'I've been in this business 22 years...nothing prepared me for this': providing funerals in the time of COVID-19
Three people who carry out the essential work following a death speak about the strain the pandemic is taking on their mental health
“A funeral is always sad,” Maggie Kinloch says.
“But they’re doubly sad at a time like this, because it’s just grief piled upon grief.”
Kinloch is the chair of the Scottish Humanist Society as well as a registered celebrant in Renfrewshire. In normal times, with June being the height of wedding season, she’d be busy presiding over two or three ceremonies a week.
Instead, there’s only one type of service being held in Scotland right now. Providing a funeral is truly essential work, and the people who make them possible have continued throughout the pandemic, under great strain and with heightened emotions.
“There’s the normal grief a family would feel,” Kinloch says. “But then there’s the grief that they can’t give their loved one the funeral they want to give them. And all of that is underpinned by the generic grief that all of us are feeling, the whole population.”
It’s deeply traumatic what they’re experiencing.
Too many people have had to miss the funeral of a loved one since March. While there’s no hard rules, UK and Scottish Government guidance says only the closest family should attend.
Social distancing and other considerations – wearing gloves, disinfecting lecterns, never visiting the bereaved’s home – have “fundamentally changed” how a funeral is conducted, Kinloch says.
“We can’t touch, we can’t shake hands, we can’t hug – every instinct in your body is to comfort a bereaved family. A hug or a handshake or a pat on the back is part of that. And we can’t do that.
“So, there you are doing a funeral service, a very human thing, wearing latex gloves, which feels surgical and scientific.”
As well as seeing the trauma of families, Kinloch says she makes a point at every funeral to talk with the funeral directors, many of whom confide of the toll the work is taking on their mental health.
“Those that are working directly with the deceased person, whether that’s a funeral director or care home worker or frontline NHS worker, it’s deeply traumatic what they’re experiencing.”
Paul Cuthell, co-director of Thomas Cuthell and Sons funeral directors and past-president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, recognises this description of trauma.
His team across the Forth Valley have seen a grim 24 per cent increase in funerals on this time last year. “I had a couple of funerals last week for people that I knew,” he says.
“It was immensely difficult walking along the road by the church with everybody I knew standing by the road, who I knew fine wanted to come to the funeral... I just couldn’t look at any of them in the face.
“I’ve been in our business now 22 years. I’m not saying you don’t get emotional, you certainly don’t become immune to things, but nothing prepared me for that.”
Everything about his work is more protracted and complicated, Cuthell says. He regrets how curtailed funerals have become.
To allow some community involvement, funeral directors across the country encouraged people to stand by the roadside instead.
“It was one tradition that had been lost, as people always used to bow their head or remove their cap, police officers used to salute,” he says.
“You hardly see that nowadays. The whole world is in a hurry and nobody stops for anything... It’s been really emotional.”
At home in the evenings he has struggled to keep the work off his mind.
“My wife always knows when there’s something up with me because I’ll go home and I just go quiet and I don’t say anything,” Cuthell says.
“I don’t offload anything onto my wife. She worked in the business for some years before we had our little one. So she knows fully what goes on.
“I just sit quietly and process things in my mind and that’s it. I suppose you never really switch off.”
I pray that in future people will focus on what’s real, what’s important and what matters to them"
He says mundane tasks like going out to the garden or cleaning the car helps buffer work and family. A committed Christian, the absence of church community work had left a bit of a void in his life. The combination of the general lockdown and the nature of his work have made him think a little differently about how he spends his time.
“I pray that in future people will focus on what’s real, what’s important and what matters to them,” he says.
On Wednesdays, the First Minister reads out the number of COVID-19 deaths as reported by the National Records of Scotland. It’s seen as a more accurate glimpse of the devastating effect of coronavirus.
Cathy Dunlop began working as a registrar in East Ayrshire in 1994 and is now the area officer based in Kilmarnock. She says that the best part of the job has always been “being there for the public during the happiest and the saddest times of their lives”.
“In any one day you could be registering a birth, then you could be registering a death, then that afternoon you could have to do a wedding,” she says.
Now, though, it’s only deaths she and her colleagues register.
We’re going through this journey together and we’re supporting one another
Coronavirus legislation allows deaths to be registered over the phone, but not births, leading to a three-month backlog.
Dunlop says it can be surreal and “triggering”, taking so many death registrations. She describes one man who struggled to call in his partner’s death, as he himself was showing severe symptoms down the line.
“We find that by the end of the day we’re all exhausted. Mentally and physically,” she says.
“We try to acknowledge what we’re doing, we’re going through this journey together and we’re supporting one another.”
Generally, weddings are postponed. But last month Dunlop officiated at one heartbreaking exception, the wedding of a terminally ill man and his partner of 40 years.
In order to carry out the ceremony, it looked as if she would have to enter the man’s house and stand by his bedside, in full PPE.
“I’ll be totally honest,” Dunlop says, “I had a wee wobble the day before and thought: ‘I’m not allowed in my son’s house, but I’ve got to go in this house?’
“I was scared,” she says.
So, with the family, she worked up a plan to stand in the garden and officiate through an open window.
“When I arrived I thought, ‘oh my goodness’,” Cathy says, seeing his carers, friends, neighbours and family standing around the house.
“It was absolutely lovely, really, really emotional. They were a couple that were just so loved.”
After the ceremony, she got back in the car.
“I thought ‘my God, I had been scared about this’ and now I’d done it I just felt so glad we could do it for them,” she says.
The husband passed away only hours later.
“We registered his death the following day,” Dunlop says.
“I’m just so thankful we were able to do it for them.”