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Coronavirus is changing how we hold funerals: ‘another layer of grief’

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WATCH: Funeral homes are having to change how they conduct ceremonies after the COVID-19 outbreak – Mar 28, 2020

Removing someone from a funeral simply because they travelled to the U.S. wasn’t an expected part of the job for Jeff Hagel, president of McInnis and Holloway funeral homes in Calgary, Alta.

That’s now become one of a multitude of changes to policy Hagel’s funeral homes have implemented across the city as a response to the coronavirus outbreak in Canada.

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Along with drastically reducing the number of people allowed to attend ceremonies, firming handwashing and sanitizing policies, setting up video streaming and scaling back staff hours — people who work in these types of industries are learning how to adapt.

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It’s the same kinds of modifications funeral homes and places of worship have had to make all over Canada following government directives about social distancing and the implementation of the Quarantine Act, which legally requires all travellers to isolate and stay indoors for 14-days.

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Those policies are in place to avoid a scenario like the recent outbreak at a St. John’s N.L. funeral home, which became the epicenter of the province’s COVID-19 cases. One person who recently travelled went to a funeral in the city on March 15 and ended up infecting more than 60 other people who were in attendance.

Last week, Hagel heard from funeral guests at a service that one person there had come from the U.S. for the ceremony. 

“He was confirmed to have just flown in. We did, unfortunately, have to explain to him that it wasn’t permissible from all the advice of the chief medical officer of health that he was able to be there,” said Hagel. 

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Signs produced by Alberta Health Services are currently posted outside all their funeral home locations, reminding guests that anyone who has travelled, is sick, or has symptoms will not be allowed in the building, he said. 

McInnis and Holloway’s staff has been split into two groups and are rotated to keep a limited number of staff working at a time. All are working 35-hour weeks without pay cuts, said Hagel.

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Supporting the families using their services while keeping up with guidelines from the province around how they can continue to operate has been a balancing act and a challenge for staff, who have responded phenomenally, he said.

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“They’ve definitely adapted to the use of technology to help families,” he said. “It’s something that’s been in place for years, whether it’s offering phone arrangements or video arrangements. Having some of these things in place has really eased the transition.”

Staff have been taking videos of ceremonies and uploading them publicly or privately, depending on their client’s preferences, Hagel explained. They recorded multiple graveside services for families in the last two weeks, he added.

The emotional toll of delaying a funeral 

Despite all their best efforts, Hagel and his staff understand grieving a death is already a complex time for families —  and not being able to have the funeral the family imagined can be heartbreaking. 

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“This is just adding another layer of grief with their instability to have the traditional funeral that families have had… to have all their neighbours and everybody out. And that support network has been lost,” he said.

 “One step that we identified… is the website where families leave online condolences, we’ve also added a link to encourage families to take a video message… and we can share that with our families,” he said. 

Hagel is also working with families to determine whether delaying a funeral makes sense, as it could possibly interfere with the grief process and delay the chance to recognize a loss collectively, in order to move forward, he explained.

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They’ve also offered the possibility of a second event with more guests, in the coming months when it’s possible, he said. 

“The need is still there to gather, to recognize and to mourn. And if that’s just calling it a date and time for families in their own house, doing it over the phone… it’s still something we’ve learned is incredibly important,” he said.

“There’re options out there, when they feel the time is right.”

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‘We’re still able to bring families together’

Helping families during a stressful and emotional period is a main pillar of the funeral industry — and the coronavirus is simply an extension of that said Greg Meeke, general manager of the Humphrey Funeral Home in Toronto. 

“Taking care of families is at the forefront, that’s what we do everyday… the whole situation is just on a grander scale,” he said. “But I feel so bad for the families because of what is going on.”

Meeke’s funeral home is taking many of the same steps and precautions as McInnis and Holloway, including thoroughly cleaning their facilities before and after guests leave, he said.

They’ve also set up live viewings over video of ceremonies at the families’ requests and are learning about new technology they could offer in the coming weeks, Meeke said. 

“Nothing is perfect — that’s the thing that frustrates me sometimes is trying to do something that may not work initially,” said Meeke, referring to new video technology. “But right now we are okay and hoping we will be able to maneuver through this.”

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Bringing families together virtually and helping them navigate an online environment where they can grieve together is now an important role for funeral homes, said Jerry Roberts, vice president of funeral services at Arbor Memorial funeral homes. 

“Through the live streaming, we’re still able to bring families together,” he said. Staff at Arbor funeral homes are encouraging those watching a ceremony live stream to bring sentimental items with them, he said. 

“Anything meaningful to them… to help them remember their loved one,” said Roberts. “The pictures of grandpa baiting the hook for their grandson to go fishing, videos of grandpa playing catch… these are all things we are observing that families are still remembering and focusing on those special memories.”

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Using applications like Skype, Zoom along with uploading memories for families to a centralized place are some of the ways Arbor is leveraging technology to help people connect from different locations, Roberts explained.

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“We’re trying to come up with options, creative ways to help families remember their loved-one and have the ceremony sooner,” he said. 

This is why Roberts believes funerals should remain essential services for Canadians, so they have the opportunity to grieve a loved one without delay, he explained. Using technology can prevent ceremonies from facing months of delays, which could emotionally impact the families, he added. 

Ontario currently lists funerals under essential services and they are allowed to remain operational. In Winnipeg, funeral home staff members are calling on their provincial government to give them that same listing so they can qualify for personal protective equipment funding.  

Changes impacting religious ceremonies

For the many Canadians who opt for a religious ceremony, the processes and rituals that were formerly in place have had to change in many cases, due to COVID-19.

Hindu funerals, for instance, involve multiple guests viewing an open casket, chanting mantras together and placing items like flowers and rice on the body.

Surinder Sharma, president of the Canadian Council of Hindu Priests, says he and other priests are performing rituals carefully at a distance, away from the body and other family members. 

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They are also asking families to avoid gathering close together when they are performing their services, said Sharma. 

“Hindu funeral services take one to two hours, but nowadays we are doing mandatory steps in the services without socialization and requesting families to come with immediate family,” he said. 

Families have been understanding of the new guidelines, and within Hindu scripture, only one person has to do the last part of their ritual which has made some aspects easier, he said. 

The structure of the ceremony provides some comfort, but it’s difficult to quell fears about COVID-19 alongside their grief, he said. 

“It’s a little hard for families as they are facing a loss of a family member and are scared of today’s situation,” he said. 

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.