Of all the restrictions placed on Manitobans during the pandemic, those that restrict funerals and those grieving the loss of a loved one may be the most damaging of them all.
"The health of people is my concern, the wellness of people, their mental wellness, which plays out physically, emotionally, spiritually. Those restrictions that are in place right now, I’m finding are detrimental to people’s mental health," said David Klassen, a funeral director with Braendle-Bruce Funeral Service in Russell.
Klassen noted an Alberta funeral that took place last year, where many people contracted COVID-19. But, he said, the funeral was not governed by a funeral director.
"The families did it on their own. There are some, there are very few, but there are some communities where funeral directors aren’t actually present at the ceremony and the burial," he said.
"Kevin (Sweryd) from MFSA (Manitoba Funeral Service Association) will quickly tell you that best practices as far as funeral directors is that we’re promoting the health guidelines."
In fact, Sweryd, who is president of the association, has been trying to get basic answers from a variety of government agencies for almost a year.
In a document provided to The Brandon Sun, Sweryd questions the internal logic of the orders with regards to funeral homes and churches.
"I can go to a church service on Sunday and attend with 100 people. But, on Monday, if a member of the exact same church has to have a (funeral) service for his wife at the exact same church 24 hours later, then it is only safe to have 10 people in the exact same space," Sweryd states.
He also wonders why funeral gatherings are restricted to 10 people while other businesses with far fewer safety protocols in place are allowed 25 per cent of their capacity, without tracking, without contact lists and very little management of crowd flow to ensure that there is adequate distancing.
Currently the public orders state that up to 10 persons, other than the officiant and a photographer or videographer, may attend a wedding or funeral if the operator of the premises where the wedding or funeral takes place implements measures to ensure that all persons attending are reasonably able to maintain a separation of at least two metres from other persons at the wedding or funeral.
Meanwhile, for worship, the orders state churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship may open to hold regular religious services if (a) the number of persons attending a service does not exceed 25 per cent of the usual capacity of the premises or 100 persons, whichever is lower.
"Funerals can be conducted safely. We can keep contact lists and we can have proper social distancing in our chapels. What is the reason for treating our profession differently?" asked Sweryd.
He stated he has asked this question of the previous health minister, the MECC (Manitoba Emergency Co-ordination Centre), Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister.
"I have been asking this question for almost a year. And I have not received even the courtesy of a reply that I can share with our membership," he stated.
Klassen recalled one situation where a woman called three days after she had been in Braendle-Bruce’s, then tested positive for COVID-19. Staff went back through their contact information, determining who had been working and who might have been in contact with her.
"We called the public health office and explained the situation. What do we do now? What are the protocols? And, they ask the question, ‘Was anybody within six feet of her, unmasked, for 15 minutes?’ Of course, nobody was. Everybody was masked throughout the whole time. So they actually told us that that wasn’t considered contact," said Klassen.
"We were allowed to continue operating, nobody ever developed symptoms. There was no follow from that."
Public health orders relating to gathering, consistently group weddings and funerals together, including the orders dated March 4.
Klassen objects because gathering for a funeral is unlike any other type of gathering.
"It’s not the same as a wedding. It’s far from the same as a wedding. The wedding can be planned at any time and everybody can change their plans. But a funeral happens only when someone dies. And immediately, grief takes over. Grief can’t be put on hold. Grief starts immediately, with a loss," he said.
He added we face all sorts of losses — divorce, loss of a job, for example. The process of grief is very similar, but grief of loss through death is irreversible. A person can get another spouse, another job.
"But you can’t establish that same relationship with a deceased spouse or a parent or a child," said Klassen.
When the strictest restrictions were announced, Braendle-Bruce adapted with livestreaming — a practice the company will likely continue even after the pandemic for far-flung relatives. But it’s not the same as being physically in a room.
"In the last little while, we handled the funeral service for a young mother, a 38-year-old wife, mother (of four), and of course her parents are still living, her in-laws are still living. She became ill with cancer and her death was way more premature than they anticipated with her illness," said Klassen.
"How do you choose 10 people to be at that funeral? In that situation, there would have been 500 people at the funeral. You’re gathering with a family that’s waiting to begin a service where they’re walking into a church or a hall and just warmed by the fact that there are 450 people physically there to help participate in a memorialization and in the compassion of being together with this family who desperately is hurting, as well as all the other 450 people that are there.
"And now what we have to do is just walk into a big empty facility. Nobody there. The only ones there are the cameraman, the minister and the organist."
Klassen said it weighs heavy.
In the last while, funeral services have had the ability to rotate. As one person leaves, another goes in. That happened after Klassen observed people rotating in and out of Tim Hortons. He spoke with MLAs and a provincial minister.
"It’s fantastic. We need coffee. I said to them, why is it more important for people to be able to rotate in and out of Tim Hortons? Not diminishing the need to have coffee, OK, by any means. But why can’t people at least rotate in and out of the funeral home?" asked Klassen.
That helped improve the situation, involving more people in the funeral service.
Braendle-Bruce has handled roughly 250 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Add to that number, in the Westman/Prairie Mountain Health region, another two dozen funeral service providers. That’s a lot of grief.
Some postpone the service, as public health officials have suggested, but Klassen said when grief doesn’t start out properly, it becomes dysfunctional, which will cause more strain on society down the road.
The restriction on gathering outdoors are just as onerous and, when applied to the graveside, is also incomprehensible to Klassen.
"A funeral service is very different than your weekend barbecue with your neighbours," he said. "The weekend barbecue, you can have any night of the week and as many times in a year as you want. But a graveside service to say that only 10 people can be in a space that’s 100 acres — that just doesn’t make sense."
Braendle-Bruce serves several First Nations, and one chief said to Klassen, "Where’s the common sense?"
With regard to First Nations, Klassen said there is always someone from the community designated to work with Braendle-Bruce to regulate the protocols of the public orders.
"So they’ve established within their own community a leader to promote or encourage people to follow the guidelines," he said.
While he said he has the utmost respect for those in the position of authority and responsibility, Klassen said he and others in his profession would like direct communication with Manitoba Public Health.
"They’re doing the best they can, but what I’d like to see is a liaison between funeral service, those that are involved in it directly, and the public health office. I see a lot of people are able to communicate directly with the public health office, and then establish guidelines and protocols that are suitable for each different segment of society," said Klassen.
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun