How have you ensured business continuity throughout the pandemic to continue to offer your clients the best possible service?
Funeral directors in the UK fall under the category of ‘key workers’, therefore in our world it has been business as usual throughout the pandemic, during which time our teams in Rowland Brothers International (RBI) and Rowland Brothers Funeral Directors have worked tirelessly. In order to adhere to government guidelines within our office space, RBI split our team in two, with one team working remotely from home for 10 days, then switching with the team in the office. By implementing this change to our normal working day, we were able to not only provide our team with a needed break from our extremely busy funeral home environment, but also to apply remote working to ensure a continuous uninterrupted service to our clients.
Looking after employees has become more and more important part of most companies’ standard operations; what additional support services have you been offering to your employees to enhance their wellbeing throughout the past year?
Our team always has the support from our management team throughout the management of cases and encourages the team to talk about any issues that they may be struggling with. During the pandemic, this open communication proved to be vital with everyone across our organisation looking out and supporting each other. Our HR director ensured our teams were constantly kept updated on the government guidelines and Covid-19 risk assessments were in place, updated and adhered to. Independent helplines for the NAFD (National Association of Funeral Directors) & the SAIF (National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors) were communicated, and our employees encouraged to call for independent support if needed. In addition, Rowland Brothers has its own inhouse bereavement team providing support to families and employees, another vital service throughout the pandemic.
How have the different rules and regulations imposed in countries around the world made your responsibilities to the families of the deceased more challenging? What solutions have you come up with to solve these problems?
The documentation required for repatriation of mortal or cremated remains as well as local burial or cremation has always varied dependent on the country where death occurred and the country where repatriation is to. Some countries requested additional layers of documentation, mainly surrounding cause of death and infectious status due to the pandemic; this has not presented major problems, just increased timelines whilst the documentation is being obtained from the Health Department, Legal Authorities or Embassies. The major challenges have been the different stages of government lockdown around the world. Restrictions in the country where the person passed away may have been relaxed, however, the country repatriating to may have been in lockdown, or imposed strict entry rules, or the other way around. In addition, airlines have not (and still are not) been operating certain routes, ceased operating, or cancelled flights without notice. These are the major challenges we have faced and are still facing at the time of writing this article (21 June 2021). Where it is just the airline reducing the number of flights, or deciding to no longer take human remains as cargo, our team has had to search for alternative options. These may have meant indirect flights to complete a repatriation or arrange part boat, flight, and road transfers in order to complete the repatriation for a funeral to take place in the home country. In countries under full lockdown, arrangements for additional storage were implemented until the country opened back up and repatriation arrangements could be completed. In addition to the above, the cause of death in some countries’ regulations and guidelines dictates if repatriation is possible or not, with many countries not accepting repatriations if the cause of death was confirmed or suspected as Covid-19. In many instances, these countries only accept such cases if cremation had taken place and the repatriation being of cremated remains. For families who have lost someone, it is extremely difficult when their choice of options has been removed due to government guidelines. The key in managing family expectations is to be truthful with the circumstances and government guidelines, and to be realistic; explaining the why’s and keeping families and clients updated every step of the way throughout the entire repatriation process. At present, and for the foreseeable future, every case is dealt with on an individual basis, as global country guidelines/restrictions are still changing daily, airlines – although operating with more frequency – are still subject to cancellation of routes/ flights; and what can be done today may not be possible tomorrow. Our team is constantly reviewing and working together for alternatives in order to repatriate a family’s loved one with the best possible timeline under current conditions whilst maintaining the cost control for our clients.
You work in jurisdictions all over the world, and while in the UK, US, and in some other countries, vaccination rates are now high enough to allow restrictions to be relaxed, in other nations, numbers of infections continue to rise. Where in the world is most challenging to operate right now, in June 2021, and why there in particular?
In reaching out to our team for their input, there are currently quite a few countries where restrictions are in place due to Covid-19 which make repatriations more challenging at present; India and Timor-Leste are at the top of our teams’ list at present. The Government of Timor-Leste reimposed the temporary closure of its airports, ports, and land borders until 1 July 2021 due to a recent increase in the community transmission of Covid-19 in Dili. Our team have been able to complete repatriations into the country, but these are limited and involve non-direct flights with the final route into Timor-Leste on a special flight that operates once a week. India is challenging due to the recent increase in Covid-19 cases. The situation changes daily, with extensive paperwork with the Indian Embassy and flight restrictions/changes.
Overcoming complexities is part of your everyday job; but is there one particular case you have had lately where you had to use out-of-the-ordinary solutions?
Last-minute changes due to airlines or government change in guidelines is part of our daily life at present, having to find alternative solutions with extremely short notice. In some instances, we have combined speed boats with various flight routes and final road transfers in order to complete repatriations. One repatriation from Leicester, UK to Bratislava, Slovakia, where the cause of death was Covid-19, was a particularly difficult one. At the time, restrictions with airlines meant that the decision was taken to repatriate by road. Special documentation was required to travel from the UK via France, Belgium, Germany and Poland. The RBI team arranged visits to the various embassies to ensure all permissions were in place, and co-ordinated with the Logistic Transportation Team to complete all the arrangements. Since death was due to Covid-19, embalming was essential and special additional documentation was required besides the Embalming Certificate. RBI had to satisfy the embassy that all transportation regulations for the road transfer had been observed before permission was granted to travel via the various countries in order for this repatriation and funeral to take place as per family wishes .■