Nova Scotia

How COVID-19 is changing funerals in Nova Scotia

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people in Nova Scotia to postpone memorials and changing the way funeral directors and embalmers work with families and bodies.

Funeral directors and embalmers are adapting to restrictions due to the coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people in Nova Scotia to postpone memorials and changing the way funeral directors and embalmers work with families and bodies. (Submitted by Patrick Curry)

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people in Nova Scotia to postpone memorials and limiting visitations at funeral homes to immediate family. 

Most churches and places of worship have closed or suspended gatherings until further notice, and some are recommending funerals be delayed.

Funeral homes continue to operate, but they're also abiding by provincial limitations on the number of people who can congregate. 

Patrick Curry, the acting president of the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia, said the restrictions are forcing communities to change the way they show support for people grieving.

"Things have changed quite drastically," he said. "There's a lot of disappointment, but at the same time, families are understanding and the community at large has been understanding."

Patrick Curry, the acting president of the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia, runs a funeral home in Antigonish, N.S. He says most families in the town choose to have funerals in churches. (Submitted by Patrick Curry)

Adam Tipert, who chairs the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said it's also a challenge for the people working in the profession to come to terms with the new limitations and how that affects families.

"For many people to experience a death of a loved one, during the time we're currently in, it really compounds the grief, because they can't express their grief and they have such limited resources of being with friends and community as a whole," he said. 

Curry said the association's members are stressing that the best way to care for people who have lost loved ones is to offer support, but stay away from them physically. Some funeral homes have been webcasting services or allowing memorials to be held at a later date without additional charges.

"We regularly deal with people who are in difficult and stressful and unique situations. It's always been our job to guide them through the next steps at times like this, and we're continuing to do this to the absolute best of our ability," he said. 

Statistics Canada data from 2018 said about 800 people die in Nova Scotia each month and Tipert said up to three-quarters of them opt for cremation.

Typically when people die during the winter, caskets are stored in cemeteries until the ground thaws so interments often happen months after someone's death.

So far, there have been no COVID-19 related deaths in Nova Scotia, but dealing with the pandemic has been top of mind for funeral directors and embalmers, said Tipert, who chairs the provincial board that licenses them.

As of Monday, March 23, there have been 41 positive cases of COVID-19 in the province.

Carrying a casket typically requires six pallbearers, which is no longer feasible given the restrictions on social gatherings in Nova Scotia. (Shutterstock / Robert Hoetink)

Given concerns about an increasing workload, Tipert said there have been preliminary discussions about loosening licensing restrictions to bring back retired embalmers and allow apprentices to practise. Embalmers have already started splitting shifts and reducing hours in an effort to limit contact between staff. 

Tipert said across the country, talks are underway for how to plan for mass casualties, if needed.

In extreme cases, other provinces have enlisted the help of refrigerated transfer trucks to assist with storing bodies. That only happened once before in Nova Scotia, following the Swiss Air crash, he said.

The Nova Scotia Medical Examiner's Service has a morgue with a capacity for 36 bodies and it can expand to house 120 as needed, according to the Justice Department. The Nova Scotia Health Authority said hospitals have space too and they can work with the medical examiner's office in the event that extra room is needed.

Unknown if corpses can transfer virus

In Nova Scotia, a person's cause of death is listed on a medical certificate that accompanies a body, but Tipert said it's also essential that funeral directors and embalmers speak with physicians or nursing staff to determine if someone's body came in contact with COVID-19 or if an individual died due to complications from it.

"It's really thinking 10 steps ahead so that there is the assurance that the transfer staff know exactly what it is they're walking into before they actually arrive," he said. 

Typically when someone dies from natural causes and a funeral director or embalmer pick up a body from a home, nursing home or hospital, they wear business attire.

Changing protocols handling bodies

But in cases where someone may have perished after coming in contact with the novel coronavirus, Tipert said funeral directors should wear personal protective equipment, including body overalls and latex gloves, and possibly boot covers, masks and face shields.

He said it's still unclear whether the virus can be transmitted by dead bodies.

Adam Tipert chairs the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. (CBC)

"I know it sounds extreme, but we really do have to operate on the err of caution," he said. "We haven't solidified information that COVID-19 can or cannot live on a dead human body."

He said crematoriums have also put measures in place, meaning covered bodies are no longer passed from one stretcher to another. Now, they must be wrapped or in a body bag and placed in a heavy cardboard or wood cremation container.

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