Funeral homes warned to be prepared in advance of possible pandemic

Article By: Rob Drinkwater

One of the recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada is that funeral homes make advance plans for what to do if their staff get sick, including making arrangements with volunteers from service clubs or churches to dig graves.

Canadian health officials have extensive plans to ensure people survive a future influenza pandemic, but they’ve also made macabre recommendations for the nation’s funeral homes for those who don’t.

“In a pandemic, each individual funeral home could expect to handle about 6 months’ work w/in a 6- to 8-week period,” the Public Health Agency of Canada warns on a web page about the management of mass fatalities during a pandemic flu. “That may not be a problem in some communities, but funeral homes in larger cities may not be able to cope w/the increased demand.”

1 of the agency’s recommendations is that funeral homes make advance plans for what to do if their staff get sick, including making arrangements w/volunteers from service clubs or churches to dig graves. Storage space for corpses could also be a problem, the agency notes, & it says refrigerated trucks or ice rinks could be pressed into service if needed.

“Funeral service providers, I can assure you, throughout their history, have responded to these sorts of tragedies & would do so again to the very best of their ability,” said Allan Cole, a board member w/the Funeral Services Association of Canada & president of MacKinnon & Bowes, a company that provides services for the funeral industry.

But finding a funeral home that’s willing to talk about its own pandemic planning is difficult. The Canadian Press reached out to numerous funeral homes in several Canadian cities & asked whether they were prepared for a pandemic but not 1 returned the calls.

Cole has been serving on committees for about a decade that deal w/infectious diseases & how they affect the funeral profession. He said interest in planning rises when diseases such as SARS or Ebola are in the news but wanes when pandemics fade from the headlines. Cole said it’s also difficult for funeral homes to stock many of the extra supplies they would need if business unexpectedly picked up.

“Anything that you buy & save for some horrible eventuality, these are items that have a shelf life. You couldn’t buy, for instance, latex gloves, put them on the shelf & expect 15 years later that they’re in good condition. They simply aren’t,” Cole said. “Subsequently, for a private enterprise to go & undertake that sort of an investment for a potential community requirement would be hugely onerous & as a result, I don’t think many really embarked on any sort of a program to upgrade their inventories for some sort of potential requirement.”

The public health agency’s 2015 guide for the health sector on planning for a pandemic notes that historically, pandemics have occurred 3 to 4 times per century. However, it says there is no predictable interval. It says the last 4 pandemics demonstrated that the effect on the population can vary from low to high.

The agency says that during a pandemic, some families could experience multiple deaths at the same time, straining financial resources for high-end funerals. It recommends funeral homes stock an extra supply of inexpensive caskets.

Diseases like Ebola can spread through direct contact w/the bodily fluids of victims or corpses. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, traditional funerals, in which mourners touch the body, were a source of virus transmission.

The Canadian agency says special infection control measures are not required for the handling of people who die from influenza, as the body is not contagious after death. But mourners who attend funeral homes could be contagious & it says it would be up to provincial health officials to decide if restrictions are needed on the type & size of gatherings. The agency notes the average attendance at a visitation in Prince Edward Island is 1,000 to 1,400 people.

No special vehicle or driver’s licence is needed for transportation of the deceased, the agency states.

“Therefore, there are no restrictions on families transporting bodies of family members if they have a death certificate.”

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