How do you see things?

Funeral Pre Planning

Are you the glass half full type of person or the glass half empty? I guess at times we are both.

Recently I was pre-arranging a funeral for a client, her elderly mother in the final stages of life and sadly like many with dementia. She hadn’t seen her mother or held or hand for many months, COVID restrictions saw to that. On the surface, it just appeared to be a very sad situation.

As we began to talk and I started to learn a little about her mum, my client described how her mother had always been full of fun and laughter and these are the memories she would carry with her, not the sad ones.

She told me a story of when her mother in her 70s and wheelchair-bound, but still full of life had an appointment with her neurologist. The prognosis wasn’t good and the specialist explained to her mum the ramifications of her diseases. She sat quietly in her chair as he explained as well as he could what to expect. After he had finished talking she sat silently for a few minutes. Concerned, the doctor walked over to her chair and knelt in front of her. Her eyes suddenly lit up, like a light bulb had just been switched on as she casually queried the doctor, “would sex therapy help?” Startled but as quick-witted as her, the doctor fired back “well, do you have someone in mind?” with that twinkle still in her eye she replied, “do you have a younger brother?” Needless to say, the room erupted in laughter.

It got me to thinking, even at the worst of times, it is the way in which we choose to deal with a situation which will dictate the manner in which we move forward.

COVID restriction have unquestionably thrown great hardship on many people. For me I have been amazed at the manner in which families have accepted and dealt with loss during this time.

So maybe next time you are faced with what seems an insurmountable challenge in life, remembering the story of my elderly client might just bring a smile to your face and maybe assist you in looking at your situation in another way,

Celebrate life, live life and celebrate love

In these times of doom, gloom and uncertainty, there is much to be concerned with, it is almost the glass half full mentality. In Melbourne, with now stage 4 restrictions and lockdowns, it is somewhat reminiscent of a science fiction thriller, albeit one we are slap bang in the middle of. Yet, there is another “half to the glass”, and our lives continue on, different perhaps but never the less continue.

Living life and celebrating love doesn’t always need to be at full throttle and at these times can often make us aware of the small things in life that bring us pleasure. Travel, eating out, meeting up with friends, sport, even shopping are now all off our radar. So it would appear we have to look for other things to occupy us and bring joy.

Young mother with two children playing board games on the floor.
mum with two children playing board games on the floor.

We can learn much from funerals, their relevance and meaning. Funerals are traditionally a time where we reflect on life and celebrate the life lived. Many of our forebearers lives have involved great adversities, wars, famine for some, financial depression, tragedy and loss. Yet, from these, hardships have grown tremendous resilience and shaped peoples lives. We often do not reflect on these things during the end of life service, but focus on love, life and living.

The “Celebration of Life” has become a much more common term used in the past decade. In contrast, last century funeral ceremonies reflected on loss and were mostly of a religious nature citing from standard prayer books, with little reflection on the individual and their life. As the focus of many families shifted to a “Celebration of Life” so did the style and type of service.

Families once reliant on the church began using civil celebrants, “I recall most of the earlier celebrants did have some connection to churches and were often lay preachers, there was usually still some prayers within the service. I used to wonder if the family were taking our an each-way bet, a just in case clause when the got to the other side there was something.” The traditional religious service just didn’t seem to be adjusting to the changes in general life. Many wouldn’t allow certain music to be played and in some cases would not allow eulogies to be said during the service.

Today’s modern civil celebrant is highly professional and expert in their field. They can perform two separate functions at a funeral, Firstly as master of ceremonies, assisting families to structure the proceedings into order and introduce speakers and audiovisual. Secondly, they speak on behalf of families in an articulate and accurate way. Mostly, celebrants will perform both functions.

Combined with eulogies and reflections of love, life and loss, many other things personalise a “Celebration of Life” service. Location of service, Coffins, Environment, Audio Visual, music, printed materials, flowers, balloons, catering, photographs, paintings,  jewellery, the list is as endless as your imagination. The key to the selection of these auxiliary services is the meaning and relevance to you. For without significance and relevance, much of the service can be lost on many.

Most of life’s celebrations are performed publicly, funerals are often advertised in newspapers. Indeed a funeral notice is a public invitation inviting anyone to attend. Sadly, COVID19 restrictions have changed this, for now, Melbourne is currently restricted to a maximum of 10 mourners only attending funerals, resulting in many families having to choose which family members will attend services. Live streaming services, having been available for some time are now a regular occurrence on most funerals. From professional streaming companies to a family member with an Ipad or smartphone are streaming services locally and overseas to family members and friends that cannot attend in person.

External catering and refreshment services that have become common on most funerals have but shut down, even families have not been able to return home for group gatherings. This is possibly one of the saddest aspects of COVID restrictions, as once the funeral has finished, there is little opportunity for family and friends to gather and reflect.

Catering Preparation
Much work goes on behind the scenes

Yet, amongst all this, wisdom comes from those personally affected by a loss. One young widow said after the funeral, “most people have said to me the hardest part would be only having 10 people at the funeral, in some ways I was kind of glad I didn’t have to mourn publicly. You, know the hardest part, was restricted hospital access for my young children and me during my husbands final days”. 

Celebration of life does not always need to be public, many families are choosing unattended or direct cremations services and opting to celebrate the life lost in a private and personal way. Life, love and loss do not always need to be celebrated publicly. Some see this as a sad option, yet those that choose this option are at ease with their choice as it has relevance and a strong meaning for them. It is often something that teh deceased would have wanted or indeed asked for.

Working in funeral service people say many things to us, some focus on the macabre and bizare, many wanting to know the weirdest things we have seen or been asked to do for a family. Well here is not the place you will read about that. For what is strange and bizarre to one person may be quite normal to another. Once again, relevance and meaning to the individual is where our focus is.

Although times may be tough right now, “live, life and love” and above all stay safe.

Red heart on the gray metal background.
Live Love Life

Robert Nelson is a fifth-generation funeral director and founder of Robert Nelson Funerals. Based in Moorabbin they service all Melbourne Areas, including Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas.

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.