COVID-19: Funeral director opens up about challenges and turning people away from a funeral

Funeral director

J.J. Burgess & Sons have branches in Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City, St Albans, Knebworth and more. - Credit: J.J. Burgess & Sons

A Hertfordshire-based funeral director has opened up about his industry and how he feels it is often overlooked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

J.J. Burgess & Sons

Justin and Jack Burgess. - Credit: J.J. Burgess & Sons

J.J. Burgess & Sons, which dates back to 1839 and has several branches across the county, is run by Justin Burgess who has been a funeral director for more than 25 years.

Over the past year Justin and his staff have faced long hours and difficult problems.

He said: "In the first pandemic, even though we saw it in the media, we were still caught with our trousers half off.

"It was all a bit make it up as you go along, this time we're more organised because we've been through it before.

"But what has concerned us is that all the language coming out from the government is very subtle, it's 'we suggest that', 'we recommend that', nobody's actually given any firm direction."

J.J. Burgess & Sons

J.J. Burgess & Sons has been based in Hatfield since 1839. - Credit: J.J. Burgess & Sons

Government guidelines say that during a national lockdown funerals can be attended by a maximum of 30 people, although funeral directors may decide on a lower number depending on the size of the venue.

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Justin told this paper about the backlash he and his staff have faced, including having to say no to people for the first time in his 28 years as funeral director,  due to restrictions.

When the restrictions first came in spring last year they had to make significant changes to funeral arrangements at very short notice.

Justin said: "I can understand it, they've been promised something two weeks before and then it's changed. It was very much viewed that it was our doing not the doing of the government - that was was difficult."

Funeral directors are liable to be fined if people break the COVID rules at their funerals, a funeral director was fined £10,000 in Welwyn Garden City last month when more than 100 people showed up to a funeral.

funeral

A funeral director was fined £10,000 when nearly 150 showed up to a funeral in Welwyn Garden City - Credit: Supplied

"We're nervous now arranging funerals, we're sort of ramming it home to families that you cannot go over certain numbers and that in itself can be upsetting," Justin added.

"I had an incident where there were five more than there should have been at the funeral and I had to say to them you've got to turn five people away, and that's extremely difficult.

"It's a position families really shouldn't be in.

"People don't understand why you're only allowed 20 people at a burial when it's outside, which seems daft but against that's the rule we have to uphold."

As well as the challenges of dealing with COVID rules, the staff have had to deal with an increased amount of work.

JJ Burgess & Sons usually would have two funerals a day, but are now doing four to five a day.

JJ Burgess and Sons Funeral Directors

J.J. Burgess & Sons Funeral Directors have 'never been busier' - Credit: Archant

Justin said: "My staff are on call all night, the phone never stops.

"I wouldn't say we are at breaking point, but we are near there. We are absolutely exhausted.

"Nobody has once thought about funeral service.

"It's kind of, 'well it's your job just get on with it', but we've worked without break, seven days a week.

"Nobody claps for us on a Thursday night, nobody thinks we're frontline, we're not classed as frontline, we weren't in line for the vaccination frontline. so we're working unvaccinated in dangerous circumstances.

"Our role has felt very undervalued and overlooked."

Mortuary space now comes at a premium due to the higher than expected number of deaths, though temporary mortuaries have been set up around the county to help the service cope.

Waiting times at crematoriums have also increased, with some already booked up for the next month.

Talking about the recent rise in cases over the past few months Justin said: "I think it's come a lot quicker, we were very glad to see that we didn't have any COVID cases, then suddenly one or two and now it's the majority of cases we are dealing with.

"We've never been busier and I think that's the same for other funeral directors.

"We've got out own staff off with COVID as well, we're working under huge pressures because we've got low numbers."

He joked: "I gave up drinking two years ago, I think I might start again.

"If we knew it was going to last for another two weeks you'd think 'I'll buckle up and get on with it', but this seems to be no end in sight at the moment or if there is light at the end of the tunnel it's a very small pin prick.

A silver lining in a difficult situation for everyone is the return of an 'old-fashioned funeral'.

Justin added: "There have been some very nice, small, intimate gatherings, where people have gotten up and spoken at the funeral who perhaps maybe wouldn't have if there were 40, 50, 60 people there."

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