Regardless of which country you live in, funeral directors and the funeral industry have been essential and instrumental in providing help, support and a much-needed service throughout the pandemic. And while studies on the real impact of the pandemic on these individuals are scarce, some industry professionals have come forward to discuss their experiences as they continue to provide a heartbreaking, yet necessary service.
Whether it’s financial losses, the inability to provide the right support, or constant changes to legislation that directly affects the funeral industry, the last year and a half has been one pathed in much stress and the need for adaptability.
The sad, but obvious truth, is that on the whole, the funeral industry has seen financial gains from COVID since the start of the pandemic. While this may seem like a good problem to have on the surface, it isn’t until we look deeper that we realise that things aren’t as simple as they seem.
For a start, the death toll, while devastatingly high across the country and the rest of the world, has not been consistent or of the same severity everywhere. Even areas with a tragically high death toll does not equal a high turnover for all funeral directors. In London alone, one of the places hit the worst by the pandemic, there are hundreds of independent funeral directors alone, many of them within a stone’s throw from each other. Naturally, even a significantly raised death toll over the course of an entire year or a cluster of months, does not even out a loss in profits when one considers the restrictions that all funeral homes were placed under regardless of the severity of the pandemic in their area.
With these restrictions of course came a decrease in profits for many funeral directors, especially independents. Not only were families opting for direct cremations more often which cost significantly less, but additional services that would usually help to turn a profit were often prohibited during the harsh lockdowns. This included transportation, or in some cases even music and singing.
Add to this rising costs regarding mandatory PPE equipment, occasional demands for extra staff during potential spikes during the pandemic and an overall increase in hours without the extra income coming in, and it is clear to see that funeral directors have not ‘profited’ from this tragedy the way that may seem logical at first glance.
Mental & Physical Health Risks
Funeral directors already run a general risk to their health when working in such a potentially emotionally triggering industry. Working so closely with death and grieving family members is not a job just anyone can do.
Staff often run the risk of being overly stressed, emotionally burnt out or even worse, becoming emotionally detached from their work due to necessity. COVID, of course, has multiplied these problems by completely throwing funeral directors off their usual routine. These changes in routine are frequent with each new restriction and legislation, making working conditions unpredictable and mentally draining.
This, of course, does not even scratch the surface of the mental health repercussions of working so close and hands-on with death during a pandemic. For funeral directors, as with any front-line workers, the physical and mental consequences of the pandemic often go hand-in-hand. The constant threat of infection, whether it be from a client or from handling a potentially infectious body, has caused stress for funeral homes all over the country. With few studies or information to help guide them, many did not even fully understand the risks or proper guidelines for how to handle the body of a loved one who had died from COVID.
And the mental strain does not stop for those who are – thankfully – not dealing with COVID victims on a daily basis. While the trauma of such heartbreaking and unnecessary deaths may not be a daily reality for funeral homes in more isolated areas, the effects of deaths elsewhere still take their toll.
Restrictions on funeral homes all over the country make the financial strain almost impossible to bear for some businesses, with funeral homes crying out for government help in the early days of the pandemic. Independent funeral directors, who are sometimes less focused on a profit-based business model, have struggled so much with the increase in direct cremations, that many were at risk of shutting down completely.
It doesn’t matter whether the mental health repercussions come from fear of bankruptcy, long hours and less staff, or just the traumatic reality of working so close to death during a once-in-a-century pandemic, COVID has come for the health of almost every funeral director in the country.
Ability to Provide Services
One of the most challenging emotional struggles for funeral directors regarding COVID restrictions has, without a doubt, been the impersonal way in which funerals must now be conducted in order to keep those around them safe. Funeral directors undoubtedly have an extremely stressful and upsetting job. However, they at least have the knowledge that the service they are providing is one that makes a profound difference to people’s lives.
Being entrusted with someone’s final farewell is a privilege, one which many funeral homes take extremely seriously. The ‘extra’ services that funeral homes offer and that used to be more popular prior to the pandemic, are not simply a way to make a quick profit. Often, they act as a comfort for families who know that their loved ones are having the send off they always wanted for them.
However, funerals are of course, not simply about items and products, but comfort, memories and the ability to be together. For any funeral directors around the country, the lift of the limit of 30 people will be a godsend. While the emotional cost of having to restrict funerals to such a low number is most heartbreaking for the families themselves, this does not mean it is an easy thing for those involved in arranging the funeral to witness either.
A funeral director’s job is not merely that of an event planner; they act as a helpful hand and a friendly shoulder to those that they work alongside. Most directors take great pride in their people-first approach. This makes the heart and soul of everything they do that much harder when they’re unable to sit and comfort their customers, when funerals are subject to social distancing and when they know above all, that families will likely be disappointed or heartbroken with the limitations they will have been placed under.
The effects of the pandemic have been disastrous for countless businesses. Those that have stayed on the front line, face unprecedented stress and mental challenges. Those who remain on furlough or have their income reduced face the possibility of not having a business to return to. Funeral directors have, unfortunately, had to deal with both of these scenarios, making their experience during the pandemic truly gruelling.
With lockdowns slowly easing, and families able to offer their loved ones the dignity and send off they deserve, funeral directors are slowly able to return to their former place in their local communities – as the trusted custodians of those who come to them to say goodbye.
We are a family-led business offering funeral services in Essex since 1958.