Funeral directors want special designation to access supplies, cause of death information during outbreak

By | March 20, 2020

Manitoba funeral directors want to know a person’s cause of death during the COVID-19 outbreak so they can access protective medical supplies needed to keep their staff safe while handling the deceased.

In order to get that information, they are asking the province to grant them a temporary “health care service” designation.

On March 12, the president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association wrote to the Funeral Board of Manitoba, asking that the health minister be made aware of the association’s safety concerns.

One fear is that with intense demand for medical-grade supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, his members could run short and put themselves at risk, Michael Gibbens said.

“I was speaking with one of our suppliers this morning and they are low on supplies — gloves and masks and things like that,” he said.

That’s led funeral homes to turn to other sources.

“There are companies … that can provide this equipment to us,” sais Gibbens. “However, we’ve been told that they’ve been mandated not to provide that to any other companies that are not related to the health-care industry or through government requirements.”

Michale Gibbens, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association of Manitoba, is seeking temporary health care service designation from the province to enable his members to source supplies for handling human remains. (Manitoba Funeral Service Association)

Workers in the funeral industry who transport and handle bodies view themselves as the last link in the health-care chain, and should be able to access those essential supplies, Gibbens said.

The Manitoba government said it is following up on the issues and will respond directly to the Manitoba Funeral Service Association as soon as possible.

‘Don’t get to see the cause of death’

Another issue Gibbens flagged is the lack of information given to funeral home staff and embalmers regarding the cause of death — information that is withheld in order to respect personal health information laws.

“At the point of initial transfer when we take the body into our care, we don’t know what those circumstances [around the death] are, which is why having the necessary protective equipment is very important for us,” he said.

“We don’t get to see the cause of death, so we operate on the highest level that we can with the necessary personal protective equipment in all cases.”

Brett Watson, president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada says keeping up with gathering limitations recommended by health officials is key to protecting mourning families and funeral home staff. (Funeral Service Association of Canada)

While he says industry members have been lobbying provincial governments on this issue for years, he hopes that certain exemptions to privacy laws can be made during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Health officials in the U.S. have issued guidelines for the funeral home industry advising workers handling the bodies of those who died of COVID-19 to use protective wear if any splashing of fluids is expected. The guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control also advise workers to disinfect the outside of body bags once they have been loaded.

Health Canada officials did not immediately respond to a request for its guidelines for Canadian funeral services.

Defer services, industry says

Across the country, funeral homes are also heeding the advice of health officials to limit gatherings of people, whether the death is COVID-19-related or not.

The Funeral Service Association of Canada says funeral homes have an obligation to protect mourning families, and their own staff.

Bardal Funeral Homes says since the COVID-19 outbreak, most of its clients have opted to postpone planned funeral services. (Bardal Funeral Home)

“We want to make sure that we’re minimizing traffic within our facilities from the outside. We don’t want to discourage funerals, but at the very minimum we’ve got to follow provincial recommendations,” association president Brett Watson told CBC News.

“We can have gatherings of 50 or less, but we’re trying to tell families that … if they can hold off until this works its way through, then we can have a funeral later when it’s safe for everybody.”

‘In a holding pattern’

Locally, Bardal Funeral Home says most of its clients have so far opted to postpone services until after the coronavirus crisis has passed.

“We’re just in a holding pattern waiting to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks,” says Bardal president and funeral director Kevin Sweryd.

Beyond postponement, he said it’s possible to hold a limited private event with only immediate family to ensure the gathering remains small. Alternatively, video technology can be used to broadcast a ceremony.

But Sweryd says it’s not lost on him that these alternatives fall short of what most people are seeking during difficult times.

“That’s one of the key elements that a funeral service or a memorial service brings — it gathers your family and friends together so they can hug you, so they can love you, so they can be with you,” he said.

“That is one of the very difficult situations with this virus right now, because it’s preventing people from having that community support and that closure.”

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