Funerals for Covid-19 deaths more complex, say funeral services providers

Staff re-enact on Oct 22, 2021, the loading of a sealed casket if it contained the body of a person who died of Covid-19.
Staff re-enact on Oct 22, 2021, the loading of a sealed casket if it contained the body of a person who died of Covid-19.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - As the Covid-19 death toll rose in recent weeks, funeral service providers here have had to handle more complicated procedures due to infection control measures.

These measures also affect how bereaved families can conduct the last rites or bid a final farewell to their loved ones, said the providers.

The number of serious cases and deaths among Covid-19 patients has climbed in the past month, with deaths hitting an all-time daily high of 18 on Wednesday (Oct 20).

Madam Jameela Bee Md Ismail, operations manager at Jasa Budi Muslim Casket and Marble Contractor, said the company has handled five Covid-19 burials in the past two months.

She said that she has noticed one to five Covid-19 burials each day when she was at the Muslim cemetery this past month.

Mr Ang Ziqian, managing director at Ang Chin Moh Funeral Directors, told The Straits Times that the company handled five Covid-19 deaths this month, compared with none at all in September.

Mr Dennis Wong, a funeral director at The Life Celebrant, said his company has handled seven Covid-19 cases in the last two months.

"We have also received more inquiries from the family of those seriously ill with Covid-19 and at risk of dying," he added.

Meanwhile, Mr Roy Selvarajah, manager at Hindu Caskets, said that the parlour has handled three Covid-19 funerals this month, up from none last month.

As with other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and the human immunodeficiency virus, funeral companies have to comply with additional protocols when handing the remains of Covid-19 patients, said Mr Ang.

Full personal protective equipment - mask, gloves and gown - must be donned.

Mr Wong said: "Before the bodies are sent to the mortuary for collection, they are cleansed, dressed, disinfected and then double bagged."

The remains are immediately put into the casket, which is then sealed and disinfected, he added.

Hearses and transfer vehicles also need to be disinfected after use.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) told ST only funeral service providers whose staff have undergone the Basic Infection Control Course (BICC) can collect, casket and transport the remains of Covid-19 cases.

They also need to don full personal protection equipment (PPE) while doing so.

NEA added that more funeral service workers have been trained in BICC since the start of 2020, with more than 140 funeral service providers having undergone the course, up from 89 in December 2019.

At wakes, the area within 2m of a casket is cordoned off, said Mr Lee Chun Nguan of Nguan Gratitude Services.

"If a tentage is used, it must be disinfected before it is set up," said Mr Lee in Mandarin.

Hindu and Muslim ceremonies have changed as well.

According to Hindu funeral customs, the body would rest at home before being cremated. But now, in the case of Covid-19 deaths, families can no longer bring the body back to the house, said Mr Roy.

At Muslim cemeteries, the burial zones for Covid-19 deaths are demarcated for safe distancing, said Madam Jameela.

"When we arrive on-site with the body, the NEA will let us know which area has been cordoned off for the burial. No one is allowed to set foot near the cordoned-off area other than the burial staff, not even family members," she said.

"Once the body has been buried, then the family is allowed to enter the area to pay respects and do their prayers."

The added measures to ensure the safety of the bereaved and the funeral service providers have increased costs.

"Unfortunately, we have to charge families extra now," said Mr Wong.

Two weeks ago, his company began charging about $500 more for direct cremation services for Covid-19 cases, and $800 to 1,000 more for a three-day all-inclusive wake package. "This is on a cost recovery basis. We don't believe in profiteering," he said.

Likewise, Muslim burials cost more for Covid-19-related deaths, said Madam Jameela.

Normal Muslim burials usually cost around $1,500 to $1,600, while prices for a Covid-19 burial start at $2,000 and can go up to $5,000 depending on the manpower needed.

Ms Nur Azizah Mohamed Amin, managing director of Khayrat Muslim Casket, said the firm has ramped up the number of staff dealing with each Covid-19-related burial. Still, the process takes a toll on workers, who have to carry out the tasks in PPE.

"Handling the Covid-19-positive bodies involves higher risk, more heat exhaustion and discomfort," she said.

Mr Ang said the situation for his funeral service company is still manageable now.

"I wouldn't say we are stretched for now. After Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, we put in place standard operating procedures for times like this. We have PPE in place and our staff is trained adequately to handle such cases."

Nonetheless, he added: "If we fail to keep case numbers down and the death rates rise at an unacceptable rate, then we as last responders will be the next group of service providers to be overwhelmed after our hardworking healthcare professionals."