The threat posed by the novel coronavirus suddenly felt more real when Brett Denning gathered funeral home staff in mid-March to talk about upcoming changes to their practices.
Denning, who is the general manager of Denning’s Ltd., a southwestern Ontario funeral home chain, told staff at the Strathroy, Ont. location they would be allowing fewer people into their funeral homes at one time.
As he heard about other businesses being forced to close, he knew the closures wouldn’t apply to his business. Funeral homes would not only be operating during the pandemic, but also adjusting quickly to understand changing rules, regulations and best practices.
“We had to really scramble to make sure that our staff were comfortable with the new reality ... so that we can be that pillar of strength when someone’s suffered a loss in their family in such an already troubling time,” Denning told HuffPost Canada by phone from his car, his remote office right now.
Two months later, the funeral home group is staying afloat amid the pandemic. They had already been live-streaming services for a few years before the pandemic, something that has gained more popularity now with social distancing measures in place. But Denning said it’s been a challenge for his staff to interact with grieving families without being able to hug them or touch them.
“That’s the number one complaint that I’ve got from my funeral directors, how difficult it is to walk beside their families without being able to see them, without being able to hug them like they normally do,” he said.
Deemed essential in most provinces, funeral home staff are providing a front-line service during the pandemic, picking up the dead from hospitals and long-term care homes. Their jobs have become more challenging because of the physical distancing measures, decreased revenues from fewer families holding services, and the pervasive fear of contracting COVID-19 or bringing it home to their families.
Ontario operating under new protocols
Since April 14, Ontario funeral homes had been operating under the expedited death response (EDR) process, meaning funeral home staff were contacted 24/7 and expected to remove the deceased from hospitals on one hour’s notice, or three hours for long-term care homes. The time requirement did not apply to homes or private residences.
As of May 25, the EDR has been updated so funeral homes are not expected to attend to hospitals or long-term care homes after 8 p.m. except in exceptional circumstances. The Bereavement Authority of Ontario suggested funeral homes contact their local long-term care facility to discuss how to assist with overnight deaths.
As well, families now have up to 12 hours to select and contact a funeral home, instead of the previous one-hour time frame.
Denning is also a director on the board of the Ontario Funeral Service Association and he represented the association on a committee with the province’s chief coroner in discussions about the EDR process.
He said the EDR has impacted each funeral home differently.
For his staff, it meant taxing schedules. He notes funeral homes in bigger cities could no longer rely on third-party companies overnight, which was a big change in their operations.
“I think we’re every bit as essential as the front-line [workers]...”
Allan Cole, vice-president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada, said he’s not aware of any province offering a pay top-up for funeral home staff during the pandemic, although some homes may be eligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy or the Canada Emergency Business Account.
“Direct support for the funeral sector is not available from any government at any level in Canada,” he said in an email to HuffPost, adding that businesses in the funeral service are continuing to work, unlike harder-hit businesses in the retail or hospitality industries.
Personal protective equipment shortages
Funeral home worker is a profession people may not think much about right now, said Charles Girard, director of operations at Telford, Toneff & Boyd burial and cremation centres, a division of the Lonsdale Funeral Group, on Vancouver Island, B.C.
The homes are active on social media, sharing information with their community, such as that they have a live piper playing at their locations to acknowledge families’ losses. Some people have said they’re taking advantage of the pandemic as a marketing opportunity, or that they shouldn’t be speaking up right now.
But Girard wants people to know that funeral service workers are playing an important role right now.
“I think we’re every bit as essential as the front-line [workers] because we deal with people who potentially could be infected,” he told HuffPost.
B.C. has done a better job of flattening the curve to slow the spread of the virus and has fewer restrictions than Ontario right now. The province doesn’t have the same type of legislated rules as Ontario with regard to death protocols, Girard said, though some long-term care homes that may be on lockdown as a preventative measure may have restrictions on entry.
But one concern Girard notes is a shortage of some types of personal protective equipment (PPE). The home has enough gloves, but needs more N95 masks, which are worn by staff for embalming a body, he said.
He said the home is used to following universal precautions, and protecting its staff as if everyone who comes into their case could have an infection.
Cole, from the FSAC, said a recent survey by the association indicates 32 per cent of member funeral homes have had challenges accessing PPE.
‘Stepping into the petri dish’
Funeral home staff have always taken precautions when picking up a deceased person’s body, but “to see people doubling up, literally in hazmat gear, to pick up a body, to pick up a decedent from a nursing home, you know that’s serious,” said Luann Jones.
Jones is the owner and managing funeral director of Covenant Funeral Homes in Scarborough, Ont.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic has incited a “different level of fear” among her staff of around 11 people, who are putting their own lives, as well of those of their families and communities, on the line when responding to calls.
Before the pandemic, funeral home staff could enter facilities like long-term care homes to pick up a body. Now, in Ontario, they must hand off a stretcher to nursing staff, who will transfer the body onto it and transport it back outside into the care of the funeral home staff.
When responding to COVID-19 deaths, staff are wearing coveralls, masks, double gloves, boot covers, a hair covering and a face shield.
They also wear full PPE when preparing or embalming bodies.
Ontario funeral homes must follow a directive not to store bodies for as long as they typically would. Pre-pandemic, cultural norms may mean a body is stored for two or three weeks, Jones said, but this has now been sped up to under a week.
The risk of transmitting the virus caused by COVID-19 from dead bodies is not yet known, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). However, the virus can be transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces.
The virus causing COVID-19 can survive on cardboard and polypropylene, materials commonly used in death services, for one to three days, according to the PHAC.
“Some of us call ourselves the last responders...”
Overall, Jones said she feels funeral service staff have been overlooked in the pandemic response, despite employees “stepping into the petri dish” and facing potentially life-threatening unknowns when doing their jobs.
She said she also found that during the beginning of the pandemic, people weren’t forthcoming about their loved ones’ cause of death: they might say it was old age, or pneumonia, and not disclose that the death was suspected to be COVID-19-related. The deceased’s family members still came through the funeral home to make arrangements.
“It’s upsetting to know that they’re withholding that vital information, knowing that they can put somebody else’s life in jeopardy,” Jones said.
“Some of us call ourselves the last responders … we’re the ones picking up those pieces, the ones that are doing the cleanup so [peoples’] loved ones can be seen clean and presented for the final time ever.”