Updated: Mar 9
Emma Jane Holmes is a Mortician and Funeral Director based in Australia as well as a published author of the successful One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-strings. We had the absolute honour to get her insider view on how the pandemic changed the funeral industry.
How have funeral services changed since the start of the pandemic?
Regarding funeral services, obvious changes have been put in place. Chapel seats removed, leaving only 10, well-spaced. This itself creates an eerie setting when you step inside. No hugging, kissing, handshaking. It's hard to share stories with family members you haven't seen in years while standing almost 2 metres apart.
Within the funeral home from a staff's perspective, there are even more changes. For example, while transferring the deceased from the place of death into the care of the funeral home, we must buckle up in PPE wear, body length aprons and/or jumpsuits fit for an astronaut, face masks, shoe covers and wearing two sets of gloves. Some may ask: "well, don't you wear all of this anyhow?"
Well, actually, not always. It depends on the case. It's not exactly comforting for the residents of an aged care facility (and their family visiting) to arrive wearing all that gear. We indeed take health and safety measures including gloves and shoe covers, but rarely do we wear bulky face masks and protective aprons while transferring a dear old lady or gentleman from his bed in a nursing home. It's the same with private homes.
As a death care professional, we are invited into homes during the most vulnerable time in one's life. Often, we are going about our motions transferring the deceased from the bed, floor, rocking chair, shower, toilet, with a sobbing echo from the living room. It would be confronting to arrive at these situations wearing the PPE jumpsuit and masks. Of course, if the case is less than ideal, for example, a decomposition case or a death requiring a coroner's inquest, we would protect ourselves with the PPE wear we are now wearing during this chaotic pandemic.
During the time of COVID-19, once back at the funeral home, intricate measures are carried out. If the deceased is a suspected coronavirus case, we sadly store the body away from the others in a separate cool room. Until the papers are signed off with a big, bold red NEGATIVE, we can then unite them with the other souls departed, and prepare them for their farewell.
In Australia, there was a news report only last week about a man fighting against a $440 fee added to the prepaid funeral price. Wretchedly, he lost his father to COVID-19 after returning home from a cruise. He had prepaid his funeral service several years ago, and now the grieving son thought it a blasphemy that the extra amount was added to the funeral bill. In good ol' Aussie style, he contacted one of our most popular news programmes, A Current Affair. The report blasted a negative light upon the funeral industry. The grieving man shouted through tears at the camera: "isn't COVID-19 the same as if someone died with another infectious disease??? Why should this be any different? Why the extra price? I won't pay these crooks. They're using grief as a way to fill their wallets!"
Following the investigation carried out by the news programme, the funeral home responded gently and professionally, that the extra fee was to cover the costs incurred by this pandemic, including excessive PPE wear and duties, for example, storing the deceased in a separate area of the funeral home.
The answer to this man's grief-stricken query is, yes, we do carry out similar health and safety measures on every single body, infectious or not. However, when someone passes away and now a hazard to the death care workers, there is plenty of signal from bright labels on the body bag to the paperwork. But this COVID-19…it's different to anything we've experienced before! The repercussions are deadly, and funeral directors attend homes and facilities where the elderly are at risk. We are doubling up on protection, we are not using this tragic event for a profit.
We're protecting not only ourselves but the wider community, especially our elders.
Oh, how I could go on about the effect on funeral homes due to this pandemic.
Could you please tell us more about traditions, religions and how people can navigate this time with the loss of a loved one?
One of my greatest memories serving is assisting on a Hindu service. This celebration was something I had never seen before. Food was placed around the coffin-like a picnic and the family even fed…yes fed, their loved one. The food was to be taken into the afterlife. Hymns were chanted, and family gathered around the deceased burning beautiful incense and praying. The service went for almost three hours. I wish the western world could embrace the dead similar to the East. Food forever, now that's love.
Following the service, a select few accompanied the funeral directors to the crematory space behind the chapel. They hugged one another in tears, placing firestarters in the coffin and setting their loved one alight to signify the soul departing the body. Then the cremationist inserted the deceased into the cremation chamber. It indeed was the most emotional experiences of my life.
The company I work for have not received a Hindu case during this pandemic, but I can only imagine how these beautiful people will be affected by the restrictions. Their tradition has been sliced up like the bread rolls they once served at a funeral.
I sincerely feel for anyone trying to navigate through these turbulent times. Grief is frightening, let alone experiencing it during COVID-19. I'm somewhat lost myself, to be honest.
But I can offer this: some of the most touching services I've assisted on have been those with ten or fewer guests. The service is intimate, unique, a real tear-jerker for us. I understand this is no consolation for anyone experiencing grief right now, but don't be so hard on yourself. It's not your fault that these restrictions are in place. It's not your decision to have such a small number of guests at the funeral to say goodbye.
So first and foremost, stop beating yourself up. If you believe in an afterlife, your loved one gets it. They understand what is going on, and will love you forever no matter how many attend their farewell.
However, grief changes you, and the funeral propels the healing journey. If you have a large family and saying goodbye with a funeral service will help support you, why not approach the clergy and ask they wouldn't mind conducting the service a few times in a row to allow everyone to have their chance to say goodbye? It's also common to record services now also. Most chapels are equipped with recording devices, even live streaming to family far away.
Funerals are as much taking care of the deceased, but also provide closure for the people who are grieving. How can we do that at this time?
I live in Australia, so I can't speak for beautiful Canada or any other country for that matter, but memorial services are on the rise. Memorial service farewells a loved one after burial or cremation. Most commonly, the urn containing cremains (ashes) is present, alongside photos and collages, food is shared and less formal. Many people opt for memorial services to save money, or maybe the departed was a super casual lad who wanted no fuss. During COVID-19, I believe memorial services are a great way to provide closure of sorts for the grieving while dodging expenses. You can say goodbye in your own time, in many different ways. The traditional funeral is not the only way to say goodbye. Write a letter. Place it graveside. Visit the grave daily until you feel closure is reached. Spend as much time as you need. Pine over photographs. Watch home videos.
I personally believe there's never a full sense of closure. You never stop grieving someone you love. You just learn to live with that grief.
What are some skills that you can provide to people to get through this pandemic?
A funeral director is trained to support you like no one else. We undergo ongoing workshops, conventions, training sessions to stay up to date with the changing world and those grieving within it. Death is scary. Don't be afraid to ask as many questions as you need. Call the funeral director several times a day if it helps. This is what we are trained to do. We listen. We care. We serve.
Any final words of wisdom?
This is the scariest time in our lives. This has never happened in our lifetime; we are part of a future history lesson. We're all working it out as we go along. We're in this together. The Funeral Director is often looked at as the mean guy, the crook (in Australia, anyhow. The media LOVES covering stories related to the death care industry, injecting fear into people). Funeral Directors transfer the dead from bedsheets while neglecting their own. Study road maps the night before a funeral to ensure the hearse arrives on time when they should be reading bedtime stories to their children. They care for your loved one as if they are a member of their own family. And speaking for the death care professionals I know, with hearts as big as our planet, we're heartbroken that you are enduring grief during this time. If there's anything we can do, anything! We will. If you have questions or worries or simply
So much love and light all the way from Down Under, Australia.
Bio: Hi, I'm Emma Jane Holmes. Mortician and Funeral Director from Australia. I take care of those who can no longer take care of themselves. From transferring the deceased from the place of death into the care of the funeral home, applying their makeup to spritzing tyre shine on hearses. You name it, I've done it and feel like I have been the luckiest girl in Australia to do so.
I hope my scribbles help comfort anyone who lost a loved one while sharing a funny tale or two along the way.
Thank you Emma for your time, expertise and wisdom!
We appreciate you.
Read more about Emma's work:
Images Courtesy of Emma Jane Holmes.