Coping with Death: Covid’s Toll on British Crematoriums and Morges | Society

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When the UK’s first Covid-19 victim died on March 5, 2020, there were only 116 infections recorded in the country and few people estimated a death toll of 100,000.
But for government planners it was different. Emergency response experts charged with “mortality management” were bracing for a death toll they feared eclipsing anything seen since World War II. As the death toll rose in China and Italy, the worst-case scenario for the UK was so grim that a project put in place involved the storage of thousands of bodies in a warehouse in east London.

Another was to anchor a ship in the Thames and load it with containers suitable for holding body racks, said a senior official who worked on the plans as part of London’s “Gold Command” at the Guardian. “It was incredibly scary,” they said.

In Birmingham plans were drawn up for a mortuary in an airport hangar, in Glasgow a warehouse in an industrial estate was prepared and in Cardiff the Welsh government began to find space to contain bodies amid the fears of a death toll of 20,000 in the worst case.

Pre-prepared disaster plans to deal with pandemics, natural disasters and terrorist attacks show London had 3,500 mortuary spaces. But the capital has prepared for the virus with 12,000 additional burial places. If the cemeteries could not cope, the bodies would be frozen pending their final incarceration. Dozens of bodies were planned to be transported between storage locations in trucks at a time, the official said, a practice that risks misidentifying or even losing the dead.

There were times when the system seemed to be straining. Body bags ran out at one point and their price increased tenfold, forcing the armed forces to give up some of their reserves for battle losses.


Officials said they were grappling with unforeseen hardships, such as a backlog of bodies from the Greek Orthodox community whose families wanted them buried in Greece. This was not possible because the flights were blocked.

In April, trench pits were dug in east London at the Muslim cemetery of Eternal Gardens in Kemnal Park, south-east London, in response to high death rates and a religious mandate to bury the bodies within 24 hours. It was a shocking but rare sight and in the end the mortuary, burial and cremation facilities were stretched rather than submerged. Neither the London ship nor its warehouse was needed and the country faced the practical realities of a death toll 19% higher than the average for the previous decade. He is now being asked to respond again as officials once again deal with a sharp rise in deaths.

A temporary morgue with a capacity of 672 bodies, and more if needed, is being prepared at the Breakspear Crematorium in Hillingdon, north London, as planners in Kent, Surrey and Lincolnshire have started stockpiling the bodies in temporary marquees to create space in crowded hospital morgues. In November, Lancashire County Council erected a temporary storage unit for 210 bodies at a business park near Leyland, although it has yet to be used. In Birmingham, where Handsworth Cemetery filled up after the first wave of coronavirus deaths, Muslim plots running out the fastest, burials are being redirected to open plots at Sutton New Hall on the north end. east of town.







A temporary mortuary next to the Breakspear Crematorium in Hillingdon, north London, seen in April last year. He is preparing again as deaths increase. Photograph: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Coroner’s courts, which conduct essential death inquiries, are also late, in part because the law requires coroners to be present in court for an inquest to be conducted and many have been closed due to Covid- 19. In cases where inquiries are necessary, families cannot receive death certificates until they are concluded.

“The lockdown has meant that many inquests have had to be adjourned or postponed,” said Mark Lucraft QC, who until last fall was the chief coroner for England and Wales, in an annual report . He also said that many jury inquiries, necessary for the more complex cases, were also on hold. Lucraft called for a change in the law to allow coroners to conduct inquests remotely and allow fully virtual hearings.

If death management systems are certain to be strong, those who run them may have more difficulty. “Having gone through phase one and knowing we can cope with it, the biggest worry this time around is whether our workers get sick and have to self-isolate,” said Julie Dunk, CEO of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.

The severe restrictions on funeral arrangements had an emotional impact not only on the mourners but also on the staff, she said, including those working on the cremation machines which were used so much more than this required increased maintenance.

“It was really tough,” Dunk said. “Our sector is benevolent. No one works in cemeteries and crematoria for money because there is none. People do it because they care about the bereaved and want to provide the best possible service. The numbers were limited and it was awful.


A third of all Covid-19 cremations have been performed without anyone other than crematorium officials, according to a Sun Life Insurance study released this week.

Funeral homes are also grappling with staff absences, said Jon Levett, executive director of the National Association of Funeral Directors. “It is starting to sound very difficult,” he says. “The other thing is that the numbers over the next few weeks will only increase because we haven’t reached the top. There are concerns about what may be to come in the coming weeks. ”

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