Funeral homes bracing for wave of memorial services when restrictions lifted

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Scott MacCoubrey looked at his growing list of postponed memorial services and realized he might have a problem.

He and his staff at MacCoubrey Funeral Homes in Cobourg and Colborne, Ont., have started generating ideas for how to address the backlog of memorial services created by government restrictions on public gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"We're still sort of brainstorming, but one of the things that we're planning on doing is having more night funerals," said MacCoubrey, noting that would allow his funeral home to host an additional service every day. "Prior to the pandemic, we'd have maybe two night funerals a year."

Small funerals are still permitted under Ontario's current emergency orders, with an officiant plus nine other people allowed to attend. Expanding the number of people allowed to attend funerals was in Stage 1 of Premier Doug Ford's plan to reopen the province that was unveiled on Monday, but the timeline and details of that plan are not yet clear.

Of course, death doesn't wait for government orders.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario averaged more than 8,300 deaths every April between 2014 and 2018, and a surge is expected this year because of the novel coronavirus.

Although some families have opted for the small-scale funerals currently permitted, most have not. A representative from the Ontario Funeral Services Association suggested there could be as many as 5,000 memorial services waiting to be held from the past six weeks alone.

"For the most part, families are understanding the situation and have followed the rules," said Scott Smith, owner of Smith Funeral Home in Sarnia, Ont. "It is so hard to see families having to grieve separately and from a distance."

Smith says he's done what he can to help grieving families, including hiring a videographer to ensure families have a quality recording of their private service or live streaming the event when families have requested it.

Michael Sargent of Sargent and Sons Funeral Home in Thunder Bay, Ont., hopes the government will lift the restrictions gradually so that smaller gatherings of 20 or 30 could be held, easing the burden on his industry.

"They may have families that are comfortable with 30 people there so (a limit of 50) is going to more than cover what we need, so they may be willing to proceed at that point," said Sargent.

"I have others that are a big family with a lot of community involvement and they're expecting 300 people, so they may not be quite comfortable yet with just a crowd of 50."

Hosting two or three services in a day would also likely mean having to disinfect chapels and reception spaces after each event.

The mounting number of postponed memorials is not the only logistical problem facing the funerary industry.

Burials and cremations have continued on at the request of the government, with some crematoriums having to extend their hours to keep pace.

Picking up the remains of the recently deceased has also become more complicated, with funeral home staff unable to enter hospitals or long-term care facilities. Instead, funeral homes bring a gurney and body bag to the door of the facility and pass it off to someone just outside of the building, who is then responsible for bringing the remains back out.

Most pressing is a lack of personal protection equipment, which is necessary to protect funeral home workers when handling remains. Because funeral homes are not considered an essential service, they don't have the same access to masks and gloves as front-line health workers.

Instead, the Ontario Funeral Service Association and individual homes have organized trades or sales, moving surplus stock around the province as needed.

"It's been very interesting because even though we're a private enterprise, and we compete with each other, during this pandemic, everybody's working together to help each other," said MacCoubrey.

"It's been amazing, really."

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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