How Covid changed the funeral industry in Cork

Funeral directors had to adapt to difficult circumstances during the pandemic. LINDA KENNY talks to Cork funeral businesses about how they coped
How Covid changed the funeral industry in Cork

John Keohane and daughter Mary at their funeral home in Mayfield. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

IT is an accepted fact that Irish people ‘do funerals well’. A quasi-tribal support-group of relations, friends and the wider community comes together at this highly emotional time for bereaved families, to envelop and cocoon them through their grief and the funeral rituals.

The extreme restrictions of the past 18 months severely impacted on the traditional funeral, adding to the trauma of grieving families.

But amidst this, there were also lots of positives to emerge.

I spoke to some of those responsible for ensuring the compassionate business of funerals is always given priority, and asked about the challenges Covid has presented them.

The traditional Catholic funeral takes place over three days, to accommodate the rituals of rosary, removal and the Requiem Mass/Service, burial or cremation.

“This mourning period afforded family, friends and the wider community time to extend their sympathies and support to the grieving family,” explains Fr Charlie Kiely, Parish Priest of Our Lady Crowned Church, Mayfield.

In this period also, Fr Kiely would spend time with the family in their home, to see how they were coping.

“That personal touch has been replaced by a phone call,” he adds sadly.

“We still have the Funeral Mass, but the rituals have been condensed into one morning and everything has to go into that ceremony.”

Despite the inherent restrictions and small numbers at the Mass, Fr Kiely constantly goes above and beyond to ensure the Funeral Service is beautiful, intimate and personal.

Ger Gunn has been involved in almost every aspect of the funeral industry. He worked for a time as a funeral director with O’Connor’s of North Gate Bridge, trained in embalming, is on the staff at the Island Crematorium, plays and sings at requiem masses, and is an exceptional funeral celebrant.

“As a celebrant, I will meet people where they are at: whether they want a humanist service, prayers and no priest, or completely non-religious,” he says.

Ger believes the knock-on effect of the pandemic has been devastating. “From our experience on the ground, there has been an increase in tragic deaths over the past year,” he says.

“I find myself sitting with families who are broken, listening as much to what is not being said as to what is. I try to put a structure on the unthinkable. I spend a lot of time with families ever before I begin work on the service.

“Compassion, understanding and calm are so vital, and I give everything I have to give. The person who has passed is as important to me as one of my own.”

For Donal Forde, Director of Fordes Funeral Home, the past year has been intense, juggling his role as President of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors (IAFD) with running one of the busiest funeral businesses in Cork city.

“The IAFD is a 32-county organisation and it has nearly been a full-time job for the past 12 months,” he says. “Most people have accepted and adjusted to the new ways, though no two funerals are the same.

“Removals have stopped, but we are having reposals in the funeral home. We try to gently manage the restrictions, but not heavy-handedly. We encourage families to invite close family and friends and operate a revolving-door system in order to respect the limits on numbers.”

Pre-lockdown, the reality of an aging and dwindling clergy population meant more pressure on a small few to do all the funeral rituals. “It was the lay people who were actually coming to the funeral home to do the prayers,” explains John Keohane, MD of Keohanes, Mayfield and Copley Street. “I don’t think removals will ever come back.”

However, with the suspension of the normal funeral rituals, John has personally committed to preserving those beautiful traditions.

“We’ll light a candle in memory of the person who has passed away and place it out in front of the coffin. I do a few readings that the local clergy gave me,” he outlines.

“By adding this layer into it, it gives the family something. It is the removal effectively, but there is no one here to do that at the moment so I have taken on that role.”

Families and clergy have also had to adapt to the live streaming of the funeral service by mycondolences.ie and others. While not a new concept, it wasn’t a regular occurrence before Covid. However, in the past year, about 80% of funeral services have been live-streamed or accessible via a church’s webcam. These became a lifeline of comfort and inclusion to family and friends unable to attend in person.

“While the restriction on numbers was very difficult, many families have said the intimacy of the smaller numbers at the Funeral Mass itself, with just the core family present, made it more personal to them. It was somehow easier for some not to have to look after the extended clan,” says Finbarr O’Connor, MD of O’Connor Bros., North Gate Bridge.

“The past year has been both physically and mentally exhausting”, he adds. “It sometimes felt we were always being the bearer of bad news to families in terms of the restrictions in place at a given time.

“One of the first questions we had to ask a family, for example, was if the death was Covid-related. If the answer was yes, there was a whole protocol to be followed. It was a graveside service only. No embalming, no viewing, a closed coffin, their loved one taken directly from the mortuary.”

It was devastating for families. “Some were not able to get closure,” he says.

“A lot of our work takes place behind the scenes,” adds Kevin O’Connor, MD of Jerh. O’Connor & Sons, Coburg Street. “Our staff were genuinely upset for families who couldn’t say goodbye to their loved ones.”

“Even up in CUH, the respect that was being shown to loved ones who died was amazing. They were the families’ representatives, as such. Irish people really care about others and it showed.

“As a nation, we’ve been very obedient and done what we’ve been asked to do. But it was a huge task. We were thrown into situations we had never really experienced before and had to adapt to these unprecedented situations.

“There are a lot of people who probably don’t like big funerals,” Kevin adds. “It is such a private time. And what the pandemic has done is give families the confidence to say ‘I want to have a quiet funeral’.”

For Brian Johnston, General Manager of Island Crematorium, “the changes have not been easy”. He adds: “People were used to handshakes and hugs and needed some form of reassurances. Our team at The Island Crematorium worked very hard to make sure all families could receive the highest levels of dignity and care during these difficult times.”

In the interests of safety, and to protect the families in their care and the crematorium staff, services were held in the courtyard area out in the open air.

“For some families, this was difficult. However, the vast majority were very accepting and many found the courtyard a beautiful space.”

“Safety and supporting families is always our main priority,” insists Brian. “With all the uncertainty of the pandemic, I was very conscious of the importance of ensuring the crematorium remained open for those families who chose cremation.

“I will forever be so proud of the way in which everyone — the families, crematorium staff and funeral directors — all helped one another,” he adds.

“There are lots of positives to the new ways”, Forde insists. While there might have been little time for a conversation at a busy removal, for example, people are resorting to some beautiful old-fashioned ways to show their love and support for grieving families.

“All these ‘new-traditions’ are re-emerging. People are leaving more personal messages of condolences online and even posting cards and letters to us for the families,” he explains.

“Those letters and condolences are a vital consolation to families”, adds Kevin O’Connor.

And a reminder to them that, though they are going through the funeral on their own, the tribal-support and love of their friends and community is as strong and steadfast as ever.

“Neighbours are also lining the streets and clapping as the cortege leaves from the family home,” adds Keohane. “It is really beautiful to see.”

With no specific vaccination programme in place to protect funeral directors during the worst of the pandemic, Keohane said there was definite anxiety among his colleagues about contracting the virus. “We were the front faces of it and were going into people’s houses.”

The harsh reality of how challenging the conditions were for funeral directors last year was borne out when Kevin O’Connor contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised. He has since made a full recovery. “I was extremely lucky. I hadn’t been sick since I got my appendix out at the age of 10. It was frightening, but the staff in the Mercy were fantastic. They had such empathy and compassion. I don’t know how they kept going!”

“One good thing about the restricted numbers at funerals meant I had a fair idea of who I had been in contact with,” he adds with a wry smile.

While the initial reduction of numbers to a stark 10 people at a funeral mass was hugely traumatic for all concerned, Kevin believes that “now the numbers have extended to 50, it feels like a huge number, and there is enormous relief for grieving families.”

“We are good to support members of our community and, from that point of view, I do believe that funerals will come back. But I don’t know to what extent.”

“The traditional Irish funeral has been truly turned on its head,” adds Finbarr O’Connor, but he remains very positive and hopeful that “all has not been eroded forever”.

“I believe the future may see ‘funeral teams’ of lay people attached to parishes who will conduct the prayers in the funeral homes,” he adds.

“People are adapting the best way they can,” agrees Forde. “All funeral directors have done a great job in very difficult circumstances.”

I felt really sorry for grieving families at the start of Covid, they really suffered. Irish funerals are traditionally big and trying to explain the harsh restrictions to them was heart-breaking,” says Rose Keohane, of Keohanes.

“Families have since recalibrated their expectations and become acclimatised to the smaller numbers. We’ll see if people reinstate the old ways in this ‘different’ normal’”, she adds.

Though there have been radical changes to the Irish funeral industry, nothing has been lost in terms of ensuring compassion, kindness, dignity and respect are at the forefront for all who are charged with its care and continuity.

As IAFD President Donal Forde summarises, “Fundamentally, our job is to look after the deceased and their family, and to continuously strive to improve this service.”

TOMORROW ON EchoLive.ie: Linda Kenny profiles some of the big funeral companies in Cork city

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