Funeral Homes at Frontlines of COVID-19 Crisis

April 8, 2020 Updated: April 8, 2020

SHERBROOKE—So far, Shelley MacArthur considers herself lucky—if that is the right word. As an apprentice funeral director at G.W. Griffin in Country Harbour, she’s only had to deal with three bereaved families since the beginning of the COVID−19 crisis. And none of the deaths had anything to do with the virus.

But what if they had? What then?

As the disease continues its relentless march across the globe, the country, the province—affecting the elderly and the infirm worst of all—the question nags at her. Is her profession ready to handle the consequences? Is she?

“The problem is what we would do if, heaven forbid, something happened in a nursing home or a hospital where we’d suddenly have more people than we can handle,” she says. “I think about it quite a bit.”

She’s not alone. Across Canada, funeral service workers are facing the same, troubling conundrum: How to function quickly, efficiently and humanely at the frontlines of a public health emergency when they are not, for the most part, equipped to do so as essential service providers.

Most must observe the social protocols that apply to just about everybody else—distancing, public gatherings limited to a maximum of five people—and none have ready access to the personal protective equipment available to doctors, nurses, first responders, and even veterinarians in some provinces. This situates them in a no man’s land between a pernicious pandemic and the public policy erected to curtail it.

Apart from anything else, says Lewis MacIntosh—a funeral director and MacArthur’s colleague at Griffin’s County Harbour and Sherbrooke homes—“it makes the grieving process extremely difficult for families. We are limited in what we can do.”

Adds MacArthur: “Normally, as many or as few people as want travel to the funeral home and do their arrangements. Having people come together really does help. Now, we’re limited to three, plus Lewis and myself. The whole procedure has taken on a very tense air. A death in the family is a horrible thing to have happen. It’s a hard conversation at the best of times. Now, with COVID−19, it’s magnified.”

Even telecommunications innovations designed to compensate for the absence of personal company—such as livestreaming funeral receptions and services—aren’t always available in places like St. Mary’s District, where web, and even cell phone, coverage are rarely foolproof. “Some of our communities here don’t even have the internet,” MacArthur says.

Patrick Curry, acting president of the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia and proprietor of C.L. Curry Funeral Home in Antigonish, agrees that circumstances for many in his profession are becoming untenable. “On one side, there are limits and barriers placed on what we can provide,” he says. “We can no longer provide visitations for our families. We can no longer provide public funerals for families.”

The lack of gloves, gowns, and masks for workers is also a real and growing concern throughout the industry. “I’ve been talking to funeral directors and to my counterparts in other provinces and at the national level,” he says. “They’re all asking the same question: Will we have access to the personal protective equipment we require to do our job safely for ourselves and the community as whole?”

Still, he insists, his members understand the critical need for the emergency measures currently in place. What’s more, he remains confident that authorities are beginning to clarify their public authority and resources.

“There is some movement on that front,” he says. “I’ve been having meetings with different members of the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the Medical Examiner Service about the importance of including the funeral process in planning for if and when—but probably when—the effects of this pandemic are felt right across the province. They’ve been very supportive of our point of view and of our role. I think that’s happening now.”

For MacArthur, that would be good news indeed. For her and others in her business, on the frontlines of the COVID−19 crisis, sooner is always better than later.