In the second part of her 2020 review, Abi reveals further details on what it’s been like to run a funeral directors during this time…
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. Last week, Abi Pattenden, the company’s Manager, shared details of how things have changed within the organisation this year. The second part of this follows here, with Abi completing her recap of 2020.
‘Something which became apparent early in the pandemic is that we would not be able to liaise with customers in the same ways as we always have, and this was very hard, especially for our team of Funeral Arrangers who all feel a key part of their job is sitting down with people and lending a sympathetic ear as they guide them through their early stages of grief and funeral decisions. A handshake, reassuring pat on the shoulder or sometimes even a hug are all part of our role which soon became things which we were unable to do- and we are still missing doing them.
‘We also found it very hard that it became impossible to update every person on every change when they weren’t affected by it- especially at the start in April and May, rules were altering almost daily and we had to tell people that we would let them know if and when what they were planning was no longer feasible. This happened a lot. Some of the main changes included the closing of places of worship, which meant that funerals had to change venues.
‘The ban on non-essential travel and reduction of numbers of people that venues felt they were able to accommodate meant attendances were significantly reduced. This in turn saw a massive increase in demand for online access to funeral services, and providers sometimes struggled under the demand. Prior to 2020, very few funerals were recorded or broadcast online- it was a practice which was regarded as highly-unusual and, I suspect for many, inappropriate. Now, however, it is the norm. We have worked with a number of families who were unable to travel within the UK or from other countries, for whom a livestream or recording of the service provided great comfort.
‘We also had to make lots of changes to the ways we operate as a business. For example, we had to make the decision to stop our limousine service, although we have since invested in screens which separate the driver from the passengers so were able to commence it again. Deciding to withdraw services we had committed to providing was an unprecedented decision which was really hard to make, and I spoke to the vast majority of our customers about this myself to explain this.
‘We are currently arranging all funerals remotely by phone and email, and having a brief follow-up appointment with one person once everything has been decided so that they can sign the necessary paperwork, hand over any clothes or personal effects that they would like the Deceased person to wear or have, and collect anything (such as jewellery) which they wish to have returned. Although this is not something which we ever expected, we are lucky that most of our customers understand why this is needed.
‘An unexpected advantage of this is that, in some cases, the decision-making between members of a family has included more people and been more of a consultation, so more people have been involved than would have been possible in our arrangement meetings, and there is able to be far more back-and-forth over email, which we know some people have found the benefit of.
‘One thing that I am very proud of is that we never stopped facilitating visits to the Chapel of Rest. Demand for this increased significantly, as people whose family member or friend had died in hospitals or other care settings had often been prevented from visiting them there and so needed a chance to say goodbye. Once we had clear guidelines in place for the safe treatment of COVID-positive Deceased persons, we were able to assess the risks that preparing them for the Chapel of Rest entailed and adjust our procedures accordingly. I know that our customers were very grateful that we were able to do this.
‘It seems very early to talk about any positives from this terrible time, but I wonder whether there may be a whole generation of people who are more willing to discuss their wishes for their funerals in a more open and pragmatic way. This would be of benefit to everyone- themselves for peace of mind, their families who will know their wishes when it comes to arranging their funerals, and professionals who help those families.
‘However, the downside of this is what happens when you have a clear understanding of someone’s wishes, but are unable to carry them out. I have already mentioned the lack of ability to use limousines and have a funeral in a place of worship, and other religious and traditional activities such as ritual washing and dressing, or having an open coffin at a funeral have also not been permitted at various times. There are some communities for whom these activities are an essential part of the funeral rituals- and other customs, not relating to the person who has died but those who are close to them, such as sitting shivah or visiting the next of kin with gifts of food- are also considered necessary but were not permitted. This was very, very hard for those people, and also difficult for our staff.
‘When your job revolves around doing whatever you can to fulfil people’s wishes, saying no feels strange, and often all we could do was explain the policies without the benefit of understanding them ourselves. For example, at the time of writing, one local crematorium now allows family members to carry coffins into the chapel, but does not allow the congregation to place items (such as flowers) on the coffin. I am proud that on appropriate occasions, my colleagues have used their professional discretion to assist our customers during their most difficult moments. One elderly gentleman became particularly distressed during his wife’s funeral- they had been married for over 70 years- and Russell, who was conducting the service, came in for high praise from the officiant for helping the gentleman to safely say his goodbyes.
‘Certain words are already being used with abandon with reference to 2020, and whilst I would have previously said that I doubt we will see such significant change in a brief period of time again, I now would never say never! Amongst our day to day services, we have continued to support the community in other ways, as I know Becky has already covered within our blog, and I am pleased that we have had the necessary resources to accomplish this too.
‘As a team, we look towards 2021 with hope- I and many others are looking forward to travelling abroad again when this can be facilitated, and it will be great to be hopefully be less restricted in numbers of people attending services. Whatever happens, I am certain that we will continue to support those who need us.’
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