Funeral services need certain alterations to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. (Pixabay/Carolynabooth)

Death looks different in a pandemic: B.C. bereavement workers, religious leaders taking new measures

Extra precautions need to be taken to limit exposure to COVID-19, resource shortages a concern

Funeral homes, bereavement workers and religious leaders are facing difficult choices in light of COVID-19, which calls for social distancing and a maximum gathering of 50 people.

However, for bereavement workers, the biggest challenge is access to supplies.

“We do share with other health professional the potential for concern on long-term access to critical supplies we use for personal protective equipment,” said Andy Watson, manager of strategic communications at the BC Coroners Service, in an emailed statement. “We continue to urge the public only to buy what they require, to ensure professionals in the health and safety sector are able to access supplies to safely do their work in health and public safety.”

ALSO READ: COVID-19 precautions ‘not optional,’ B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

Mass sell-outs of items such as hand sanitizers, masks and gloves have made it difficult for health care and bereavement workers to access the materials they need to do their jobs.

This is also seen at funeral homes where workers must wear gowns, gloves, masks, face shields, head covers and disposable slippers while preparing a body for a service.

“We are exposed to communicable diseases on a daily basis; we don’t always know what underlying causes there are to any death that occurs so we’re always using universal precautions,” explained Charlotte Poncelet, executive director of the BC Funeral Association (BCFA). “But the big thing for us is we have not yet been deemed a ‘critical service,’ so we have very extreme concerns about our access to resources like personal protective equipment.”

Along with a shortage of stock, the BCFA is also concerned about a shortage of staff, should any of them need to go into self-isolation or quarantine.

ALSO READ: First responders adjust how they respond to emergencies in face of pandemic

“The morgue capacity is at max on a regular basis — if we don’t have staff to do the transfers and bring them to our care, we need to have some conversations,” Poncelet said.

Staff at funeral homes must also organize funeral services in a way that aligns with provincial health policies.

“Traditionally in a funeral there’s a lot of hugging, touching and that social aspect of grief. We’re having to manage that and try not take away that experience,” said Poncelet.

This means some families are choosing to hold invite-only funerals, monitor numbers of people in a room, and limiting access to the number of people in a building.

The risk of transmission at funerals, said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, is from the living, not the deceased.

“Like many respiratory viruses, you’re not transmitting it to others if you’re not breathing,” Henry said, adding that “If someone has died of COVID-19 it’s very possible their close contacts are harbouring the disease, so it’s important to have the minimum number of people there.”

ALSO READ: View Royal families thank hospital staff working through COVID-19 with colourful signs

This is the thinking of religious leaders as well.

Bishop Gary Gordon, Shepherd of the Diocese of Victoria, said all Catholic gatherings have been suspended, and that ceremonies like funerals, weddings and baptisms are being limited to be as small as possible.

“If we’ve got a funeral coming up, we’ll be talking to the family and be recommending that it’s just the immediate family only, and following Dr. Henry’s recommendation that there can’t be more than 50 people in a space,” Gordon said. “There aren’t that many immediate family members that are more than 50.”

Gordon added that extra precautions are being taken in churches to make sure every surface is sanitized if a ceremony has taken place.

The same advice is given to members of Greater Victoria’s Jewish community, which is also struggling to keep up.

“Everything is altered, absolutely everything,” said Rabbi Lynn Greenhough of the Kolot Mayim Reform Temple. “How do we manage our traditional customs and also preserve the safety of the living?”

ALSO READ: Saanich congregation welcomes first Canadian rabbi in Greater Victoria

The Jewish Community Centre has also shut down, with services happening online.

In a traditional Jewish funeral, 10 Jewish adults are required to make a quorum.

“We’ll probably limit community participation to meet that,” Greenhough said.

At the end of the day, it’s about protecting the living.

“Where I’m from, wakes are a very important community event and it’s very much about bringing food and being together … but those need to be stalled for now,” Henry said. “Celebrations of life can happen later.”

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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