Funeral directors are calling for a change of heart from Government when it comes to funeral and tangihanga restrictions as Auckland faces its extended lockdown

Michele Murphy lost her father a week into lockdown.

After two weeks in Auckland Hospital, 94-year old Bob passed away with only one family member able to be physically present beforehand due to lockdown restrictions.

Murphy had to pick a funeral home and contact them to come and pick up her father’s body.

Now it’s been weeks and ongoing lockdown restrictions mean the family is stuck in limbo.

Funeral homes offer customers the choice of cremation or a deferred funeral ceremony while in Level 4 – but at the point of decision-making, nobody knows how long that deferment will be for.

Murphy says her family are in a state of “suspended reality”.

“You can’t walk through the natural process of grieving until you can be together,” she says. “We aren’t bitter or resentful about it, as we understand why it has to be like this – it’s just difficult.”

Level 4 restrictions forbid gathering for funerals and tangihanga, while only registered funeral directors are allowed to cremate, transport or bury the deceased person.

Grieving loved ones are stuck with a tough choice – put the rituals of mourning on hold until after lockdown, or forego a traditional ceremony and allow the funeral directors to handle it without family or loved ones present.

That’s why funeral directors across the country are asking the Government to take another look at funeral restrictions.

The Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand submitted a written proposal to the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield earlier this week, seeking a change to allow funerals under Level 4 and an increase in the number allowed to attend inside at alert Level 2 – with requirements to maintain separation, limit the spread of virus and encourage vaccinations among those attending.

Funeral Directors Association President Gary Taylor said there is a huge hidden cost to not allowing people to get together for funerals and tangihanga, and believes risk can be mitigated with careful health and safety measures.

He estimates 4,000 families were unable to access traditional funerals in last year’s March lockdown. This year the problem is more localised to Auckland, after the city has spent extra weeks at Level 4 in comparison to the rest of the country, but the numbers of funerals not happening are still significant – between 1,600 and 2,000 during this period.

“The mental wellbeing of these families is being seriously disrupted,” Taylor said.

And the consequences won’t just be felt in the present day – Taylor warns that the mental health costs of thousands of people unable to mourn in a healthy way could have ripples through the decades.

“The scars inflicted on them can could cause struggles for the already fragile mental health system down the road,” he said, comparing it to the stillborn children of the 1940s and 50s who were taken away from their mothers without ceremony – causing a generation’s worth of mental anguish.

Funeral Directors Association President Gary Taylor says the announcement of the extended lockdown for Auckland last week was another devastating blow for funeral directors and more importantly – the families of the deceased. Photo: Supplied

Taylor is primarily worried about the families, but also said there are logistical concerns with how funeral homes can deal with the ongoing situation.

He said there were between 150 and 200 bodies waiting for lockdown in Auckland to end – embalmed and stored across the city’s funeral homes, in ad-hoc storage spaces such as chapels and funeral parlours.

So once Auckland’s alert levels relax, there will be a backlog for funeral directors to cope with before they deal with the couple of dozen Aucklanders dying a day.

“There’s a funeral home in Auckland with 40 bodies in caskets waiting in their chapel,” Taylor said. “There’s probably room for a few more, but once funerals can start again, they’ll need to move them somewhere. Then that’s 40 funerals to go through before they can think about addressing current ones.”

He is worried there will come a point where as people continue to defer, there won’t be enough physical space to store the deceased.

The proposal hopes to solve these issues.

“We see an opportunity to make funerals and tangihanga safe at alert Level 4 and encourage vaccine uptake by requiring the limited number of mourners to have at least the first dose of vaccine.” said David Moger, chief executive of the association. “This thinking will enable families to grieve safely under Alert Level 4 and at the same time provide a real motivation for the vaccine programme.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signalled to media on Thursday afternoon that the Cabinet would discuss congregation limits next week, with an eye to increasing Level 2 indoor gathering caps to 100.

This would be a major relief for the hospitality industry, and allow funerals and tangihanga to continue in a manner closer to normal once the whole country is at Level 2 or below.

But the Funerals Directors Association also wants allowances made for families dealing with funeral decisions while under Level 4.

Murphy said having to manage all the arrangements with her family through Zoom was a difficult process.

“You feel like you lose a lot of the intimate moments,” she said. “It feels perfunctory.”

Moments where people would naturally come together and comfort one another are impossible through webcam meetings.

“The natural thing is to come together,” she said. “Even if nothing is said, it’s the fact that you’re all together that helps.”

Instead, the family was forced to choose a casket for their departed patriarch through Zoom.

She said the hospital and the funeral directors were all very caring and helpful, and many people were in worse situations than she is – but that didn’t mean it hasn’t been an exhausting and difficult time.

“I don’t think it will really hit me that he’s gone until I’m with my sisters again.” 

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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