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Kent funeral directors predict hard times for Covid-19 death families

Families who have lost loved ones in Kent during the covid pandemic could be "scarred for years" because of the restrictions imposed on carrying out funeral services.

Some relatives have pleaded with undertakers to delay cremations and burials so they can have a conventional ceremony with unlimited numbers of mourners, hymns and limousines.

Respected funeral director John Weir says people 'will be scarred for years'
Respected funeral director John Weir says people 'will be scarred for years'

But funeral directors have been advised not to delay, to avoid a backlog during this period of increases deaths caused by the virus.

Despite "difficult times", leading Kent undertaker John Weir, who has four parlours across Medway, says the industry has risen to the challenge.

He sits on the national Deceased Management Action Group which liaises with government and local health officials.

He said: "Nobody knew at first the terrible impact it would have. We had some PPE but not enough, so we literally had to ring round other undertakers.

"It has been a case of resource sharing and a lot of co-operation between all involved, including clergy and celebrants.

Hundreds of funeral services have taken place without friends and relatives able to attend
Hundreds of funeral services have taken place without friends and relatives able to attend

"There has also been a lot of streamlining to save time in the processes. Beforehand, if somebody was being cremated you would have to get a doctor who had seen the person and somebody independent to sign off paperwork. Now only doctors need to do it.

"People can't go to the registrar to register or get a death certificate or come in to arrange a funeral, so it's done over the phone and the doctor liaises with the crematorium electronically."

With chapel viewing also banned and other limitations, Mr Weir has had some "very uncomfortable conversations" with grieving relatives.

He said: "No doubt it will scar some for years."

While the length of service has not been altered, extra time has to be allowed for cleaning and sanitising chapels and funeral cars.

The have been restrictions in place at the Garden of England Crematorium at Bobbing near Sittingbourne
The have been restrictions in place at the Garden of England Crematorium at Bobbing near Sittingbourne

"This has been done by extending hours at the beginning and end of the day. Some crematoriums, including Thames View at Gravesend applied to open on Saturdays," he added.

"Funerals will never be the same. These new rules last for two years and then it's up to local authorities to decide what to do."

Mr Weir said on the whole, the industry in Kent had managed well with the emergency morgue, built on an industrial estate in Aylesford to temporarily hold 1,000 bodies, not needed.

But he and his colleagues are bracing themselves for a spike in the virus and have pledged to be more prepared if it does return with a vengeance.

He has already spent thousands of pounds installing plastic panelling inside his fleet of limousines and has started to stockpile PPE.

Jo Parker, boss of Tonbridge-based Abbey Funeral Services
Jo Parker, boss of Tonbridge-based Abbey Funeral Services

Jo Parker is working with Kent Resilience Forum - a partnership which responds to county-wide emergencies - on behalf of the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors.

She said: "The profession has continued to work seven days a week 24-hours a day serving their communities in what have been very difficult and emotional circumstances for their families and also their staff.

"It is heartbreaking to hear how families were not allowed to visit their loved ones in hospital or attend funerals because of restrictions, and on the whole it has been the funeral director who has had to manage these restrictions, relaying the changes to their families from registration procedures to funeral attendance.

Ms Parker, managing director of Tonbridge-based Abbey Funeral Services, added: "I for one am extremely proud of the profession I represent and of the many independent funeral directors who have gone above and beyond for their families to allow them to have the very best funeral service for their loved ones that are possible in these unprecedented times."

Gravesend resident Rebecca Phillips and her sisters, Kirsty and Lauren, were faced with the difficult task of laying both their parents to rest after they contracted Covid-19.

The 31-year-old said: "We were able to have a double funeral to bury them together because they died within a day of each other.

Rob and Karen Phillips received a joint funeral after they passed away
Rob and Karen Phillips received a joint funeral after they passed away

"Everyone has their own group of friends, so it was really difficult because we could only have 20 people.

"It seems like a lot but after us three daughters and the immediate family, the numbers are gone."

Despite this, the mum-of-two said she could not fault the funeral directors who even helped arrange for the family to share a live video link of the service so other friends and relatives could view.

"The funeral directors were absolutely amazing," she said.

"It was the best we could give them in the circumstances. I would not change anything they did."

Claire White, 42, of Fleet Estate, Dartford, lost her husband Dave, 44, a supermarket store manager, early in the pandemic after he contracted coronavirus.

She last saw her childhood sweetheart on Monday, March 30 when he was taken to Darent Valley Hospital in the afternoon by ambulance.

He had breathing difficulties, having spent the weekend in bed with sickness and diarrhoea but had no other underlying health issues.

He died at 5.30am the following morning, on Tuesday, March 31, with Claire being told in a telephone call shortly after.

She then had to tell their eight-year-old daughter, Megan.

The White family's last photo together at the Science Museum on March 14. Dave, Claire and Megan. Picture: Claire White
The White family's last photo together at the Science Museum on March 14. Dave, Claire and Megan. Picture: Claire White

His funeral was held on Wednesday, April 29 at Gravesend crematorium. Just 10 people were allowed to attend but few of his family could be there as they live in Derbyshire and travel restrictions were in force. They were able to watch online.

Claire said: "I wasn't able to give him the send-off he deserved.

"All his family were in Derbyshire, so they couldn't travel down. Maybe they will be scarred – at least I got to go to the funeral, not that I remember much of it. It was all a blur, pretty much like the past few months.

"One of the hardest things was after the funeral. It was strange to come home straight away. Usually you'd have a wake, or something. I came home and sat on the sofa. I felt so alone."

She said she struggled because the last time she saw her husband, he was walking into the ambulance and she fully expected him to return home in a few hours.

But she said she'd had plenty of support. "Dave lives on in Megan, and I have my memories and photos everywhere," she said. "I've had support from a lot of people, which is good, and I've needed it."

Read more: All the latest news from Medway

Read more: All the latest news from Tonbridge

Read more: All the latest news from Gravesend

Read more: All the latest news from Dartford


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