Important Note: This article was last updated on 24 March 2020.
The coronavirus (or COVID-19) outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation and the effects of the virus are starting to affect the way each of us goes about our daily life. One area that coronavirus has not yet had an immediate impact on in Australia is funerals. However, looking at the experience of other countries around the world, it seems like this is only a matter of time.
In this article, we’ll look at the following topics:
- Are funerals in Australia allowed under coronavirus restrictions?
- How have other countries managed funerals?
- What is the likely impact of COVID-19 on funerals in Australia?
- How will people who have died from coronavirus be treated by the funeral industry?
- What are your options for funerals in Australia amidst coronavirus?
1. Are funerals in Australia permitted under coronavirus restrictions?
The Federal Government has restricted funerals to a maximum of 10 people. This is a significant restriction and will impact all funeral services in Australia. For the latest government information, advice and resources on COVID-19, please visit www.health.gov.au.
With the current rate at which new restrictive measures are being introduced, we should be prepared to see this limit on mourners continue to shrink, and perhaps even be banned altogether.
2. How have other countries managed funerals?
It is useful to look to other countries who are further along the curve to get a sense of what is to come for funerals in Australia.
Funerals and coronavirus in Italy
In the most extreme case, Italy has announced a blanket ban on all public gatherings, including funerals. However, despite this, some Italians have ignored the ban on funerals. In Sicily, a procession of 48 mourners was moving through the streets of Proto Empedocle when police were alerted by a passerby. Each of these mourners now faces a fine of 206 euros and even jail for up to 3 months.
Funerals and coronavirus in the US
In the US, President Donald Trump has recommended that Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. Currently, this is only a recommendation and funerals with greater numbers of mourners are still proceeding.
Funerals and coronavirus in Austria
Austria has restricted gatherings of 5 or more people, and similar restrictions are likely to follow for other European countries.
3. What is the likely impact of COVID-19 on funerals in Australia?
In Australia, we expect to see the trends we have seen in other countries around the world continue – namely, the number of people permitted at funerals and similar functions continue to get smaller until they are banned altogether.
With only 10 people permitted at funerals, this essentially means that only immediate family and perhaps a few very close friends will be able to attend.
Assuming an eventual ban comes into force, the funeral will just be arranged with the funeral director and a priest for the last rites present. In practice, these funerals would essentially be non-attended burials and cremations.
4. How will people who have died from coronavirus be treated by the funeral industry?
Fortunately, in Australia, we have only had a relatively small number of deaths due to COVID-19. However, under the Federal Government’s worst-case scenario, it is estimated that the number of Australian deaths from coronavirus could be up to 150,000.
While this forecast is a worst-case scenario, and hopefully we don’t reach anywhere near those numbers, it does raise the question of how people who have died from coronavirus will be treated by the funeral industry.
Funeral directors might refuse coronavirus victims
There have been several instances around the world where funeral directors have refused to pick up the bodies of those who have died from coronavirus. In the most widely reported incident, Luca Franzese was forced to keep the body of his sister in the house for more than 36 hours because funeral directors refused to collect her body.
These cases, however, appear to be remote incidents so far – and for the most part, funeral directors appear to be accepting coronavirus cases. In Australia, this question has not become widely tested due to the small number of deaths.
Should the need arise in Australia, we have agreed as a company that it would be our priority to survey the entire funeral market in Australia and quickly update the funeral director listings on our website to detail those who are (and are not) accepting coronavirus victims.
The possibility of mass burial pits
If the situation in Australia does get bad, another question that will need to be addressed is what to do with our dead.
Morbidly, satellite images show that Iran has been forced to build mass burial pits to deal with the sudden spike in the number of coronavirus deaths.
Meanwhile, Italy has experienced 3,760 deaths from coronavirus and their funeral industry is struggling to process this volume of deceased. Their morgues are inundated and there are lines of coffins being formed for cremation outside crematoriums.
In the cremation process, it takes over an hour for a body to be fully cremated. Running a cremator for 24 hours a day would only allow you to cremate fewer than 24 bodies per day. Put this in the context that overnight Italy reported 800 deaths and the math just doesn’t add up.
Hopefully, this is a reality that we will not have to face here in Australia. However, it is a possibility that cannot be ignored, and we should be having discussions now on how to respectfully deal with our deceased in the event that we follow a similar path to other badly affected countries.
5. What are your options for funerals in Australia amidst coronavirus?
As discussed above, with the current measures the Australian government has imposed, funerals with 10 or fewer guests are still permitted. However, this does not mean that we should not be careful and take additional precautions when organising funerals in the time of COVID-19. In fact, there are a number of very practical options that you should consider if you are arranging a funeral to minimise and prevent the spread of the virus.
One idea is to use the power of technology. Almost all funeral directors are now able to arrange a videographer to record a funeral for you, and some are even equipped to live-stream the service. This offers the opportunity for those who are unable to be physically present to virtually “attend” the funeral service from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
If you still want to have a traditional funeral service and minimise risk, you should consider holding the service in an outdoor area with plenty of room. It is currently unclear whether outdoor funerals are also limited to only 10 mourners, or if a higher number may be permitted. Indeed, the Federal Government has refused to provide a strict restriction on total numbers in groups gathering outside.
All funeral directors will be able to provide you with outdoor options for a service, whether it be at the graveside, a park, beach or other public event space. For more information on Graveside Funeral Services, see our Guide to Planning a Funeral Service.
You might also consider a green funeral – where a loved one is laid to rest in an environmentally friendly manner, be it in a green cemetery or designated bushland. This practice is becoming more common as Australians become more conscious of environmental issues. For more information about green funerals, see our Guide to Green Funerals in Australia.
Private or postponed memorial services
Another alternative that is becoming increasingly popular is the direct cremation (otherwise known as a “no service, no attendance” cremation). With a direct cremation, the funeral home will organise the cremation of your loved one and then deliver the ashes to you. You can then organise a memorial service in your own time to farewell your loved one – this might be at a park, the beach, in your own garden or anywhere else that might have been meaningful to the deceased.
Unlike traditional funerals, where the coffin and the body need to be present at the service, memorial services allow families much more flexibility. There is no time limit as to when a memorial service can take place – a service that is weeks or even months after the death would not be out of place. In the context of COVID-19, families could easily opt to hold the service with family and friends when the threat has passed and it safe to meet in person again. For more information, see our Guide to Memorial Services.
In terms of price, direct cremations are by far the most cost-effective choice for families arranging funerals. In our Funeral Prices in Australia Report, we found that the average cost of a cremation with a service was $6,053 while the average cost of a direct cremation was $3,553. However, within this average price, the difference between the cheapest and most expensive direct cremation was $7,201. This underlines the importance of shopping around and getting multiple quotes.
Gathered Here can help you get quotes from 3 funeral directors. Simply fill out the short 6-question form here to get funeral price quotes from top-rated funeral directors in your area.
In these times of social distancing and potential financial hardship for many Australians, a direct cremation is worth serious consideration, even for those who may not normally have opted for this type of funeral.
How can I prepare?
While it seems premature at this time to begin planning for the death of loved ones due solely to coronavirus, it is always a good idea to be prepared – regardless of COVID-19. Generally speaking, prepaid funerals are the best way to plan for a funeral – allowing families to lock in the funeral at today’s prices and arrange all the details upfront (rather than having to guess at what their loved one would have wanted once they have already passed away). They are a far better funeral planning option than funeral insurance and even funeral bonds.
COVID-19 represents a 1-in-100 year event that the whole world is coming to grips with. While there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding how it is going to impact many facets of our lives, at least when it comes to funerals, we are able to predict with a greater degree of confidence how they will continue to be affected, and the best ways to approach and organise funerals in the midst of its grasp.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us directly at email@example.com or leave us a message in the comments section below.
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