta. 

Who’s behind this technology?

Followers of this blog and my Facebook page know that I’m a cemetery wanderer who likes to give a voice to those who can no longer speak. Cemeteries can teach the living such valuable lessons about the past and this technology offers a very cool way of doing that. I’m in no way affiliated with this company but I am very excited by what I’ve seen.

As soon as I got home from the memorial park I rang the young creator of the Memento for a chat. Sonia Vachalec is a photographer by trade. (Just hours before I rang her she’d signed a deal for this technology to be distributed in three countries including the USA. SO COOL – a little Aussie company doing big things – the concept has been created, developed and manufactured here in Australia.)

Sonia’s dad died when she was in her 20s and her stepfather died five years ago. She had stacks of their photos, voice recordings and videos lying around. “I was hoarding so many things,” she admits.

Sonia wanted to collate all her memories in one spot “so there was a time capsule to capture the essence of the person that can be accessed at any time or any place”.

Urns have the technology too!

Sonia hasn’t just created the Memento, the little disk that sits on a grave or memorial. The same technology is included in a bunch of funky urns called modUrns. So now the cremated ashes (called cremains) of Granny Mary can sit in the lounge room and you can access all her memories, photos, videos, letter, documents, certificates, story tellings, family tree, whatever, via the App.

Yup, that’s an urn for cremated ashes. The world’s first Smart Urn! The Bluetooth technology sits in the top, powered by a small battery that will need changing every couple of years. When your phone is within five metres of the urn you can use the App on your phone to scroll through photos, videos, etc.

The modUrn is certainly not your traditional-looking urn. And it can’t hold all the ashes of Granny Mary. (They hold about a litre or 61 cubic inches but these days lots of people are starting to split the ashes of their loved ones anyway.)

Here’s a video explainer of what you can do with the modUrn technology. https://youtu.be/JGssGwnOK7E

Sonia has a six-year-old girl who’s too young to remember the times she spent with her grandfather who passed away when she was 2. But she now has a physical reference of her Pop in the shape of a modUrn that is filled with photos of her grandfather. It sits next to the TV in the lounge room.

“She picks it up and hugs it sometimes,” said Sonia.

Death in the modern era

When it comes to accepting death and talking about it, Australians are way behind the times. While other cultures have a very personalised and hands-on approach to death and funerals, Aussies don’t want a bar of it. So it’s great to see an Australian company that’s leading the way in offering people an easy way to remember their loved ones. And yes, that includes pets as well. There’s a pet range of modUrns as well!

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$9 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 holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

Colourful fireworks over Brisbane.

Ashes scattered by fireworks means loved ones go off with a bang.

As you look skywards tonight, you might just see some particularly special fireworks.

The scattering of ashes via fireworks is taking off. These days there are several companies that offer the service for both people and pets.

Fourth generation pyrotechnician Andrew Howard is co-ordinating 75 fireworks shows in towns and cities across the country tonight. While none of those events include someone’s ashes, he told ABC Darwin that ashes being spread using fireworks is becoming more popular.

“We got our first inquiry over a decade ago. It was a little bit weird but it’s certainly very common now.”

“We do several throughout the year but there won’t be any on New Year’s Eve this year,” said Mr Howard.

Ashes are put into handmade aerial shell fireworks that are launched high into the sky over the location sought by the client, usually somewhere of significance to the deceased or their friends and family. The colour of the fireworks becomes an important component of the ceremony, with the colour chosen to reflect the personality of the deceased.

In 2010 the Sydney Harbour New Year’s fireworks incorporated the ashes of two dogs, Gyprock and Zeus. They were the beloved pets of Craig Hull, who has since become a successful pyrotechnician. His company, Ashes to Ashes, specialises in “the scattering of one’s cremated ashes by way of a beautiful and spectacular fireworks display”.

Mr Hull’s first clients were Mikala and Stephanie Dwyer. The sisters sent their mum and grandmother up in fireworks in Sydney in 2014. Speaking to The Feed, Mikala said the ashes had been “hanging around for quite some time”.

“My grandmother’s been hanging around in cupboards since 1994 so this is a way of setting her free a bit,” said Mikala.

“My mother loved fireworks so this was the perfect thing.”

“It seemed totally right and I realise it’s not right for everyone, but for us it was quite wonderful,” she said.

What do you think? Would you like to go out with a bang at a memorial service with a difference? You can make your wishes known in your will or simply tell your loved ones or write down your wishes in The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.

I hope you have a safe and memorable New Year’s Eve. Enjoy the fireworks! And I’d love to know your thoughts about sending your friends and family skywards.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage. You can buy it here.

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author.