Funeral homes cautious but prepared in case of pandemic deaths

Saskatchewan funeral homes say they are ready to handle a potential spike in fatalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic if required.  

"There is a robust plan in place, God forbid it happens, but we're ready," said Morgan Edwards, general manager of Saskatoon Funeral Home.

There were no deaths reported from COVID-19 among the 72 cases reported in Saskatchewan as of March 24. There had been 25 deaths across Canada by early afternoon of the same day.  

On Tuesday, an internal Saskatchewan Heath Authority draft document revealed the province's "worst-case scenario" estimates for the number of potential deaths. The document's estimate was between 9,000 and 15,000 deaths, but it document said more accurate modelling is needed. 

"Even if there was a 50 per cent error rate, we still need to do this," reads the document, referring to planning measures outlined by the SHA. 

Plan for the worst

The Funeral and Cremation Services of Saskatchewan has a pandemic plan, created in 2009 and updated in 2020, which provides guidelines for individual funeral homes.

Edwards said the plan includes protocols to handle scenarios where funeral homes are at maximum capacity. 

"This pandemic planning guide has an inventory of all the resources in the province that can be used wherever the need is," said Edwards.  

"So that is for mass casualties, proper protective equipment ... they've allowed the ability for retired funeral directors [and] embalmers to be reinstated should the need come."

The SHA planning document revealed Tuesday outlines a plan to significantly expand COVID-19 bed capacity to around 2,900 beds through the use of field hospitals at potential sites including gymnasiums, leased commercial space, community centres and arenas.

One page suggests using rinks to house casualties if required. 

Edwards said funeral directors are watching the progress of COVID-19 in other countries like the U.S. and Italy very closely.

Sandy Mahon is the registrar for The Funeral and Cremation Services Council of Saskatchewan, which created the pandemic plan.

"Funeral directors are being very careful because when you do move a body it's possible for the air to be expelled from the lungs," said Mahon.

"So the funeral directors, particularly for COVID-19 victims, are particularly cautious."

Handling capacity

The council has asked funeral homes across the province to provide information about their capacity, such as the number of bodies each facility has space for in their cooling rooms.

Mahon said most facilities have between two and 12 coolers. 

He said the council has been taking direction from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and that there are efforts from within the industry to lobby for funeral homes to be deemed an essential service. 

'We rely on each other'

David Schurr of Mourning Glory in Saskatoon feels prepared. He said funeral homes already have hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of infectious disease. 

"Every day in this funeral home, everyone is treated as if there is a contagious disease," said Schurr. 

"It's just done to protect the public and the staff, and it's still done with dignity and reverence."

Schurr said he does not believe Saskatchewan will find itself in a situation as dire as that in other countries like Italy. 

"In this industry, yes we are competitors with each other, but as colleagues when push comes to shove we can rely on each other to provide facilities, cars, staff, so I don't foresee that being a problem here."