June 18, 2024


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Commentary: Funeral homes and morgues face challenges as coronavirus death toll rises

MELBOURNE: The coronavirus is not only affecting the way we live, it’s also dramatically affecting the way we die.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that funerals would be limited to a maximum of ten people to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, the states may have some leeway in permitting an extra one or two.

Funeral directors say they are concerned about the availability of crucial health supplies such as masks, hand sanitiser and body bags.

In Italy, people with COVID-19 reportedly “face death alone”, with palliative care services stretched to the limit, morgues inundated, funeral services suspended, and many dead unburied and uncremated.

In Iran, satellite photography shows trenches being excavated for mass burials.

READ: COVID-19 temporary measures: Gatherings outside of school and work limited to 10 people, entertainment venues to close

READ: Commentary: Why Singapore is preparing to tap the brakes to slow COVID-19 spread

As Australia’s coronavirus response moves into a critical period, these examples remind us that how we care for the dead must be part of our pandemic plan.

It is extremely difficult to estimate the total number of people who will die in Australia from COVID-19. Predictions range from 3,000 to 400,000.

Morgues, crematoria, cemeteries and funeral homes will certainly be stretched to capacity. Family and loved ones may be facing a very different funeral to the one they envisaged.

And while funeral directors and others in the deathcare industry are changing the way they care for the dead, there are clearly challenges ahead.


Traditions that include kissing, hugging, and dressing the dead have often been abandoned or significantly modified during pandemics.

Mortuary employees wearing face masks wheel a coffin into the crematorium of La Almudena cemetery in

Mortuary employees wearing face masks wheel a coffin into the crematorium of La Almudena cemetery in Madrid during the funeral of a COVID-19 coronavirus victim AFP/OSCAR DEL POZO

READ: ‘There are no funerals’: Death in quarantine leaves nowhere to grieve

For instance, during the Ebola outbreak of 2013 to 2016, governments were forced to separate the dying and dead from their communities, enforce new non-contact methods of burial, and in so doing, transform how people mourned.

In Australia for instance, the latest guidelines advise families not to kiss the deceased. However, they can touch the body if they wash their hands immediately afterwards or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser. In most cases, family members do not need to use gloves.


Travel bans and mandatory self-isolation periods may also delay some funerals. And funerals that pull people from distant places into intimate proximity, often including vulnerable people, present a clear health risk.

For instance, in Spain, more than 60 cases of COVID-19 were traced back to one funeral service.

READ: Commentary: We treat the business of death like it’s dirty work

While Australia has limited the size of funerals, other countries have temporarily banned people from attending them altogether.

“Everyone has the right to expect a funeral and burial service that respects their individual beliefs,” said Deb Ganderton, chief executive of Melbourne’s Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. “For the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased, an end of life service can also be an important part of the grieving process and help them cope with their loss.”

So we need to be creative to find ways to both protect that right and protect public health.


In many countries, including the US, UK and Australia, as funeral services are being scaled back or suspended to limit spread of the coronavirus, online services are flourishing.

Workers construct what is believed to be a makeshift morgue behind a hospital during the outbreak o

Workers construct what is believed to be a makeshift morgue behind a hospital during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Our DeathTech Research Team has been following this move to streamed funeral and memorial services. We’ve also been following interest in using hired robots, which people control from afar, to allow people to attend a funeral who can’t be there in person.

We predict more innovative use of technology in coming months.

We may also see more people using digital technology such as social media sites for sharing personal memories of the dead and expressing emotions, particularly if they can’t attend funerals in person.


The coronavirus is also challenging the deathcare industry – which includes funeral homes, cemeteries, morgues and crematoria – for a number of reasons.

International guidelines for funeral directors say that after death, the human body does not generally create a serious health hazard for COVID-19. New South Wales guidelines say funeral directors and people working in mortuaries are unlikely to contract COVID-19 from deceased people infected with the virus.

READ: Wakes allowed, measures to handle COVID-19 bodies in place: NEA

READ: Commentary: The ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic could unfold

However, both sets of guidelines do set out detailed infection control procedures.

“There’s a lot of inconsistency in advice about death and funerals between different states and federal government,” said Adrian Barrett, senior vice-president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association. “Recommendations around coronavirus can be in conflict. We’d rather have and follow conservative guidelines, to make sure we are doing as much as possible.”

Then, there’s the issue of staffing. Although many other sectors can find ways to isolate or temporarily close, cemetery, funeral, and crematoria workers provide an essential service and cannot work from home.

We rarely think about the welfare of those who handle the dead. These workers are too often stereotyped as profiteering in the face of grief, or stigmatised by the taboos surrounding their work. But there is a deep sense of service and care that pervades this professional community.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid

Local police stand next to a mortuary car, allegedly carrying the corpse of a person who died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the entrance of an ice rink which will be used as a morgue, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

READ: Commentary: We treat the business of death like it’s dirty work

For this community, safe working conditions means ensuring the supply of personal protective equipment. However, Adrian of the Australian Funeral Directors Association told us funeral homes across Australia are struggling to source items such as masks and have run into problems with suppliers profiteering by raising prices.

Finally, we need to advertise broadly a public duty of care for those in the deathcare sector. These are the people who safely dispose of bodies and care for people dealing with the loss of loved ones.

COVID-19 has, in such a short time, radically transformed how we live our daily lives as well as urgently reminded us about the fragility of life.

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Tamara Kohn is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne. Hannah Gould is an ARC Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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