Pandemic takes a toll on exhausted UK funeral directors

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Senior Funeral Director Ben Blunt checks a coffin before it is put into a hearse at Heritage & Sons Funeral Directors in Aylesbury, southern England, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Heritage & Sons' parent company says its group of funeral homes across southeast England is arranging 30% to 50% more funerals than in a typical year. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – Funeral director Hasina Zaman recently helped a family say goodbye to a young man in his 30s who had died from COVID-19, on the same day she was planning a service for a husband and wife, both also lost to the virus.

Since the pandemic struck, Zaman's phone has rarely stopped ringing, with bereaved people seeking help that she is not always able to provide.

“Every week I think I don’t have what it takes,” said Zaman, whose company Compassionate Funerals serves a multicultural, multi-faith community in east London. The small firm normally arranges about five funerals a week, but COVID-19 has driven the number as high as 20.

“We just do it,” Zaman said. “Literally just hands-on approach and just go for it and do it. And it’s not sustainable. It’s definitely not sustainable, because it’s not healthy.”

Funeral home staff are under pressure in many places, but the burden is especially intense in Britain, where more than 115,000 people with the virus have died, one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world. Undertakers, embalmers and others who deal with death for a living often regard the pressure on them as less important than the pain felt by bereaved families. But many are exhausted by the sheer amount of mortality they have faced, and the pandemic is increasing awareness that their own mental health also deserves tending to.

Funeral directors across the country describe a heavy burden from more services, tougher hygiene measures and fewer staff because of illness and self-isolation requirements.

Emma Symons, an embalmer at Heritage & Sons Funeral Directors, northwest of London, says her workload has tripled.

“Some days it is relentless and is really difficult, particularly if we have younger people who’ve died,” she said. “Sometimes it really does get a bit too much.”