Challenging time for funeral directors and their staff trying to adhere to guidelines

By Maurice Garvey

FUNERALS, such an integral part of Irish society, have changed dramatically in 2020, reports Maurice Garvey.

The situation has slightly improved from the dark days of late March and April when fear was rife in the country and the utterly cruel fate where family members could not see or touch loved ones who passed away with a positive test of Covid-19.

Brian McElroy 1

Brian McElroy

Thankfully, at least up to 25 people can attend a funeral within the current restrictions, but it has been a challenging time for funeral directors and their staff, many of whom have found themselves taking the blame for simply adhering to industry guidelines.

“We kind of feel like the bad guys. It is difficult to try and explain to families, but we have become people who tell people they can’t do this or can’t do that,” said Brian McElroy, owner of Brian McElroy Funeral Directors.

“Every death is a tremendous tragedy. In the case of the more traumatic cases like suicide or young people, and certainly having 25 people is more tolerable than 10, but especially for young people, how do you pick out just 25?”

The role of a funeral director and families is an intimate one in terms of the relationship and sensitivities involved, but restrictions have played havoc with basic human interactions.

“The hardest thing, if you are arranging a funeral for a family, the first thing people do when you meet them, they want to shake your hand or hug you, especially if they are a huggy person, and we can’t do that,” said Brian ruefully.

Footage from a recent funeral in England went viral after a son was coldly told by the funeral director to move away from comforting his mother, who was grieving the loss of her husband.

“There has to be compassionate grounds,” said Brian.

“In our crematoria, family are quite entitled to sit together, assuming they are from the same household.”

The early months of the pandemic were fraught but McElroy feels “funeral home staff really stepped up” and managed to keep going.

“I didn’t think when I started out 15 years ago that the industry would be turned on its head, but you do your best and the job you are asked to do.”

Covid has also led to coffins being put in the grave before mourners arrive at the grave, although McElroy leaves it up to families to make a decision on who will carry the coffin into the church “at their own discretion.”

“The HSE guidelines are no embalming (for Covid deaths) and that is extremely difficult to tell families but most have agreed. We have to go by Government guidelines, we have a responsibility to our staff and clients, if anything goes wrong we are liable.

“Most of the organising is done over the phone but we are still working with families, wearing masks and visors. Condolence books have stopped as have donation boxes, so charities are suffering.

“The most popular charity at the funerals we do is Our Lady’s Hospice. There could be €10k a week for them depending on which funerals.”

A bittersweet moment for Brian was a recent interaction with an elderly women – who asked him what was the next funeral – so that she could attend Mass.

“When the churches were closing that elderly woman sat up at night thinking and decided if I follow the hearses, I will get to Mass.

“Things like that make it all worthwhile. She was going to Mass by hook or by crook.”

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