THERE’S a powerful scene in Channel 4 Aids pandemic drama It’s A Sin about funeral directors being scared to handle HIV patients’ bodies because they didn’t think it safe.
Jeremy Neal (57) remembers the time well. He was in his twenties and just starting out as a funeral director.
Today he is now coping with a second pandemic which has brought about huge changes to his profession — and has left an even bigger impact emotionally.
Asked how he felt last year when Coronavirus struck: “We were afraid.”
Information given to undertakers changed daily. They were initially told the virus could live on a dead body for 72 hours. A week later that changed to nine days and then later to 12 days.
“I was afraid to go near my grandchildren for five months,” he says.
The independent firm went from organising a minimum of five funerals a week to up to 20 during the first wave as deaths more than doubled.
They buried fit and healthy twenty-somethings to centenarians and resources were stretched across the borough.
“It was horrendous,” says Jeremy. “We were getting calls from Rotherham Hospital saying, ‘Get them out, we have no room’.
“They had to have a mobile mortuary unit delivered to the car park as they didn’t have enough space.”
During the first peak, Rotherham’s weekly death rate jumped from around 45 deaths to 130.
“We were working around the clock,” he says.
“We’re used to working long and unsociable hours but it was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting.
“One funeral director had to take some time off, she was struggling and had a young girl at home.”
The firm has three offices in Rotherham, each with a mortuary and a refrigeration room that can both fit around 12 bodies in each.
“We used to come in at weekends to rotate the bodies so we could keep people under refrigeration. We worked tirelessly, I’m sure every funeral director did.”
The 16-strong team split into three groups to ensure they could continue working if anyone became ill.
“At times we had between nine and 12 Covid bodies at any one time and they could be on our premises for two to three weeks because of the delays.
“I agreed with two other firms that if they found they could not work, we would do their work for them and we had to do that on a number of occasions.”
At Christmas, due to staff being affected by the virus or having to self-isolate, Jeremy ran three offices with just a secretary, four part-timers and a new starter.
He says the country, and funeral directors, were slow to react to the virus and realise the seriousness of the situation.
It first hit home in around mid-March, before the first lockdown, when he received a call from the Ministry of Defence, which was charged with coordinating the response of the bereavement services in Yorkshire.
“It was soon disseminated to councils and NHS trusts and they started calling meetings virtually to discuss a plan and how we could work together,” says Jeremy.
The lengthy death registration service was streamlined.
“Five days to register a death was changed as we didn’t have five days,” he adds. “There were so many people dying, we had to speed it up.”
Different advice was coming from central and local government about the number of mourners at funerals, as well as uncertainty from The Royal College of Pathologists around embalming.
“We were afraid, “he says. “We didn’t know what was going on. It was akin to HIV. I remember when that first became prevalent.”
Jeremy would have been in his twenties, married with two young children in the mid-1980s.
“We weren’t given enough PPE back then, we were in this instance but we were afraid,” he says.
“While everyone else was taken up with PPE shortage in the NHS, funeral directors found themselves in the thick of it.
“We paid over the odds for PPE and shared it with each other — £85 a set, it was scandalous.”
They also had to fight to get the vaccination jab.
“Opticians and dentists were put ahead of funeral directors — but I’m dealing with Covid cases on a daily basis,” he adds. “I think we were the forgotten minority.”
Locally, independent funeral directors worked together, sharing vehicles and staff.
“We’re very lucky we have around seven independent funeral directors in Rotherham. When I started in 1981 there were around four,” he adds.
The industry changed dramatically last year — funeral services were cut to half an hour, working days were extended and weekend services introduced.
“None of this is what we wanted but it was the only way as the mortuaries were stacked up,” he adds
“It was alien to funeral directors because our role is to offer sympathy, understanding and support.
“It was alien for us to tell families, ‘No, you can’t do that'.”
The hardest part for Jeremy has been not being able to sit in a room with a family to discuss their wishes — now meetings are held over Zoom or telephone.
But the new death registration service is “fantastic” — previously paperwork was ferried around the borough by hand — and webcast funerals are commonplace, becoming a micro-business of their own.
A year on, he says he can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel as infection numbers drop — but knows it is far from over.
“We have not had the deaths in this second lockdown that the south has had because South Yorkshire has been fantastic, they have really been on top of this.”
The profession understands the virus more now — adding: “It’s like HIV. We are not terrified of that anymore; we were terrified when it first came out.
“I am very proud of the staff here rising to the challenge.
“They were fearing for their lives and they carried on.”