The restrictions on attendance at funerals has been one of the toughest changes during Covid-19, with even Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying that it “tore him up” that people could not say goodbye properly to their loved ones.
The restrictions have also introduced considerable confusion for families whose loved ones purchased prepaid funerals that have been compromised by cuts to numbers of attendees.
As Choice journalist Saimi Jeong said in a report this week, Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the funeral experience. “It’s clear nothing can quite replace the rituals we’re used to, Jeong says of her investigation into the issues surrounding funerals in the time of coronavirus. “Families told me about missing the sense of touch and being able to comfort each other in their time of need.”
Social distancing restrictions currently limit funeral service attendance to 10 people, who must be spaced 1.5 metres apart, at most funerals in every state and territory except Queensland, which said recently that services could host up to 20 people.
Some states do offer exemptions from the 10-person limit where immediate family (partner, siblings, parents, children, step-children) number more than 10 – Western Australia, for example, offers this exemption. And others, such as South Australia, allow slightly more attendees if the funeral is held outside. (Clergy, celebrants and funeral home staff are not counted within the limit, nor is the deceased.)
However, even at 15 or 20 people, many send-offs will be significantly less well-attended than would have been the norm. So we asked the experts what options were open to families for whom prepaid or pre-planned funerals had been disrupted by coronavirus.
Prepaying for a funeral locks in the event at today’s prices and offers a certainty of service so is a popular option for many older Australians. The money paid for the funeral is then held in trust and invested to ensure the service costs are completely covered when the time comes.
But when it comes to getting money back because a funeral service is not as was purchased – for example, due to Covid-19 restriction that reduced the number of people permitted to attend – the issue can be more complex.
Bare Cremation founder Cale Donovan says that prepaid funds are usually released directly to the funeral director, rather than the family of the prepaid purchaser, meaning the decision to refund on items not provided is very specific to the provider the funeral was purchased from. As Jeong’s investigation found, Australian consumer law doesn’t guarantee a refund for pre-paid services that can’t be delivered due to Covid-19 restrictions.
However, the majority of Australian funeral homes are offering full refunds for services not provided due to Covid-19 – if they are not able to provide other options under the current restrictions that would otherwise account for the full sum prepaid. And Jeong says that she found funeral directors were adapting and doing their best to provide the most respectful send-off possible in these unusual circumstances.
Donovan advises families to read the fine print on any prepayment agreement and talk to the provider about what services can still be delivered. For example, although a lower number of attendees is unlikely to impact pre-paid plans that did not include catering or venue hire, it could have an impact on those that did.
“Covid-19 is such a unique situation our world is facing, and my hope is that all funeral service providers will accommodate any families that need help, or significantly change their funeral plans due to Covid-19,” he says.
Jeong agrees, advising families to ask to see the pre-paid contract their loved one signed. “It should outline exactly what was meant to be delivered and what you may be owed if a service can’t be delivered,” she explains. “Regardless of the contract terms an ethical business should proactively offer you a refund for anything they can’t deliver on.”
Funeral providers will almost certainly encourage families to consider other options ahead of a refund, and many have adapted their services to allow this to happen. For example, Donovan says many of his customers have opted for a private cremation held now, with the full funeral service scheduled for when restrictions are lifted.
“Covid-19 has created an environment where families are now opting for a direct cremation – an elegant, simple service to perform the cremation – and simultaneously planning a personalised, fitting memorial once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted,” he said. “We’re seeing a significant increase in direct cremations broadly across Australia, as families become increasingly aware that this is an option for them.”
Nigel Davies, the president of the National Funeral Directors Association, agreed, telling Choice’s Jeong that the proportion of people choosing to have their loved one cremated without an immediate funeral service had doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent of customers at his own funeral home. In fact, he expects this to be a change that sticks even after the coronavirus risk has abated.
But for those who aren’t interested in having a direct cremation, then postponing the full service, or requesting that their loved one’s remains be held until a full service is possible, Matthew Kwoka from Southern Cross Funerals says his funeral home provides a live-streamed service so people unable to attend in person are still able to view the ceremony.
“In our experience, a lot of people aren’t comfortable holding their loved ones until restrictions are lifted,” he said. “So what we’re finding with our families is that they’re opting for the service to take place now with the live-stream, which comes at no extra cost.”
If a family chooses this option, a single link is sent to all invitees, which takes them to a live viewing of the service. If the link fails for any reason, the service switches automatically to a YouTube recording of the service that runs with a 10-second delay.
Kwoka notes, however, that funerals held in churches rather than professional funeral homes often don’t have facilities for live-streaming already built in. In these cases, there may be an additional cost to have the funeral provider supply a production company to undertake the live-stream.
If a live-stream isn’t possible or doesn’t suit the circumstances, the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board in Western Australia offers some ideas that enable more people to honour the deceased. These include having loved ones send informal video messages to be screened at the funeral or written messages that can be read, recording a video of the funeral and sharing it later or asking friends and family to stop for a moment of remembrance at a specific time or date.
Even changing the layout of seating at the funeral venue can have an impact, Davies says, pointing out that while rows of seats feels more formal, a circle of seats accommodating the smaller number of attendees can help mourners feel more comfortable about speaking informally about their loved one and sharing memories of the deceased. Likewise, a family member can choose to act as the celebrant, giving the event a more personal feel that suits the reduced attendance.
Pre-funeral viewings are subject to the same limit on numbers at funerals but by staggering attendance at the viewing, can offer another way for more people to have the opportunity to pay their respects to the deceased. Meanwhile, sharing a drink or a meal and some memories of a loved one over Zoom after the funeral can help make up for the lack of a wake.
It’s important to note that, as White Lady Funerals points out on its site, there are regulations specifically related to viewing and dressing of the deceased if they died from Covid-19, which includes no embalming. And police are actively monitoring funeral attendance, with some reportedly entering funeral homes or churches to check numbers during services.