Lockdowns this year have meant even fewer funerals attended. (Photo: Getty Images)
Lockdowns this year have meant even fewer funerals attended. (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyApril 7, 2020

Helping people say goodbye, apart: A funeral director on life under lockdown

Lockdowns this year have meant even fewer funerals attended. (Photo: Getty Images)
Lockdowns this year have meant even fewer funerals attended. (Photo: Getty Images)

From managing the expectations of friends and whānau to making sure there’s enough PPE, Jihee Junn talks to an Auckland-based funeral director about what their job has been like under Covid-19. 

More than 400 people are said to have died during New Zealand’s first week under level four lockdown. Only one had a direct connection to Covid-19, but the consequences of virus’ spread have affected them all by denying their loved ones from accessing an essential part of the grieving process – the funeral. 

It’s been devastating for so many who’ve experienced loss during the lockdown with hundreds of funerals and tangihanga cancelled, delayed, or forced to be conducted entirely via Skype. And while the government has since slightly eased its restrictions around funerals by allowing those within the same bubble as the deceased to see their loved one, funerals or tangihanga for wider friends and family remain banned.

For funeral directors, who are considered essential workers during the lockdown, dealing with this new reality has also been far from easy. One Auckland-based funeral director, who has asked to remain anonymous, talked to The Spinoff about what their job has been like under Covid-19. 

The Spinoff: A lot of restrictions have been placed on funerals in the last few weeks, even before the lockdown was announced. What have those last few weeks been like?  

Oddly enough, we’ve been really quiet. Surprisingly quiet, and I don’t think we’re alone in the funeral industry in being quiet. There’s been a trend towards direct cremation where we transfer straight from the place of death.

When the lockdown was announced, it all felt odd. We’d been talking about it prior because we had to get our head around being frontline staff and working as an essential service, so while it didn’t take us by surprise, it was still a shock. A foreseeable shock, but a shock nonetheless. It was kind of like how sometimes we have families come in here and do prearrangements. They sit down with us, sometimes with the dying person, and they say ‘I want this song’, ‘I want this photo’ and all that. But despite all that preparation, despite all those attempts to manage things, they’re still shocked when it happens. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are – it catches you by surprise, so I suppose it was a bit like that for us.

Have you dealt with any deceased since the lockdown was announced?

Yes, and we’ve also had a lot of families who expect someone to die in the next month get in touch asking what they should do. 

For one family we’ve had a long-term embalm done for the deceased [and they] are hoping the lockdown will lift at a suitable time to manage a Requiem Mass (a Catholic mass for the deceased). The family actually had to check with their priest if – in the case we had to cremate early – you could technically still have a Requiem Mass after the body had been committed to cremation. So that was a whole other world of technicality that was beyond me.

Funerals in lockdown have been forcibly cancelled, delayed, or conducted virtually (Photo: Getty Images)

What’s the reaction been like from loved ones?

Mostly really pragmatic. For the most part, the families have been pretty accepting, acknowledging what we can and can’t do [during the lockdown]. The information is all out there, so most people have been pretty realistic and accepting. 

How much has your job changed since the lockdown was announced? I assume a lot of arrangements that usually go into a funeral like catering or music have gone out the door, so what does your job mostly involve now?

A lot of admin, managing expectations [of families], and working from home since we’ve divided our staff into two teams to minimise our exposure to the virus. When I work from home, I have to work around my own family to a degree – some conversations I have to be careful with, like when you’re dealing with the mother of a miscarried baby. 

I’ve also had to manage my team in terms of not just in-house admin but also in-house pastoral care, so extra care has to be taken.

It must be a very stressful time for everyone involved.

I signed up to this job to provide care for people and I can’t do that right now like I used to. Whereas I try and do things face-to-face so I can read people and see people, I’ve had to do things over the telephone which wouldn’t really be my first choice. When you’re on the phone, you have to be quite direct without being able to watch for a reaction or read somebody as easily. There’s Zoom and Skype which are similar to face-to-face, but not really. 

Is there anything new you’re doing for families to make this period of time easier for them?

Something we’re thinking of doing once this all settles down is having memorial service for those families who’ve experienced a death during this period. Normally during Christmas we invite the families of those who’ve died during the year and have a service for the deceased, so we thought we might do the same thing after this, just as a simple acknowledgement of that communal experience. Because that’s the thing that I miss about funeral services – the noise, the sociability, the shared support.

A group of Māori women wearing pare kawakawa, wreaths of kawakawa leaves on their heads as a sign of mourning.
Large tangi are a vital part of the grieving process for Māori (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

You mentioned that one family has opted for a long-term embalm. Is that something families should look into if they want to still hold a proper funeral at a later date?

Yes, it’s a viable option. We’ve held people for a month or six weeks sometimes. We’ve done it for repatriations to other countries when it can take a lot of time to get through all the bureaucracy to get the person on the plane back home. So the technical challenge of long-term embalming we can manage comfortably. It’s simply whether the families are willing to wait. Two weeks ago things were completely different – four weeks from now other things could happen. So long-term embalming is an option: we can do it, we’re happy to do it, but it comes down to the families and what they’re prepared to wait for. 

Another thing to think about is with people being made redundant or forced to take wage hits in this situation, that may influence the decision they make on a long-term embalm and a full funeral regarding the different costs associated with each of those situations. 

In dealing with the deceased, you obviously need PPE which some fear we won’t have enough of. Have you faced any shortages so far? Do you have any concerns about a future shortage?

Initially, yes. But because we’re one branch of a big company, someone somewhere was able to source some supply. We’re waiting for an order to be delivered but we’ve got plenty of the basic stuff like gloves and sanitiser.

In terms of the bigger picture, we understand China is starting to manufacture again and reinvigorate, and while there’s obviously going to be a lag there, I think we’re going to be alright. 

Given that we’re dealing with death, do you think the restrictions around funerals are too strict? 

The rationale of the lockdown is to minimise spread and that means we can’t hold a funeral. It’s regretful, but judging from the information we have, it’s unavoidable. I miss the opportunity for a funeral but I understand [why we have to do this], and I think the families that we’ve been dealing with so far feel the same way.

What advice would you give to those who perhaps know someone who’s lost someone during the lockdown? 

Make contact, have the conversations they’re willing to have, and then go back for more later. Don’t just assume you’re job’s done with one phone call. A funeral is great but it’s not the end of a grief cycle anyway. You don’t have that Oprah-inspired sense of ‘closure’. ‘Closure’ is nonsense. So as a friend, your duty is to continuously make sure they’re alright. That hasn’t changed. But the means of showing you care have. Those simple human comforts, those impulses to just touch somebody on the shoulder aren’t available anymore, so I think we’ve all got to be imaginative at this point.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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