'We live in fear every day': French funerals in the time of the coronavirus

At high risk of exposure to Covid-19, funeral professionals are concerned about working without protective masks.
At high risk of exposure to Covid-19, funeral professionals are concerned about working without protective masks. © Carolynabooth, Pixabay

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across France, funeral home directors face the delicate task of protecting their staff while supporting grieving families, all while the country remains in lockdown.   


Over the last two weeks, Baptiste Santilly, director of the funeral home that bears his name, has recorded a 40% increase in the number of burials that his firm has dealt with. "We've handled 26 cases directly linked to COVID-19, which is huge compared to the total number of deaths," he told FRANCE 24.

As France tackles its worst health crisis in a century, funeral counsellors, porters, embalmers – who prepare the bodies before burial – and crematorium operators now find themselves on the frontline of the pandemic. 

However, funeral directors are increasingly concerned by new measures for preparing bodies and a lack of necessary protective equipment for staff.

End to immediate coffin closing

"It's madness," admits Franck Vasseur, director of the funeral home L'Autre Rive (The Other Bank), which has two branches, in Paris and Lyon. Vasseur’s company, like many others, is trying to cope with a significant increase in burials linked to COVID-19.

"It's an evolving situation," he says, referring to the latest stipulations about the necessary sanitary conditions for funerals of coronavirus-related deaths.

Until March 24, the recommendations from the French High Council for Public Health (HCSP) were led by a concern for safety first. There was to be no mortuary preparation of the body, no presentation of the deceased to the family and an immediate closure of the coffin. 

These strict instructions have now been somewhat relaxed. Embalming is now permitted to take place and family members are allowed to see their deceased relatives.

The rules were relaxed because the HCSP claimed that potential transmission of the virus was reduced after a patient's death. "Relatives can now see the face of the deceased person in the hospital, mortuary or funeral room, if they respect the barrier measures", the HSCP said in a press release.

In practice, however, many professionals in the funeral sector are refusing to comply. "We're totally opposed to it because otherwise, in a week's time, there won't be any more staff to bury people," says Vasseur. He explains that his company's policy will still be that of immediate burial (without presenting the body to the family) with the coffin deposited directly in a funeral home while awaiting the funeral.

Santilly has chosen to follow the same policy. "I won't change my way of doing things," says the funeral director, who has nine agencies in the Île-de-France region and the neighbouring Oise department, where the main cluster of French cases first emerged.

"I want to look after my employees because we don't really know whether a body remains highly infectious or is less so than when the patient was alive," he continues.

‘We live in fear every day’

Funeral directors are also struggling to protect their already under-equipped staff to limit the spread of the virus.

"We believe that our staff are not receiving sufficient protection because this is not considered to be a medical profession," says Vasseur. "We have absolutely nothing. We have three lousy masks, but we are a team of five and we have to constantly engage with the public."

Funeral workers are not on the list for “priority" access to masks. "It's quite distressing," agrees Santilly. "Normally when we go to collect someone who has died from COVID-19, we wear special equipment: a protective suit, a hat, a mask, glasses and plastic overshoes. But it's very difficult to get hold of these and we don't have enough equipment. I just hope the state will make things available to us very soon.”

Since their work involves direct and prolonged contact with the deceased, many embalmers have also demanded their right to refuse to practise. "They don't even want to intervene to remove pacemakers, which is normally a compulsory procedure for cremation or burial," adds Santilly. But he says he supports this refusal because he wants to protect his employees.

His company has also put in place a number of additional measures to safeguard customers and employees, including gloves, disposable pens and plastic screens between clients and staff.

"At the moment, we receive quite a few families who have been in contact with a person who has died from COVID-19 or who are themselves infected," he explains. "We live in fear every day."

Moreover, the two funeral homes contacted by FRANCE 24 said that appointments at their agencies are limited to three people (two family members of the deceased and a funeral counsellor). This has now been reduced to just one family member if it is the funeral of someone who has died from COVID-19. 

It’s a necessary but nevertheless difficult measure, according to Vasseur. "It's tricky to have to force people to stay outside."

‘Maintaining empathy is complicated’

All of these restrictions also apply to the cremation and burial procedures. "It's not possible to have a ceremony at the crematorium, only technical acts can be performed there now. The coffin is placed in the crematorium and the cremation takes place without the family's presence," explains Vasseur.

Churches, for their part, have limited the number of people who can attend religious ceremonies to 20 and insist that social distancing measures be respected in a bid to avoid infections. Cemeteries adhere to the same policy, where the number of people allowed to visit is often capped at ten.

All of these measures further complicate the long grieving process that families go through when they lose a loved one. In recent weeks, of the 65 funerals handled by his company, Santilly says he has seen about 20 without any family attending at all.

"Either people were already infected themselves or they were too afraid to leave their homes," he explains. To try to help people feel that they can still be present at such a critical family moment, Santilly has begun filming the funerals to reassure families that everything went well.

The funeral companies admit it can be difficult to maintain a human element to their services in these troubled times. "No funeral assistant is ready for this," says Santilly. "We must respect security measures, social distancing... Of course there is still empathy, but it's very complicated."

"We're under stress. It's a lot of work, but we're doing everything we can to do it correctly," agrees Vasseur. "It's our job," he says. "And it's not just about putting people in a box and closing it."

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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