A last goodbye with just two mourners… The heartbreaking reality of coronavirus-era funerals

People pay their respects at a distance during a funeral in York. Photograph: Hayley Owen Funeral Director on Facebook

Funeral directors have opened up about the “heartbreaking” reality of working on the front line during the coronavirus crisis – and comforting the families who have lost loved ones but cannot say a proper goodbye because of social distancing restrictions.

Hayley Owen, funeral director, said grieving relatives have found it difficult not to hug one another – or even attend the service, with numbers still limited.

But she has seen people finding new ways to pay their respects – including lining the streets as the funeral procession passes.

She said in the past week her staff have carried out 12 funerals, including one for a man in his fifties who died after contracting coronavirus: “It’s been a really tough time. I always have empathy for the families I help. They’ve lost loved ones and it’s hard. But this virus has made it incredibly difficult.

“About 200 people came out in his village to pay their respects. But, of course, only a handful could attend the actual funeral.

“In another recent funeral in Marton-cum-Grafton, about 40 people stood outside as we went slowly past. This funeral procession on foot is called paging.

“We always do [a funeral procession on foot] but we’re certainly seeing more people coming out on to the street lately, they bow their heads, they clap for the deceased. I think this is bringing some comfort to relatives.”

Devastating impact

Martin Rowley. Photograph: York Conservatives

She has dealt with many coronavirus-related deaths, including recently a man in his thirties with leukaemia who had just two mourners at his funeral.

“That’s the world we’re in at the moment. It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Hayley, 31, is “cautiously hopeful” that York is past the peak of the virus but encouraged people to continue social distancing – warning that she has seen the “devastating impact” the illness can have on families.

Martin Rowley, from family-run Rowley & Sons, said the pandemic has led to funeral directors working together.

When the chapel was closed at York Crematorium, he said the group secured other venues to enable families to hold a short service to pay tribute to loved ones.

And Rowley & Sons have found new ways to help families pay their respects – including setting up Zoom for people to do a reading or tribute if they cannot attend, as well as offering free recordings of servies for anyone who cannot be at the funeral themselves.

Martin said: “As funeral directors, the family who have lost a loved one is at the heart of what we do. There’s never a good time to die but at the moment it’s a particularly bad time.

“The safety of our customers is paramount, but so is the safety of our family.

“With six members of the family working in the business, and four of us living in the same house, we have to be really careful.”

Full PPE

Hayley in her PPE. Photograph: Hayley Owen Funeral Director on Facebook

That includes wearing full personal protective equipment when entering care homes or collecting the deceased in the community.

And at the peak of the outbreak, Martin said 45 per cent of deaths were related to coronavirus – but that has now dropped to about 40 per cent and he is hopeful that the numbers will continue to reduce.

He added that every member of the team has been working hard to help mourners through the crisis – even family dog Barney who offers support to relatives: “While we have to be socially distanced, Barney doesn’t.

“If I am sat two metres away, Barney will go up to the family and they just love him, he’s been a real comfort.”

Martin said the cost of funerals has reduced by about £500 during the pandemic – with the funeral service dropping their fees by about £100, doctors’ certificate costs reduced and crematorium prices lowered.

City of York Council has reduced cremation fees to reflect the restrictions imposed at the crematorium.

The full charge for a service was £895 – but on April 17 it was cut to £550 where services were held under a marquee outside the crematorium.

The chapel has now reopened with social distancing restrictions and shorter services of 20 minutes. The fee for these services will be £720.