Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers has been an independent, family-run funeral director since 1855 and, as a consequence, has been helping families in West Sussex through many of the hardest experiences in our country’s history- including two world wars and the pandemics of 1918-19, late 1950s and late 1960s. However, no-one working at the company’s four branches in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint has any experience of working in a situation such as we have experienced this year- although we did have some help from the company’s previous proprietors, as Manager Abi Pattenden reveals. Due to the breadth of changes made during 2020, her thoughts will be shared via two separate posts, the first of which is here:
‘It has been relatively unusual to find the funeral directing industry suddenly thrust into the spotlight. We know that many people are reluctant to talk about issues involving our work but- after a brief period where we were worried that funeral staff would not be classified as key workers- there has been plenty of focus on the work we do, because suddenly the number of people who have died has been front page news.
‘Outside roles like ours, and in other linked sectors such as medicine, care, and the blue-light response services, many people can go months or even years without any contact with a death. Sadly this has been one of the significant changes over the last few months, as many people are now mourning the death of someone, and many more people have been willing to talk publicly about their experiences- especially when funerals were significantly curtailed in the early parts of the pandemic.
‘When we first heard about a new virus across the world in China, we were like many people in the UK and didn’t think much of it. However, as news of it began to spread, our proprietor Peter Freeman and I started making plans for what we then hoped was a worst-case scenario. Although it was many years after the last significant pandemic in the late 1960s that he started managing the business, his parents Beryl and Roy had told him about their experiences during that time, and he had also worked in the business during several periods when the local area was suffering from seasonal flu epidemics- the only nearly comparable occurrence we could draw on in our planning.
‘I felt very lucky to be working for a business where we had previous generations’ experiences to inform us- and also the ability to work remotely so that Peter and I could make these plans without having to be face to face, which is very important for business continuity.
‘Before the pandemic took hold to any significant degree we had assessed our supplies of vital PPE and other equipment and started working differently in many ways- for example, we agreed that Peter would no longer come to the office so that if I fell ill, there would be a second person available to run the company day-to-day, without the risk of us infecting each other. I also spent an awful lot of time digesting the early information about best practice for looking after deceased people who had died of, or with, COVID, and ensuring that this was communicated to our team of Funeral Operatives, whose day to day work involves the caring for people who have died.
‘There have been some times which have been truly challenging. I remember the first time we were asked to collect someone who was suspected of having COVID- right back in mid-March. The out-of-hours team rang me for reassurance because they suddenly had to put in place what had only been discussed in theory.
‘I think it hit home to all of us after that. Before then, all of our planning seemed theoretical and the next day, several of the team were quite shocked to have reality thrust upon them. This was especially true of some of our staff whose roles are less directly related to the funerals and caring for Deceased persons. Like every business, we have functions which need to be carried out- but suddenly, for example, our staff member who deals with accounts administration was facing a totally different risk from her day-to-day experience, in which she has little contact with the more practical side of what we do.
‘There were also challenges around other aspects of similar scenarios. Nursing homes were locked down to all visitors and were obviously concerned about our staff entering them if a resident died, considering the nature of our work. We also had to enter private homes where someone had died of COVID and therefore their family were also considered contagious.
‘In the immediate aftermath of a death when people are obviously emotionally affected, and trying to explain all of the practical steps we needed to take for mutual protection- such as only speaking to one person, cleaning the room before and after, staff in full PPE and only one coming into the house to assess the scene initially and so on- was a challenge. Added to this is the fact that teams always have to dynamically risk assess every collection of a person in any case. We were essentially going into strangers’ houses at a time when that wasn’t allowed, and sometimes having to do things like move furniture- and our staff are also strangers to the householders too.
‘Another thing which had to change was the way that our teams worked together. Many of our staff are multi-skilled and work across more than one role in the business- for example, we have several staff who both arrange funerals and conduct them. We also have staff who share the running of an office between them, and most of our staff are used to working in teams of various sizes. As it became necessary to ‘social distance’, lots of this had to alter.
‘Two of our offices now only have one person working in them on any given day. In our North Parade Head Office where most staff are based, we were fortunate to not really need to share office space. Our one staff member who doesn’t have her own desk uses the desks of two colleagues on their day off and so extra sanitising of the keyboard, phone, and so on, meant this was still a feasible way to operate.
‘Our funeral staff find social distancing very difficult when they are either carrying out funerals or collecting a person who has died and so instead we are protecting them by significantly reducing their mixing through a recognised working practice called ‘cohorting’ or ‘partnering’, where their teams are smaller but more consistent. They minimise contact with other cohorts as much as possible by travelling separately and having contact with each other for the shortest amount of time.
‘At funerals taking place in crematoria, coffins were not allowed to be carried for quite a long time and, although this is now permitted again, we have made the decision to continue to wheel them as and when the venue allows it. This means we require fewer staff on each funeral, so not only are we able to fulfil more requests and prevent backlogs, but, importantly, we are limiting the number of staff who come into contact with each other. It is of utmost importance to us that the health of our staff is protected, but also that if someone does become infected, we have done everything possible to prevent a wider spread through the workforce, which might have a detrimental effect on our ability to meet our commitments.’
The second part of Abi’s blog will be available from 13th January 2021.