Coronavirus: Funeral services will play 'a very important role' in coming months

An undertaker wearing a face mask and overalls unloads a coffin out of a hearse on at a cemetery in Lombardy. (Getty Images)

One of the largest undertakers of funeral services in the UK has said it will have “a very important role to play” in the coming months, as the pandemic’s death toll rises to 56 in the country.

Dignity Funerals, which is implementing contingency plans supporting bereaved people and caring for the deceased, said it is due to meet government officials on Wednesday.

The National Association of Funeral Directors met with Whitehall officials on Tuesday to discuss a set of national coronavirus guidelines for those involved in after life services.

“We have been represented via our trade associations in meetings today and we will ourselves be meeting with Government tomorrow,” a spokeswoman said.

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“This gives us the opportunity to discuss potential changes required to policies and practices in these extraordinary times, and outline requirements that we collectively have in order to continue to meet demands now and as the situation evolves.”

Funeral directors across the UK have been working to develop contingency plans and are ready to step up to support the government and the nation in these unprecedented and worrying times, said the association’s chief executive Jon Levett ahead of the meeting.

On Monday, Boris Johnson issued more restrictions on the UK, banning non-essential travel and “unnecessary” contact after a spike in cases, particularly in London.

Health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed later in the Commons that the death toll had risen to 53.

Undertakers wearing a face mask carry a coffin out of a hearse in Lombardy. (AP)

Tuesday’s meeting followed the Republic of Ireland’s decision to perform a quick cremation or burial, with a memorial service at a later date.

But the Irish Association of Funeral Directors’ new published guidance has been amended to allow funerals to take place, and restricting the amount of people in attendance to close family members.

Open caskets are also banned under the guidelines.

Italy is understood to be undertaking similar guidelines; victims are buried quickly and without ceremony to mitigate the risk of infection posed by the corpse.

In Portugal, the Directorate-General for Health issued a rule on “post-mortem” care for the corpses of people infected with the new coronavirus, recommending the cremation of bodies and determining, in case of burial, that the coffin is not opened.

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The National Association of Funeral Directors in the UK is calling for more clarity and the government to issue revised national guidance for all funeral directors and associated services to follow.

“However, consistency of advice is key and this is what we are aiming to achieve from our meeting with the Cabinet Office today,” said Levett.

“Funeral directors need a very clear national policy to work to and we are concerned by inconsistencies of guidance appearing across the UK which is making it impossible for funeral directors to give accurate advice.

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“For example, if there are restrictions on numbers of people gathering, bereaved people need to know exactly what this means for funeral services and how funeral directors can support them.”

He also said that directors also hoped to find out how working practices may change.

The funeral ceremony of a Thai man aged 35 who was suffering from dengue fever and later got infected with Covid-19. (Getty)

“In addition, funeral directors need to understand how working practices may need to change and how they can access supplies they will need, such as Personal Protective Equipment – as well as how the Government will support the funeral sector in ensuring they are able to cope as we approach the peak of the outbreak.

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“Funeral directors have an abiding duty of care to anyone who loses someone they love, whether it’s from Covid-19 or anything else – and we urgently need consistent guidance from Government to enable funeral directors to be able to support bereaved families at this difficult time.”

Levett told Sky News that he was very concerned that the lack of clear national advice could leave individual funeral directors exposed and at risk of a backlash from families, if some funeral directors decide to implement restrictive measures themselves.

"It's only fair that funeral directors are given a very clear national policy, otherwise we are going to get a very confused picture and it's not fair on bereaved families not to have clarity at such a difficult for them."