'Death doesn't just stop': How funeral homes are coping with COVID-19

Funeral homes are listed as an essential service in Alberta. That comes with a host of new challenges as they struggle to adapt to increasing demand and fewer resources. 

Looming shortage of personal protective equipment top of mind for funeral directors

In Alberta, health inspectors don’t routinely review funeral homes. Instead, inspections happen on a complaint basis. (Scary Side of Earth/ Flickr/ Creative Commons)

The funeral home chapel may be desolate, but the phone is still ringing.

Mortality is no stranger during a pandemic, but COVID-19 is bringing complications for businesses that deal with death. 

"Death doesn't just stop. It's not like we're a service that can't continue," said David Root, the general manager at Pierson's Funeral Service in Calgary.

Funeral homes are listed as an essential service in Alberta. That comes with a host of new challenges as they struggle to adapt to increasing demand and fewer resources. 

Alberta's COVID-19 death toll of 72 remains comparatively low. Independent of the pandemic, funeral homes say they are experiencing a busy quarter and that will only intensify as virus-related deaths grow. 

Many homes in Calgary have split their staff into groups for safety. They work in rotating shifts so that if an infection brings down one crew, the facility can continue to operate with the other. It's not a perfect strategy. 

"You only have half the amount of people to do the same amount of work that you normally would," Root said. But there's a larger problem occupying him. 

"The biggest concern we have is how do we protect ourselves from contracting the coronavirus," Root said.

He's already held the funeral of someone who died of it in a continuing care home.

They're taking extra precautions. The staff at Pierson's have started wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, gowns, face shields and masks.

But there's a looming shortage. 

PPE is 'the new contraband'

PPE in the province has been earmarked for hospitals, family doctors and other medical staff. Alberta's funeral homes are running out. 

"It will be a concern the longer that this goes on," said Evan Strong, the owner of Evan J. Strong Funeral Home.

He added he understands the necessary hierarchy of PPE distribution, but wants the government to understand the position funeral homes are in as well.

There have been questions about whether a deceased person can transmit COVID-19, but Health Canada has no clear answer at this point. 

The virus can live on surfaces for varying lengths of time. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said it's possible for the virus to live on a body but the risk is lower. 

A person wears personal protective equipment, which includes an N95 respirator, mask and nitrile gloves. Some of this gear is used by funeral homes when handling the deceased. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

"Any kind of infection would have to be transmitted directly from touching the deceased person and then touching one's face, nose, mouth," she said. 

She said despite that, the difficulty funeral homes are having trying to procure PPE should be addressed. 

Alberta recently sent millions of pieces of the medical equipment to Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

"PPE is kind of the new contraband," Smith said. "Everyone in the world is trying to access it."

The province says they're working to get gear to funeral homes. In the meantime, requests for PPE can be sent directly to them.

Funeral business suffering like other industries

Like most other businesses in the province, COVID-19 hasn't been kind to funeral homes. 

"With some families electing to do reduced or no services, of course the side effect is that our revenues will be down and therefore our bottom line," Root said.

Funerals, like the rest of public gatherings, are beholden to the chief medical officer of health's public restrictions. Currently, that means no more than 15 people spaced two metres apart. Anyone found violating those rules can be fined $1,000.

As the concerns of infections and staff safety dominate the planning funeral homes are doing, there are also thoughts about what this means for the future. 

Funeral home chapels like this one are often closed because of COVID-19 gathering restrictions. (Pierson's Funeral Service)

The future of funerals

Death is an estimated $1.6 billion business in Canada and the business model hasn't been overhauled in some time. COVID-19 could be the start of a transformation. 

"This is changing how we grieve," Strong said. 

With families unable to gather, many in-person funeral services are obsolete. Instead, funeral homes are turning to the Internet. 

Many are starting to offer a livestream of services and are opening online portals to upload photos. Funerals are going digital. 

Strong says he sees this as part of the job.

"What we focus on [now] is trying to come up with creative ways or helpful ways that the family can still mourn and celebrate the life."

Both funeral home directors say the toughest part has been seeing the grief families are experiencing while spread so far apart. 

"We're being unique and innovative and trying to find good ways of having families still have healing experiences as they go through the experience of death," Root said.


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