Funeral repatriations in the time of Covid-19
Covid-19 has affected all of us in one way or another, but the impact on the international funeral repatriation sector has been unique in terms of new challenges that have had to be faced and new processes that have had to be implemented smoothly and efficiently. Mandy Langfield spoke to providers to find out how they have coped during the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the deaths of over 400,000 people around the world, and some of those people, inevitably, have not died in their home country. International funeral directors have therefore been working to continue to serve their clients in different parts of the world while still considering the duty of care they owe to their staff and transport workers whose job it is to deal with the repatriation of mortal remains.
ITIJ spoke to Dave McComb, owner of Inman Shipping Worldwide, based in the US, which deals in funeral repatriations. He was keen to point out the vital importance of people being able to grieve the loss of their loved ones, and mourn properly, and that is why being able to give them the opportunity to hold a funeral or cremation is so important. “Shared mourning experiences,” he added, “allow people to transition from grief to mourning. And during these traumatic times, such experiences are vital. Funerals are essential.” Thus, employees of Inman Shipping have been working throughout the pandemic to ensure they are meeting the needs of clients.
Rowland Brothers International, a UK-based international funeral director, has also continued to operate throughout the pandemic. Fiona Greenwood, Operations Director for the company, told ITIJ: “Funeral directors in the UK are classed as ‘key workers’, so the slight adjustments we made were mainly around social distancing of our team in the office. We accomplished this by splitting our team into two groups and having them alternate two weeks working from home/two weeks working in the office, adhering to social distancing to keep our teams as safe as possible.”
Other practical considerations, she added, included hand soap and sanitiser for all visitors to the funeral home; disinfecting all public areas and maintaining proper sanitation of chapels, equipment and facilities; screening of teams before the start of shifts for elevated temperature; use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for removals, transfers, and mortuary teams; and adaptation for arranging services electronically, by phone or video conferencing.
“Funerals, visitation and other gatherings held in our chapels with a number of attendees were limited in accordance with current government guidelines,” added Greenwood, “and social distancing for our team and all visitors to our premises was maintained. Livestreaming of funeral services was made available to families at the crematoriums where available.”
Rowland Brothers International manages repatriations on a global basis and operating under lockdown restrictions has not been without its challenges. Greenwood said: “We have seen many additional challenges during the pandemic, as regulations vary depending upon the country where the person passed away and the country where the person is ultimately being repatriated to. If the cause of death was confirmed or even suspected as Covid-19, there have been an inconsistent mixture of rules to follow on a country-to-country basis, and the rules change continuously throughout.
“In some instances, we have seen deaths from confirmed or suspected Covid-19 in the morning and cremation taking place the same afternoon; families have not been able to express their wishes, have not been able to view their loved ones to say their final goodbyes or have a funeral that the deceased and family would have wanted prior to the pandemic restrictions.”
McComb agreed that religious and cultural considerations have been difficult to manage in some cases during the pandemic. “Obviously, not everyone who wants to wash and be with a body after they have passed is prepared to do the necessary duties in a Covid-safe manner,” he told ITIJ. “While some will be prepared and trained to do so, it remains a danger to others. However, once a body has been properly washed and embalmed, it should present absolutely no risk of infection to mourners – as long as they don’t kiss the body or touch it.”
Greenwood added: “Also, in some instances where faith is important, families have made harsh decisions to have their loved one buried abroad with hopes of exhumation and repatriation at a later date if appropriate government permissions can be granted. Some countries have imposed the rule of immediate cremations and will allow cremated remains to be repatriated once their lockdown is lifted; other countries have allowed repatriation of mortal remains to take place, albeit in some instances with additional permissions.”
Regarding the issue of PPE for staff, McComb said in June that while, for the most part, the provision of PPE has been manageable, ‘there are still areas where there are shortages’. “Since the funeral service industry is still dominated by funeral homes serving less than 150 families per year, they have less ability to contingency plan for a huge issue like Covid-19,” he told ITIJ.
Greenwood said, for her company, obtaining necessary materials and equipment hasn’t been too much of an issue: “For our outbound repatriations and local funeral arrangements, we have not had major problems sourcing suitable coffins as we always have a huge supply in stock at our HQ premises. Meanwhile, our group company Fibrous has kept us stocked throughout on PPE for our team, plus a supply of additional coffins and all items necessary to manage the increase in repatriations and funerals due to the pandemic.”
Flying mortal remains across borders remains a challenge. Although borders are beginning to open up, when lockdown was in full effect globally, there were few options for repatriation and, even then, only a couple of countries were accepting human remains.
Inman Shipping is in ‘constant contact with international carriers’, McComb explained. “I believe we will see international restrictions on travel loosened further soon, and this will allow us to transfer the remains of loved ones to their families in their home countries. It remains vital for people to be able to spend time with loved ones before they are buried or cremated.” The company has a backlog of deceased that it must work through once international borders are open again, but McComb is hopeful that with good relationships with carriers, the remains will be on their final journey as a matter of priority.
Added to the problem of closed borders, it was also difficult to find space for coffins onboard those restricted flights that were actually operating. Greenwood told ITIJ: “The rules of transportation by air or road have remained the same – strict guidelines were already in place for the transportation of infectious cases, the use of zinc lining or cad foil and coffins hermetically sealed is a standard regulation. If the death was due to Covid-19 (confirmed or suspected) it is essential to ensure the airline is fully aware so that they can apply their own protection process for their teams.”
The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult not only for tourists to cross borders – it has been a challenge for the families of migrant workers who have died abroad. “Some families cannot even take bodies of their natives from the morgue due to lack of money,” commented Oleg Milinski, Owner of Funeralia, an international funeral services company that specialises in offering repatriation to Eastern Europe. He continued: “Since mid-March, all procedures related to the transportation of the bodies of the dead have been extended at least twice. It was only in May that the traffic situation began to look a little better. But for several weeks in April, it was a tragedy: Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic were closed, and Austria could only be entered at night.” Transportation of the deceased took longer, and thus, prices had to be increased. “Extending the route increases the price of our services,” explained Milinksi: “I have to pay the driver per diem, pay for the hotel and fuel. Today, the cost of transporting the body from Poland to Ukraine has risen to €2,000-2,500, and from Western Europe to €4,000.”
Concerns of governmental authorities meant that in early April, Poland was the only European Union (EU) country to ban both the entry and exit of vehicles carrying the remains of the dead due to the epidemic. Representatives of international funeral sector appealed to the Polish Funeral Society in April and, following this appeal, the ban was lifted, allowing the removal of urns from the country.
Milinski told ITIJ: “On 20 April, another ‘innovation’ appeared – a permit to remove a body or urn is issued not by the city, but by the voivodship (local area) sanitary epidemiological station. So, another week of waiting is added.”
While quarantine measures for people crossing borders vary, for hearse drivers, the rules were clear: a driver repatriating a body to Ukraine had to self-quarantine for 14 days on return, and the same of hearse drivers entering the EU. Milinski commented: “I know from my Polish colleagues that when they return with a body from Germany, the Polish border service does not issue them with a mandatory self-isolation order. And when I returned from Ukraine, they immediately entered the system, and the next day the police checked if I was at home.”
With the transfer of human remains comes, inevitably, paperwork. While, in the majority of cases, consulates have remained open, McComb confirmed that the company’s interactions with them have declined due to border closures. Interestingly, there has been no need, he said, to add any paperwork to confirm whether or not a person died from Covid-19 when dealing with the international repatriation process, as the risk of infection from a body that has been properly embalmed and prepared should be nil.
One of the most important aspects of a funeral director’s work is the emotional support staff can offer to families of the deceased; and given the strict social distancing rules around funerals, this quickly became extraordinarily difficult. McComb said: “My funeral director colleagues have done a great job meeting the needs of the recently bereaved. Some have incorporated drive-through visitations, sectioning off time frames for various family members to spend time with the body to not violate local, state or federal guidelines.”
McComb believes that international travel will return to normal levels once there is a fall in the Covid-19 infection and fatality rates, which will mean that international funeral repatriation will also return to normal levels. Thankfully, most international funeral directors are suitably diversified to weather the downturn in international travel until levels return to normal.
“Human touch is valuable and the non-verbal communication such as body language will always be important,” McComb said. “Therefore, I believe business and leisure travel will return to pre-Covid levels in due course.”
As far as looking forward is concerned, ‘as long as people continue to travel around the globe, there will always be the need for repatriation of mortal remains businesses’, agreed Greenwood. “At present, the number of cases being managed is considerably lower than normal due to the pandemic and lockdowns around the globe,” she told ITIJ. “As a result, some smaller businesses may experience problems; larger companies are likely to survive.”
The work of international funeral repatriation companies will continue to be necessary and of value to individuals and insurance companies the world over, and while there may be a drop in tourist traffic throughout 2020 and even maybe into 2021, I’m sure we’re all equally optimistic about travel levels returning to pre-pandemic levels in the not-too-distant future. And, as and when such movements pick up, global funeral repatriation specialists will be on hand to ensure your insureds are brought home should the worst happen while they are away. ■