COVID-19?

Ring a-ring o’ roses,
A pocketful of posies.
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down!

Although now believed to be unlikely,  this verse was thought to have alluded to the great plague of 1665. 

I began writing this article months ago before any restrictions had been bought into place in Australia. Originally I was researching what to expect and how to prepare our funeral home and what was occurring throughout the world in funeral service. Eventually, I shelved the article as we seemed to be swamped with COVID overload. Although the COVID19 pandemic is by no means over I finally, decided to finish what I started to see where we have come from and what effects it has had on our industry.

February 2020

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The Australian Government issued a health alert as a precaution, based on the latest and best medical advice.

Across the world

“Across the world, there have been about 82,704 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) and 2,814 reported deaths. Of confirmed cases reported globally, the case fatality rate is approximately 3.4%. The case fatality rate in countries and regions outside mainland China is 1.4% (To put it in some perspective typical Australian Death rate is 7.3 deaths /1000 population (2018 est) or 0.0073%)

https://www.indexmundi.com/australia/death_rate.html

The majority of cases of COVID-19 have been reported from mainland China. 4,207 cases have been reported from 49 countries and regions outside mainland China. Since 27 February there have been 623 new cases and 14 deaths reported outside of mainland China.”

In Australia

As at 06:30 hrs on 28 February 2020, we have 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia:

  • 8 in Queensland
  • 4 in New South Wales
  • 7 in Victoria
  • 3 in South Australia
  • 1 in Western Australia

15 of these cases are reported to have recovered. The remaining cases are in stable condition. 8 cases are passengers who were on the Diamond Princess repatriation flight from Japan. They were in quarantine at the Manigurr-ma Village Howard Springs facility in Darwin when they tested positive to coronavirus (COVID-19). All of these people have returned to their home states for medical treatment.

(Australian Government Department of HealthCoronavirus (COVID-19) health alert, 28/02/2020)

As the world struggles with the implications of the Coronavirus what are the implications for the Funeral Industry in Australia and Worldwide?

Hong Kong – Coronavirus outbreak leaves Hong Kong funeral homes facing coffin shortage. City’s industry supplied by factories in Guangdong

(South Chine Post, 23/02/2020)

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  • City’s industry supplied by factories in Guangdong that were ordered to close to stop the spread of the virus
  • Hong Kong government had to step in but only enough coffins left to last until the end of the month

The coronavirus crisis has led to a coffin shortage in Hong Kong after the outbreak stopped production over the border. Factories in Guangdong province were ordered to close until February 10 to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus, which causes the disease Covid-19.

The shortfall has triggered a warning from Hong Kong funeral parlours that stocks could dry up within days. Kwok Hoi-pong, chairman of the Funeral Business Association in Hong Kong, told the Post the temporary ban also covered the delivery of finished coffins to Hong Kong. According to Kwok, Guangdong accounts for 99 per cent of the coffins used in the city, and demand for them ranged from 120 to 140 per day. (MSN News.com)

Sichuan, China – Orders issued by China’s top health authority for the swift cremation of the remains of coronavirus victims at facilities near the hospitals where they died appear to be an overreaction and unnecessary to curb the transmission of the disease, top epidemiologists have said. The February 2 notice from the country’s National Health Commission requires hospitals to notify funeral parlours of the death along with family members but also states the procedure can be completed even if the family of the deceased does not agree.

(Al Jazeera, 09/02/2020)

The USA- In the United States States, National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has consulted with federal officials and embalming experts. At this time, they recommend that should an individual die from coronavirus, funeral home personnel who will come into contact with the body should use universal precautions. For more information, please see the CDC website with recommendations for healthcare providers – specifically, see section two, “Adherence to Standard, Contact, and Airborne Precautions, Including the Use of Eye Protection”

(National Funeral Directors Association, USA 26/02/2020)
Personal Protective Equipment is Vital
The wearing of personal protective equipment is vital equipment behind the scenes in the funeral industry
Containment of the body in a sealed bag
Body Bags appear to have been useful in containment after death

24th May 2020

Move forward to today, worldwide there are now over 5.28 million confirmed cases of COVID 19 and 340,000 deaths. Australia 7,106 Confirmed cases and 102 deaths.

The economic effects of COVID19 have been well documented. But, what effect has this had on the funeral industry?

Some have suggested that the industry has benefited from COVID deaths? Let me put this in perspective, Victoria has had 19 COVID19 related deaths, yet during the period January – March 2020 there have been 10,111 deaths (not related to COVID19) – Births Deaths and Marriages, Victoria. While still very sad for each of those families, the overall COVID19 figure has been very low, in relation to any effect on funeral service throughout the state.

When restrictions were bought into Australia the most significant changes to funeral service have been the restrictions on the number of mourners attending a funeral, originally only 10 persons this has now increased to 20 in our state. For many families, this has been extremely difficult in deciding who does and who does not attend the funeral service. There has been much said about live streaming and how this is the panacea to helping families. While it has assisted many families, the act of being there in person to support families is not lost on many.

IMG_5606 copy
Funeral Live Streaming

During this time of restriction, many families have made comments on how personal and private their funerals were and something they would consider in the future. Sadly, extended families and friends have not had this opportunity of saying farewell in the traditional way we know.

Many families have chosen not to have a service at all, with direct, or unattended cremation services on the increase. It is important to understand this type of cremation service has been on the increase for some time. Chosen for either cost or more commonly simplicity I think we can expect to see this continue to increase in popularity.

Perhaps this greatest effect has been on the closure of many of the alternate funeral venues, golf, bowls, yacht clubs have all been forced to close their doors. These are the places where contemporary funerals are held, where the focus is on family, friends and celebration of life. Usually mixed with food, drinks imagery and contemporary music. Civil celebrants, who often lead these types of services have often not been engaged throughout this period and have been noticeably quiet.

Thankfully many will be able to have memorial services in these locations when some sense of normality returns.

Although much was made about the lack of PPE(Personal Protection Equipment), sanitisers, body bags etc, the industry has copped relatively well and there now appears to be sufficient stocks available. Oddly, there have been anecdotal stories of some directors not carrying any PPE going into the COVID19 crisis, when indeed this forms part of funeral directors regular kit.

While there has been much written about the health care staff, internationally those countries and places with significant COVID19 related deaths have personally taken its toll on some funeral directors. Having to deal with large caseloads, restrictions on family visitations and even no attendance burials, many in the industry have struggled to cope with the personal impact and rapid changes this has all bought about.

The risks to funeral staff in Australia are still high. As we often enter aged care facilities, hospital and the like, protocols are now in place to register and record those entering and staff are normally temperature checked. The same cannot be said when entering private homes.

COVID19 is by no means over and as we continue to deal with new restrictions, protocols and procedures, we should be forever mindful of the human toll this has had on mankind.

Continue to take care.

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director with more than 3 decades in the funeral industry. He is the owner and managing director of Robert Nelson Funerals, based in Melbourne, Australia

 

When The Coroner Calls

A Coroner is a government official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner’s jurisdiction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coroner

Transfer is a funeral industry term to describe the process of moving a deceased person from one location to the next, typically from place of death to the funeral home.

“I would have been in my early to mid-teenage years when I did my first coroners transfer, it was during industry work strikes in the 1970s and I did them on my way to school. Memories of some transfers stay with you for life. One of my first, involved a small van with a gas bottle on the roof, slamming into a pole on a major road early one morning. The bottle exploded and the vehicle engulfed in flames. It’s not hard to imagine why these scenes are easily recalled many years later.”

With over 6500 (Coroner Court of Victoria, Annual Report 2017-2018) coronial investigations each year what determines when the coroner is involved and why?

The coroner deals with reportable death. There are the obvious types, Violent, unnatural or unexpected deaths, these include homicide, suicide and drug, alcohol and poison-related deaths.  Accident or injury-related deaths such as road fatalities, public transport fatalities, accidental falls, workplace deaths, electrocution, drowning and animal attacks. Where a person,s identity is unknown. The cause of death is not known (the medical practitioner cannot form an opinion about the probable cause of death). Healthcare-related deaths, when someone dies unexpectantly during or after a medical procedure. Deaths of a person who was in custody or care, an inpatient in a mental facility, under care or control of Victorian Police.

Warehouse workers after an accident in a warehouse.
An accident in a warehouse.
Fatal motorcycle accident
Automotive Fatalities

The death must be connected to Victoria, the body in Victoria, the death occurred in Victoria, The cause of death occurred in Victoria the person ordinarily resided in Victoria.

Given the large parameters under which death is reportable, it is not hard to see why there are so many cases handled by the Coroner. But why do the coroners investigate matters that to many people would appear to be straight forward and the deaths obvious?

The coroners court has three roles:

  1. Independently investigate deaths and fires
  2. Reduce preventable deaths
  3. Promote public health and safety and the administration of justice

Families first contact is often with a police officer who will inform the next of kin of the death. They will often seek additional information from the family which will be passed onto the coroner. The body is transferred to the Coronial Service Building in Southbank, Melbourne. All Victorian Coronial cases are transferred to this central location.

Whilst at the Coroners a number of things occur.

  • Identification, confirming the identity of the deceased, may involve visual, medical or scientific processes, including fingerprinting, dental records or blood or DNA.
  • Forensic Processes, the preliminary process may include, visual examination, collection of personal health information, the taking of bodily fluids, imaging such as CT, Xrays and ultrasound and fingerprints.  Often an autopsy (post mortem) is requested. This is performed by a pathologist using techniques similar to a surgical operation. During this process, the major organs of the body are removed and examined and specimens are taken for analysis. The benefit of an autopsy is that it can provide detailed information about the person’s health and condition to give an understanding of the various factors that may have contributed to their death. Even if the cause of death seems clear, the person may have had a medical condition that was not obvious during their life. A family has the right and can request an objection to an autopsy.
Medical Research
Forensic Scientific Investigations
Blood test tubes in centrifuge. Medical laboratory concept.
Body Fluid Testing

Once all the investigations are complete the coroner will issue an “Order for Release”, this enables the body to be released to a funeral director and the funeral performed. Unlike deaths that are not reportable, the full death certificate can take some time before the cause of death is actually known. Your funeral director will guide you and can order an Interim Death Certificate. These look just like a regular death certificate but does not contain the cause of death. Once the coroners office has provided the cause of death to Births Deaths and Marriages a Full Death Certificate can be issued. This can take several months.

Why do some of these processes take so long? With over 6600 investigations each year, the average time to investigate takes 11.8 months? While many associates the coroners with inquests, out of 6500 investigations only 49 inquests were held over that same period of time.

Typically a families involvement with the coroner will be unexpected, it is not one of those things anyone would expect. Your Funeral Director is the best person to contact. They have regular and consistent contact with the coroners office and will arrange for the release of the deceased into their care. Funeral arrangments can occur before the body is released. The body can be expected to remain in their care anywhere from several days to several weeks.

The sudden death of a partner, child family member or friend can be a difficult and painful experience. Families can be assured that today,  Victorias Coronial Services Centre is one of the world leaders in Forensic medicine. The practices of yesteryear have long gone, replaced with state of the art facilities and highly trained professionals and skilled staff.

For more information, https://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director with more than 3 decades in the funeral industry. He is the owner and managing director of Robert Nelson Funerals.

 

 

Who is your Funeral Director? (Part 2)

Who is your funeral director? Where do they come from? What is their expertise? What does the future hold for the industry and people who work in it?

In previous blogs, I have written about my experience and what led me into the funeral industry. In this blog, I look at some of the changes in the industry in recent decades, giving you insight into who your funeral director might be and how they got into the industry.

There wouldn’t be a day go by someone tells me I’m working in a “bulletproof” industry. They think that because everyone dies, there will always be work for me. It’s not surprising that other people want to be part of what they too believe is a ‘future proof” industry. So, as the industry draws in new people, questions arise as to who these people are, their qualifications and what they contribute to the industry as it changes over time?

The funeral industry has undergone a significant change in my lifetime. I grew up in a time when some funeral directors still manufactured coffins and caskets rather than purchased them from large manufacturers. Many staff came to the industry from the factory floors. Funerals were typically religious. The most significant difference between funerals was whether they were catholic or protestant. Burials were the main form of disposition.

Handyman varnishing wooden planks outside

In the 1960s and 70s, with immigration beginning to shift from European countries to also include new arrivals from Asia, we began to see new religions appear. This diversity meant changes particularly in terms of ethnic customs and traditions. Funeral homes had to adapt quickly and most did so quite well.

At this time, few of our new Australians had the desire or will to work within the funeral industry. Over the following few decades, not much changed. Sure there are more new arrivals from a wider range of countries having different traditions and cultures to those we had become accustomed to. This has meant funeral staff have had to acquire a better understanding of the needs of our changing Australian industry and above all else, flexibility.

The funeral industry was changing behind the scenes. Larger family businesses were absorbing traditional family-owned business. The centralisation of mortuaries and garaging enabled significant cost efficiencies. Many smaller family-owned business did not have family members wanting to carry on in the family business. Something not unique to other industries, but with 24 hour 7 day a week commitment, the funeral industry does not have the appeal of many others.
For those starting a career in the funeral industry, there was a hierarchal ascent. Similar to an apprenticeship but without the formality. Staff would begin as a hearse driver working alongside the most experienced member of the team, the conductor. Typically, conductors have years of experience and have undergone a similar “apprenticeship”. Previously, there were very few women in these roles. Indeed there were few women in funeral service altogether.

After a few years working alongside a conductor, the hearse driver would progress to the coach driver, the third person in a funeral crew. The coach driver has the job of collecting and looking after the family on the day of the funeral. The coach driver would then become a conductor, and the cycle would begin again.
Funeral staff would be involved in the delivery of a diverse range of funerals, rosaries, viewing, and other services such as transfers of deceased or body collection from Nursing homes, hospitals or coroners, etc. All staff were required to be on rotational 24/7 after-hours standby for night work. When not doing funerals, staff were involved in coffin preparation, placing handles and writing names plates on coffins and sometimes lining them, there is always cleaning to be performed.

Vehicles are the funeral directors’ mobile shop front, and most companies spent a lot of time ensuring there showpieces were kept immaculate.
Companies varied as to how these processes worked. Some would insist that all conductors were also funeral arrangers while others found that some staff were better at funeral delivery than others.

The mortuary has always been a field on its own. Many funeral staff had no desire or will to work within the mortuary. Larger funeral homes typically had qualified mortuary personnel called embalmers. Smaller companies often had no qualified staff in the mortuary, and they may have had general funeral staff performing necessary mortuary procedures. Some of the larger funeral homes were big supporters of mortuary training and our family business at times had up to 12 or more qualified embalmers on staff. The training and encouragement to train staff has often been attributed to the principals or owners of the business. Those owners that had worked in mortuaries were more likely to encourage training than those that didn’t.

Wearing Medical Gloves
Removing Gloves in Preparation room.

The early embalmers in Australia had either learnt overseas or were part of the early learning with the British Institute of Embalmers. Some funeral homes paid for embalming courses and tuition for their staff. Sadly today this is often not the case, and students are typically required to pay out the hefty course fees on their own. Television shows such as CSI have probably attributed the large numbers of young women now working within our mortuaries.

BIE003

The 1980s saw the introduction of the large foreign-owned companies become part of the Australian funeral industry, purchasing the larger family-owned groups. As a result, many companies that had often worked and helped each other out from time to time came to see themselves as competitors. The mutual assistance of the past died overnight. Corporatisation had arrived and quickly permeated the market changing the culture of funeral service forever. The traditional family names of the business often remained but the founding principles of many of these business didn’t. The funeral industry, like many others, had moved into a financially driven market.

In the past, the staff knew their employers as well as they knew their own families. Instead, with corporatisation, staff would either change industries or change allegiances based on money. For some, this also appeared to be a lucrative time to enter the industry. Subsequently, we have seen a proliferation of small independent funeral operators enter the market. Some have a laptop, and that’s it.

It is now possible to get trade services in mortuaries, deceased transfers, hire hearse and staff. While there are some excellent trade services around, there are also horror stories of sub-standard quality as the market is increasingly driven by price.
An industry that had once moved to the introduction of nationwide infection control standards often now seems more concerned with the length of time that training might take rather than the benefits these skills may bring. Subsequently, few workers within the industry have ever undertaken any form of training in industry-based occupational health and safety.

Many traditional operators have made calls for industry regulation and or licensing. This is not new, yet there never seems to be any consensus as to what needs to be regulated or how. Often these calls are based on minimum equipment and vehicle standards. It is difficult to find any evidence around the world that in the absence of any of these standards, any risk to public health exists. Often these calls are based on creating barriers to entry to increase start-up costs.
Some say their unscrupulous operators out there. No doubt there is. Yet, in highly regulated professions these unscrupulous operators still exits. So regulation won’t stamp them out.

So who is your funeral director?

Funeral operators are calling themselves many things these days, the latest is a funeral event organiser. Indeed a person may call themselves a funeral director but never handle a deceased. Some of these people may have spent years or even decades in the industry but never had to dress or prepare a deceased. Many of us have heard of instances, where new consultants are given a case and told to see a grieving family on their first day of employment, no experience, no training and no knowledge.

A funeral is made of a broad range of services. Foremost the funeral director is engaged for the disposition of the deceased. For some funeral organisers, this is seen as a minor aspect of their services! Whilst there are many new services, such as catering, printed materials, audiovisual now on offer, we should not lose sight of the reasons a family would engage a funeral director in the first place.

So maybe its time to recognise funeral directors who are skilled qualified and experienced in all aspects of the funeral industry. Not all funeral directors are the same. Many have spent their life perfecting their skills and craft.
Maybe its time to recognise the “Master Undertaker” for their services.

So when you engage a funeral service next time, maybe you should ask a few questions?

IMG_7889

Robert Nelson is a fifth-generation Funeral Director and Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals based in Melbourne, Australia, he is a member of the British Institute of Embalmers and has studied and worked in funeral service in both Australia and overseas.

When a holiday turn to Tragedy

Interstate  or overseas holiday travel can be such a fun and exciting time. New cultures, new experiences rest and relaxation for some some, exciting adrenalin fuelled activities for others. But what happens when fun turns to tragedy?

Australians are avid overseas travellers, with over 9 million Australian taking overseas trips each year. in  2016/17 1,600 Australians died overseas. These figures are only set to rise.

Emergency
Danger on the street. Blue flasher on the police car at night.

Organising repatriation or funeral services on your own overseas can be complex and expensive when you don’t know what you are doing.  In some countries the law and bureaucracy can also complicate the expediency of handling an untimely death. Despite the deceased having an Australian passport we are bound by the laws of the country we are visiting and this can be a confronting situation when families are distressed in shock and or grieving.

Robert Nelson, of Robert Nelson Funerals said “in one case we handled a few years ago the person died on a remote Island in Greece in the middle of summer. There was no refrigeration and no chance to get the person off the island for days. A large fish tank was seconded from a restaurant and turned into an ice box until the body could be transferred to Athens before coming back to Australia.”

Should death occur overseas the first point of contact is your insurer. They will be able to advise you of your entitlements. You should be mindful that simply having travel insurance does not guarantee your claim will be accepted. Most travel policies have extensive terms and conditions. Illegal or some extreme activities, riding or driving while under the influence may also result in the insurer rejecting the claim.

Once the insurer has accepted the claim, they generally work with assistance companies that provide advise and assist with organising the funeral or repatriation services. These companies in turn work with specialist in house funeral companies to provide on ground services and expertise.

The family will need to make a choice of having a burial or cremation in the country of death or repatriate the body back to Australia.

Body Repatriation is a highly specialised field and is best handled by experienced competent professionals. Many countries do not have the type, style or standard of funeral service or body storage that many might be expected in Australia.

All bodies being repatriated by air back to Australia will need to be fully embalmed. In Australia this is generally performed by members of the Australian or British Institute of Embalmers. Overseas it may be performed by doctors or universities and is not a normal procedure in funeral service in those countries. The quality and standard of preparation can be less than satisfactory.

Preparation by Skilled Professionals
Preparation by Skilled Professionals

The despatching funeral service will organise , collection of the body, all necessary local documentation, a specialised and hermetically sealed coffin, suitable for air transfer. They will liaise with their own government authorities for death and health certificates and other formal documentation that may be required. In addition they will work with the Australian Consul within that country as well as Airlines and Customs brokers.

These processes cannot occur overnight and you would expect some delay before the body can be returned home. This can add to the distress of families back home.

Robert says, “in a case we dealt with in the North of England the Coroner only worked in that town once a week and we had to wait for more than week before the coroner could commence their investigation.”

Loading to the aircraft 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year
Busy day at the airport. 1,600 Aussies die overseas each year

Before arrival home the family will have needed to contract a local funeral service provider, who will arrange for the collection of the coffin from the airport on arrival and clearance from Australian Customs. The local funeral director will then organise local documentation for burial or cremation, this may also take a number days to organise.

So what happens when you are not insured or the insurer will not accept your claim?

You will be left to organise all of this on your own. Be mindful there are specialists in international repatriation in Australia that have strong connections throughout the world. you should use these resources in order to save you time and avoiding over payment.

When death occurs away from home but in Australia thing are a little different. When death occurred interstate most bodies used to be flown home. This entailed using a funeral director at the place of death and another in your home town. It can be quite costly.  Whilst this still happens today, most bodies are road transported by specialist crews and vehicles. This mean they can collect the body from the hospital or coroner and transport directly to the home town funeral director. Generally this is seen as the most expedient and cost effective solution.

There is no doubt when death occurs away from home and often in sudden and unexpected ways it adds to the trauma of the situation. However, behind the scenes their are teams of dedicated, skilled, professionals working around the clock to ensure your loved ones are returned as quickly as possible.

Robert is a fifth generation funeral director and Managing Director of Robert Nelson Funerals in Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the British Institute of Embalmers and skilled in International and Interstate repatriation service. he has strong connections in this field throughout the world