May 25, 2020

New Mourning: COVID-19’s Unexpected Impact on Funerals In Australia

As news of soaring death counts from overseas filtered through to Australia, health experts from around the country braced themselves for the monumental impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Toilet paper drought aside, Australians quickly embraced the concept of lockdown and were united in the idea of doing what was needed in order to ensure the safety of the country’s most vulnerable people.

Despite the initial fears, Australia has only recorded 102 deaths as a result of the coronavirus, and evidence indicates that ‘playing-it-safe’ may have impacted the nation’s overall death toll.

Although official statistics will not be made available until later this year, anecdotal evidence from funeral directors indicates a massive decline in the number of funerals being conducted.

Deaths in the workplace have also decreased significantly, along with the national road toll.

While the spread of deadly viruses other than COVID-19 has basically come to a complete stop.

At present, there have only been 229 confirmed cases of the flu across Australia which is mind-boggling when you consider that Australia had close 19,000 cases of the flu at the same time last year.

As miraculous as it may sound, it appears that somehow Australia has managed to experience less death than ever before due to the measures put in place to combat COVID-19.

And the lack of funerals is not the only massive change to the business of death. 

Social distancing laws have forced Australians to adapt to the ceremonial aspect of death, resulting in novel ideas that some experts believe may now become a regular part of the funeral process.

Dr Philip Bachelor OAM is a Lecturer in Cemetery Practice at Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and a specialist in grief and bereavement.

According to Dr Bachelor, this situation has forced Australians to rethink how they celebrate the life of a loved one, and some of the innovations he is now seeing are nothing short of “exciting.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention and, with even our more somber routines and ancient rites now being challenged, we’re seeing innovation and co-operation that is very positive for human progress,” Dr Bachelor said.

“We keep hearing that our current situation in Australia is ‘unprecedented,’ but we may be overlooking quite recent history.”

 “Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents mostly survived the Great War and deadly influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and then the Second World War. 

“They were forced to conserve, innovate and co-operate to far greater degrees than we often recognise, and while the impacts of past events were devastating for many, a stronger, more appreciative society emerged and paved the way for us.”

As part of the lockdown introduced on March 23, funeral attendance was limited to immediate family members which then prompted funeral directors to start offering video-streaming to those who were unable to physically attend.

Some services now offer funeral live-streaming which can include text in various languages, while other funeral services have opted to repeat funeral services to allow more people to say their goodbye’s in-person.

In some instances, funeral directors have even been placing written messages from mourners on weighted-down balloons in the chapel during the service, so mourners feel they have a presence at the ceremony.

While one of the most creative innovations has seen funeral providers turn the outside of a chapel into an outdoor theatre so people can listen to the service through their car radio.

The concept of funeral processions has also been reimagined with some funeral services now changing the route to drive past the homes of mourners who are often creating their own private memorial services.

“Not everyone may be able to attend a funeral of their loved one, but how well we process grief is largely determined by our personal attitude,” Dr. Bachelor said. “It’s important to go easy on yourself. Grief is complex.

Critical elements in how effectively we cope include our self-concept, personal beliefs, and relationship with the deceased person.

“It’s particularly important to recognise that we all grieve differently. When a family member dies, we know they’d expect their intimates to grieve, but no one wants their loved ones to suffer any more than necessary.

If we accept the social supports available to us and share our thoughts and feelings with those who love and care for us, we can best mitigate the pain of our loss without fear that this might diminish our love or treasured memories.”


Photo credit – iStock – AntonioGuillem

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