SINGAPORE: Wakes for COVID-19 victims will be permitted as long as there is no contact with the body, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said on Saturday (Mar 21).

In response to media queries, NEA said that although wakes are allowed, families will be asked to keep the funeral wakes short to minimise any risk posed by contact among the potentially large number of visitors during the wake.

Burial is only permitted if there are strong religious reasons, it added.

On Saturday morning, two patients in Singapore died from complications due to COVID-19, the first deaths in the country linked to the infection.

One of them was a 75-year-old Singaporean woman who lived at Bishan Street 12 and was linked to the cluster at The Life Church and Missions Singapore. 

In its statement, the church said that it is unsure how to handle the funeral arrangements, but the deceased’s family will make the final decision on the funeral details.

Member of Parliament for Bishan Toa-Payoh Chong Kee Hiong told CNA that his grassroots leaders have reached out to the family and left their contact details with them. 

They will do their best to assist the family during their time of need, he said. 

READ: Singapore reports 2 deaths from COVID-19

NEA said that it had issued a circular on Feb 7 to the relevant funeral services companies listing measures on handling bodies with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections. 

In a copy seen by CNA, it said that the body should not be sprayed, washed or embalmed. 

Bodies will be double-bagged by the hospital staff, and religious rites may be performed by healthcare workers in the isolation ward before the body is placed in a body bag.

READ: Plans in place to increase Singapore’s capacity for COVID-19 patients if needed: Gan Kim Yong

It added that cremation is highly recommended, but burials are permitted if there are strong religious reasons. Wakes should also be kept short – within three days, for example. 

In its media response, NEA laid out a set of other measures. These include only allowing some funeral services companies whose staff have undergone the basic infection control course conducted by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases to collect, casket and transport the bodies for cremation or burial. 

Staff members of funeral services companies have to be suitably protected when they carry out their work, it added. 

READ: Singapore reports 47 new cases of COVID-19, more than 80% imported

On Feb 21, NEA gave the Ministry of Health a list of funeral services companies who are able and willing to handle bodies related to COVID-19, the agency said.

The list has been shared with hospitals who will advise affected families when such information is required.

Funeral companies CNA spoke to said they are following the guidelines strictly. 

Mr Ang Zisheng, the general manager of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, said that the firm has six workers – split into two teams of three – who have been designated to deal with COVID-19 cases.

The funeral company is one of the companies on NEA’s list, said Mr Ang, who is also the president of the association of funeral directors.

In addition to NEA’s guidelines, other measures include sanitising vehicles that transport the bodies from one destination to another – for instance, from the mortuary to the crematorium – he said. 

READ: Public sector adopts telecommuting, split shifts as part of COVID-19 safe distancing measures

Mr Nicky Teo, the director of Singapore Funeral Solutions, said that they will follow the directives set out by NEA if called to handle a COVID-19 case.

For one, workers such as funeral directors and undertakers must don full protective gear – surgical gloves, goggles, gowns, a hair cap and masks – when managing the remains, he said. 

SAFE DISTANCING AT SERVICES

Safe distancing measures will also have to be followed during funeral services, NEA said. 

The agency sent an updated advisory on Friday to funeral directors and funeral parlour operators telling them to implement additional precautionary measures, from screening temperatures to registering visitors.

READ: All events, gatherings with 250 participants or more must be suspended to reduce further COVID-19 spread: MOH

For one, the scale of gatherings in the funeral wake spaces should be limited to below 250 people at any one time, and there needs to be a physical spacing of at least 1m between attendees, NEA said. 

This could be done by increasing distance between the tables, reducing the number of seats per table, and spacing out attendees during prayers. 

The agency also discourages the set-up of buffets, and encourages operators to consider alternative arrangements such as distributing individual bento sets.

READ: Measures for safe distancing rolled out at retail, F&B sectors to prevent COVID-19 spread

At the Mandai crematorium, staggered seating is also in place at the service halls, and funeral directors have been advised to inform families to keep the attendees to below 50 people, NEA added.

“No doubt this period of time is stressful for the undertakers, whereby we have to do contact tracing, we have to do temperature check for all the attendees,” Mr Teo of Singapore Funeral Solutionssaid.  “But this is for the good of the community and also for ourselves.” 

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