In these extraordinary and troubling times, a lot of attention is (rightly) being paid to the ‘frontline’ services – those people who can’t work from home, who are working in our hospitals, our schools, pharmacies, food supply chain, postal service and more, to keep the country operating – often at great risk to themselves. As a society we afford special reverence, again quite rightly, to the NHS doctors and nurses who are working in increasingly stressful conditions, often having to isolate themselves from their own family members while they care for others.
One vital group, however, who have so far been noticeably absent from public discussion, is the funeral workforce – the people who care for the dead.
Last week, the government announced that those responsible for ‘management of the deceased’ would be categorised as ‘key workers’ and so would benefit from childcare support through schools. ‘Management of the deceased’ is a deliberately broad term designed to include employees of funeral homes, cemeteries, crematoria and other key firms. So funeral staff are officially ‘key workers’ but nobody is (yet) calling them ‘heroes’.
Maybe this is partly because we’re still a bit in denial (which can be the only explanation, surely, for the widespread flouting of social distancing guidelines which have led us almost to lockdown for the next few weeks) about the scale of human loss this virus will bring to the UK. In a wider sense, as a culture and as a country we are not great at thinking about and talking about death even in ordinary circumstances, never mind countenancing a near future resembling the current reality in Italy, where army vehicles have been called in to help transport coffins.
The key workers involved with death are about to get very, very busy. Yet far from being revered, I’ve heard ‘jokes’ that funeral directors ‘must be rubbing their hands at the moment’. They are not, and nobody is laughing. Consider just a handful of the likely dramatic changes already happening or approaching rapidly in the ways we care for the deceased: funeral arrangement meetings taking place remotely; loved ones not able to view the deceased, or touch the coffin; an increase in direct cremations; no limousines or family funeral cars; restricted numbers present at the funeral or no funeral service at all. These are fundamental changes to the services in which funeral professionals take great pride; and it will likely fall to them to break a series of pieces of bad news to bereaved families, at this worst possible time.
While funeral staff and others who work alongside death are no strangers, obviously, to difficult emotions, supporting families during stressful and upsetting times, their role usually involves making a terrible situation more bearable in whatever ways they can. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘if it’s legal, we’ll do it’ when it comes to trying to help families to have the send-off they want for their loved one – funeral people are passionate about giving the customers what they want and need to be able to say their last goodbye.
The reality of the Coronavirus pandemic for the funeral profession is that not only will the workload and related stress increase, in working conditions that potentially put themselves, their staff and their own families at risk (…it’s not just hospitals who are short of PPE), but also that the high quality, personalised service they can usually provide with its very human, more comforting aspects, is no longer really an option.
We need to care for the carers. There should be widespread appreciation for the job all key workers, including funeral staff will be doing in the coming months. Feeling under-valued or ignored (or even worse put at risk), in an already stressful job, helps nobody’s mental health. At the best of times, funeral professionals take the work they do extraordinarily seriously, working long, hard hours, and have a habit of neglecting their own health and wellbeing in the process – it’s even more important than ever to try not to do this at a time when they’ll be needed more than ever.
Fortunately, both the National Society for Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) and the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) have the mental and physical wellbeing of the UK funeral workforce front of mind; both organisations are offering emotional and well-being support to member funeral firms during the pandemic.
A telephone helpline service provided in partnership with us at Professional Help Ltd, provides unlimited and confidential calls with professional advisers and qualified counsellors, 9am-9pm, Monday to Friday. This support is available for staff members experiencing emotional stress or mental health concerns, and provides access to longer-term support and counselling and signposting to other services where appropriate. Email support is also available.
At Professional Help we want to care for the funeral profession, because we need you, now more than ever, even though frankly we may not like to think about it. We need you, and we need you well. We will support you as well as we can so that you can continue to support so many families to the best of your abilities in these unprecedented times.
Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling
Professional Help Limited