Our neighbour, the much-respected local undertaker, conducted twice as many funerals in April as in the same month last year. One might be tempted to say ‘It’s an ill wind…’, but in fact it has been grim, both from a professional and a human point of view. ‘We have had,’ he says — with a double meaning he notices only after he has said it — ‘to think outside the box.’ Coffins are in short supply, ‘unless people want the willow or bamboo’. With no new traditional wooden ones available until early June, he has had to get in cardboard versions as a back-up. The firm is not allowed to provide many of the aspects in which it takes pride — the embalming, the viewing, the limousines, the dignified bearing of the coffin in and out of a crowded church, all of which help comfort families. Instead, it has to take enormous pains to protect its own staff. The coronavirus does linger on the bodies of the recently dead, and when you have to lift the head of the deceased, you are dangerously close to the nostrils and the mouth, which may expel air. The men handling the body therefore have to wear full PPE (often hard to obtain and sometimes defective).
Because diagnosis is so uncertain, they have to wear it with all corpses, whether or not the dead person had Covid-19. To reduce the risk further, they have to adapt incontinence pads to cover the corpse’s head and face. Not all hospitals put their Covid dead in body-bags. The whole thing is ‘very frightening,’ he says, ‘because you keep asking yourself, “Have I got it?”.’ So far, all his staff are well. He is proud of their stoicism. Most of the bereaved also behave well; but although he would love churches to open once more, he thinks it would be very hard to maintain distancing at a church funeral of any size. Many elderly people attend funerals and cannot manage alone. I have never met a man less pleased to find his business in demand. Which is to his credit. Please clap for undertakers too.
This article is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes, available in this week's magazine.