On 31 March, Public Health England (PHE) published new guidance to ensure funerals are conducted safely, consistent with social distancing principles. The Press Release reports that faith leaders have been consulted, and have worked with PHE to ensure that communities, the funeral industry and the NHS are protected.
The new guidance brings together previously published information. It states:
“By following these precautions funeral workers and mourners can safely respect and maintain the dignity of the deceased. Unless it is for a specific reason, at this moment of national emergency, it is vital that we all stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives. If the deceased has neither household or family members in attendance, then it is possible for a modest number of friends to attend.”
The advice is primarily designed to assist people who are required to manage the bodies of deceased persons infected with coronavirus (COVID-19), and as such it assists professionals such as coroners, pathologists, funeral directors and others in their work. There is also guidance for GPs managing a death outside of a healthcare setting and for those in the community or in residential care settings.
However, included in the advice is information which is of relevance to faith groups, extracts of which are reproduced below.
Guidance for communities managing a death
Those organising a funeral should adhere to the following:
- restrict the number of mourners who attend so that a safe distance of at least 2 metres (3 steps) can be maintained between individuals;
- only the following should attend:
- members of the person’s household
- close family members
- if the deceased has neither household or family members in attendance, then it is possible for a modest number of friends to attend;
- at no point should mourners mix closer than 2 metres apart from each other;
- mourners should follow the advice on social distancing when travelling to and from the funeral gathering;
- mourners should avoid any direct face-to-face or physical contact, for example, hugging each other unless they are part of the same household, that is, they have already been living in the same house as each other;
- mourners in attendance, should follow the general advice on hand hygiene and preventing the spread of infection:
- wash your hands more often than usual, for 20 seconds using soap and hot water, particularly after coughing, sneezing and blowing your nose, or after being in public areas where other people are doing so. Use hand sanitiser if that’s all you have access to and wash your hands with soap and hot water as soon as you can;
- to reduce the spread of germs when you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or your sleeve (not your hands) if you don’t have a tissue, and throw the tissue away immediately. Then wash your hands or use a hand sanitising gel;
- before and after each service, clean and disinfect the area in which the service has taken place, as well as frequently touched objects and surfaces using your regular cleaning products to reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people.
- mourners who are unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), or are part of a household with possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, should not attend any gatherings;
- in many situations the household members of the deceased person will be the next of kin; they may be having to self-isolate in line with household guidance. Where the funeral is scheduled to take place before the period of household isolation has been completed (14 days from the first case in that household), there should be no mixing between mourners who are self-isolating and those who are not mourners who are symptomatic should not attend in any circumstance.
Practices that increase the risk of spreading the infection in the community
There is an increased risk of spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) infection among family members and communities who come together for gatherings, for example, for the purposes of mourning the deceased. Communities are strongly advised to take action to reduce the risk of transmission to the older people and vulnerable adults in their community when they are planning funerals or other gatherings to celebrate the passing of a loved one.
In situations where the next of kin are household members who are likely to have already been exposed to the virus and may be self-isolating, all steps should be taken to minimise transmission to mourners outside the household and to mourners who are at increased risk of severe disease. This may require that mourners pay their respects in small groups, with those who are in self-isolation doing so after others who are well and not self-isolating. Mourners who are symptomatic should not attend in any circumstance. People who are vulnerable should adhere strictly to social distancing. People who are extremely vulnerable should not attend due to the increased risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) infection spreading among family members and communities who come together.
It is strongly advised that the following principles are followed:
- mourners who are unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), or are part of a household with possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, should not participate as they may infect others and should be isolating at home as per the stay at home guidance
- individuals who are in a risk group should not attend gatherings and should practice social distancing, as they risk picking up an infection from other members of the community who may otherwise seem well
- you can find the list of vulnerable groups and the list of extremely vulnerable groups who should practice shielding
- plans should be put in place to allow mourners to participate remotely where possible with priority given to people who are vulnerable to severe infection
- the number of mourners should be restricted to minimise the risk of person spread and to allow a safer distance between individuals (at least 2 meters or 3 steps away from each other)
- mourners should minimise any direct face-to-face or physical contact, for example, hugging each other unless they are part of the same household, that is, they have already been living in the same house as each other
- mourners who attend should be signposted to the advice on social distancing and given information about what to do should they become unwell.
Whilst these public health issues go beyond the normal scope of our posts, such is the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important that all those involved in the organization and conduct of funeral are aware of the constraints imposed by this government guidance. A previous round-up highlighted the different approaches being adopted in relation to attendance at funerals and a recent update from the Diocese of Oxford commented “[n]umbers at Funerals: We are pushing for stronger enforcement by crematoria and council cemeteries of numbers attending funerals. Large funeral gatherings are still happening daily and this puts council staff, clergy and mourners at risk.”