Online funerals, smaller wakes the ‘new normal’ for mortuary industry
MANILA, Philippines — Cremations, online funerals and wakes with a limited number of attendees to maintain physical distancing will continue to be the “new normal” in the mortuary industry even if the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila is downgraded after May 15.
Unlike other establishments forced to shut down to stop the spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), funeral homes were allowed to operate under strict guidelines issued by the Department of Health (DOH).
“We had to make adjustments after COVID-19 hit. There were some changes that we needed to do,” Rafael Jose, president of Arlington Memorial Chapels and Crematory in Quezon City, told the Inquirer.
He said that in their company’s 38 years, there were instances where they had their hands full due to tragedies like the Ozone disco fire and “Wowowee” stampede.
“We have systems in place for attending to mass fatalities but not for a virus that could kill so fast. We were overwhelmed just like hospitals with the number of cases that we had to handle on a daily basis,” he added.
There was a time, he recalled, when they were doing eight to 10 cremations daily although not all had died of COVID-19. Although their crematorium could handle around 20 bodies a day, the decision was made to limit the number to 10 a day for the staff’s protection.
Based on DOH guidelines, those who died of the coronavirus should be cremated within 12 hours. The deceased’s kin are discouraged from being present for their own safety.
“We are able to convince most families by offering to live feed the [proceedings] which are aired by our staff via Viber or FaceTime video from the crematory window. If the family still insists, we will allow only one family member in the viewing room, provide them with a personal protective equipment (PPE) suit and ask them to follow hand hygiene before and after entering the viewing room,” Jose said.
While wakes are strictly prohibited for COVID-19 victims, these are allowed for those who died of noncommunicable diseases, provided the family can present a certification from the hospital or city health officer. Attendees will be limited to 10 to ensure that social distancing is observed.
“We have to consider the number of people that we are allowing in our facilities. [It doesn’t seem as if] COVID-19 [will be gone] within the next two years. People will still be very careful when they attend visitations or wakes which means we have to space our chapels for probably half of their capacity so that we can observe the 6-feet distance between people,” Jose said. According to him, sanitation stations will be set up throughout their establishment with personnel wearing masks and gloves.
“We will also provide masks and gloves for any member of the family who do not have these for their own protection and ours as well,” he said.
While they have always kept stocks of masks and PPEs, these were used only occasionally in the past. Now, they have stored around 500 PPEs as all bodies will be treated as confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases unless there is a certification that says otherwise.
One of the biggest changes due to COVID-19, according to Jose, is how wakes are being handled.
“Online is the new norm and it might increase the number of people participating but through social media or Facebook. It will also allow families to receive friends in a new way,” he said.
The demand for funeral chapels, however, will be there because people “need to come together in a safe space where they can mourn the dead. We just need to make the proper adjustments.”
For now, the focus of the mortuary industry is to provide a service that a bereaved family needs to move forward.
“At this point, it’s very hard for us to watch families and say that you cannot see your loved ones anymore before we cremate,’’ he said.
Holding wakes and reminiscing about their loved ones are important to help them express their grief and heal, according to Jose.
“We have to do something about this moving forward so that they are at least able to gather together and receive their friends and have a fitting memorable service for their loved ones. Otherwise, we are going to have a very big problem with handling grief if we are not able to do that,” he added.
Some families have opted to postpone final interment rites, including Masses and memorial services, requesting that these be done after the lifting of the ECQ or on a significant date in the deceased’s life like a birthday or on the 40th day after their passing.
Jose said that due to the pandemic, they have had fewer burials and lower merchandise sales since most of their clients were either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.
“If the new normal will mean fewer burials, then there will be losses for the funeral homes. We are seeing that in the United States, in places like New York. They have been overwhelmed already with deaths so they are not able to cope, so what has happened is they are doing straight burials—they are putting them in caskets and burying them—or cremating them as soon as they can,” he said.
While there have been fewer burials, Arlington’s revenues have been evened out by the demand for its cremation services. “The only thing that made that happen is because we have our own crematory. A lot of the funeral homes in Metro Manila do not have their own crematory because that’s a very big investment. We were just lucky that we have been doing cremation since 2009,” Jose said.
“The economics of this, however, is not really the priority. We don’t know moving forward if it’s going to stay the same. I hope not because we don’t want any more deaths related [to COVID-19 to happen],” he said.
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.