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Andrew Pinder is managing director at Ern Jensen Funerals and national president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association. The following is an edited transcript of his interview with Crikey’s Charlie Lewis.

We start the day by sanitising and sterilising everything. Every door handle, every surface that can be touched, all access points to our chapel. All our mortuary equipment. It was always important, obviously, but now it’s crucial that we’re pristine.

In the past few days I’ve spoken to two widows who had not been able to see their husbands towards the end. One’s husband was in an aged-care facility — he had dementia. The facility had been in lockdown and she hadn’t seen him for his last six weeks.

Another man had a cold when he went into the hospital so they had to treat it like a virus case and keep him in isolation. Eventually he died there for reasons unrelated to the virus, but his wife had not been able to see him.

It’s one thing to lose the person closest to you, and another to not be able to spend time with them beforehand. People break down in front of you because it’s so tough.

And then of course there are the restrictions on the number of mourners who can attend funerals. We’re not complaining. We’re glad we can still have a funeral with 10 mourners. Many countries won’t allow that.

Still it’s very difficult. It compounds people’s grief.

People have been getting around the practicalities of the restrictions using apps such as FaceTime.

We had a funeral yesterday with a family of a man who had died of COVID-19. Other funeral homes had quoted, saying they would cremate him but wouldn’t dress him or have a viewing for what they said were safety reasons. Of course, like in all industries, some operators have different standards from others.

However, our members know it’s safe to handle someone who has died from COVID-19, as long you wear the right protective gear. You have far more chance of catching it from the living than the dead.

The family was grateful to see him clean-shaven, wearing his clothes — to see he’d been taken care of. They spent 45 minutes with him over FaceTime. They sang songs and read to him.

That’s what a funeral is for. It’s not just a practical process. It’s about supporting one another, about expressing yourself, expressing your grief.

We have to be very careful with every deceased person now because they may have had the virus or come into contact with someone who did without the families necessarily knowing.

It’s believed the virus will not be present in a deceased person after two days in a refrigerated setting. But there is some risk the lungs may expel some particles when the body is moved. So we respectfully cover their mouth and nose when they are moved.

Previously when we first talked to a family we didn’t ask about the cause of death. Ultimately it was not our business, and we respected their privacy. Now we have to ask the presumed cause of death, about who the deceased had contact with, who the family have had contact with and, until a few weeks ago, where the deceased had travelled.

That can be very sensitive. People may not want to share the cause of death. If someone took their own life the family may not be ready to share that.

The rules about mourners varies from state to state. Victoria and Western Australia allow 10 mourners plus however many people are required to conduct the funeral. New South Wales, after we lobbied it, fell into line with that. We think that’s very clear, and fair. It means everyone can have the same number of mourners.

Queensland allows 10 mourners plus three funeral staff; South Australia allows 10 people total inside and 15 people total outside; Tasmania allows 10 people total, regardless of the staff you require.

We’re lobbying Tasmania to come into line with Victoria, NSW and WA. If most of the mourners are elderly or frail, to simply transport the deceased to their grave might require many staff, meaning you have fewer mourners. We don’t think that is fair.

So it’s not just inconsistent from state to state, but from family to family.

We have had police attend funerals and visit funeral homes. Obviously we don’t like being policed in this way but we have the opportunity to preserve people’s ability to have a funeral, to help people navigate their grief in this strange time. And if we don’t take that seriously soon people might not be able to have a funeral at all.

Peter Fray

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