At this already challenging time, coronavirus is forcing tough restrictions on the bereaved and the way funerals are conducted.
While the epidemic lasts, funerals will be very different following strict new guidelines laid down by Public Health England to keep people safe.
Councils across the country have been drawing up emergency plans in case the normal service providers are overwhelmed.
Here we look at what this will mean for the bereaved and what support is available.
- You can keep up to date with our latest coverage of the coronavirus outbreak over on our coronavirus advice hub.
New safety guidelines for funerals
Funerals are the only type of gathering of more than two people currently permitted under government rules on social distancing.
Nevertheless, to prevent coronavirus spreading between mourners and funeral workers, the number of attendees has been severely limited regardless of whether the deceased had confirmed or suspected coronavirus.
There is no set maximum but the industry is keeping this at between five and 12.
Guidelines issued on 31 March by Public Health England about people who have died of confirmed or suspected coronavirus say:
- mourner numbers must be restricted so each person can stay two metres apart while at the funeral and going to and from it
- only household members or close family members can attend
- if family members do not attend, a ‘modest’ number of friends can be present
- anyone with coronavirus symptoms or living with someone symptomatic or who is vulnerable should not take part in rituals or gatherings
- mourners should not be in close contact with the body
- only those trained in the use of and wearing personal protective equipment should come into contact with the body
What these rules mean for the bereaved
If someone with confirmed or suspected coronavirus passes away, you must stay at least two metres away. Call the GP or 111. For unexpected deaths, call 999.
If you lived with the deceased you must not mix with other mourners until completing household isolation of 14 days since the first case of coronavirus within the household.
Mourners should not wash, prepare or dress the body even if they had contact with the deceased while they were ill. Bodies can still be prepared and embalmed by professionals.
To pay their respects, mourners should do so in small groups, with those who are self-isolating doing so last.
Mourners must not attend if they’re displaying symptoms, nor should the vulnerable.
Changes to funeral arrangements
Those involved in arranging funerals are now classed as key workers and have to be protected from exposure to coronavirus.
The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) is asking people to be honest with directors if they have been exposed to or are suffering from coronavirus.
While many people would normally want to discuss funeral arrangements face to face, undertakers are now holding these conversations by phone, email and video calls.
Registering deaths has been made easier
The Coronavirus Act became law on 25 March, giving temporary powers to deal with the pandemic. It means funeral directors can now register deaths, saving the family going to the Registrar’s office.
More families are likely to want to delay the funeral. Major funeral provider Dignity told Which? it will not limit how long it holds the body nor will it charge for this but it emphasised that public health guidelines may change further so arrangements underway may have to change.
It warned that prolonged waiting in anticipation of restrictions being lifted could create a backlog.
Time doubled before coroner is required
A coroner will now be called upon to check on the cause of death when someone was not seen by a doctor in person or by video link within 28 days before the death, twice the ordinary period. This is in part to ease mortuary space.
Some services may have to be withdrawn
Some directors have already withdrawn limousines used for mourners, while others may stop people viewing the body in the chapel and allowing the family to carry the coffin.
‘Direct’ cremation and burials to become more common
Tight restrictions on mourner numbers may cause upset over who is allowed to attend a funeral. One way round this is to opt for so-called ‘direct’ cremation or burial, where there are no attendees.
Some people may not have any choice. The Local Government Association says that although it wants funerals to continue, councils will impose direct cremation and direct burial where it is proving too difficult to enforce social distancing.
The NAFD is advising against broadcasting the funeral date or otherwise encouraging more people to attend on the day to avoid them having to be turned away.
Many crematoria are offering streaming or recording of the ceremony.
Further emergency measures anticipated
Councils and the funeral industry are preparing for an increased death toll.
With Imperial College London predicting 20,000 virus-related deaths even with the lockdown and expectations that these will bunch together, there are fears that the usual services to manage the deceased could be overwhelmed.
The Local Government Association told Which?, ‘Local authorities have plans in place for every possible scenario…councils will initially be looking with partners, like funeral directors,at how they can streamline the existing death management process, so powers such as those in the [Coronavirus] Act only have to be used as a last resort.’
Dignity said it would assign and recruit staff across its national network to parts of the country most affected by the virus if necessary.
Weekend burials are rarely seen but NAFD says this could change.
Funeral costs under scrutiny
Funeral directors and crematoria have been under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority since May 2018 for pressurising vulnerable people into paying more than necessary.
The government has promised to clamp down on profiteering during the outbreak.
The average cost of dealing with a death rose to a record £9,493 last year, according to SunLife. This includes a send-off and professional fees with the funeral itself making up nearly half of that at £4,417.
The average cost of a burial in 2019 stood at £4,975, according to SunLife, compared with £3,858 for cremation, and £1,626 for direct cremation.
How coronavirus is affecting pre-paid funeral plans
The outbreak means that those who have already paid for their funerals in advance may not get everything they expected, as some services are curtailed. These include mourners’ limousines, viewing of the body in the chapel-of-rest or a choice of day and time.
Instead, alternative services will be provided, or money will be refunded in part if the plan was from a company within the Funeral Plan Association.
Help with funeral costs
The funeral itself (not the wake), can be paid for out of the deceased’s estate. In this case, the executor will arrange payment.
If you’re on a low income and receive certain benefits, you might be eligible for financial support from the government to help cover some of the costs of the funeral.