Pandemic driving some families to put off burying loved ones

Families waiting to see when the emergency orders will end, allowing them to have customary funerals for their loved ones, are causing the huge backlog of bodies at the morgue at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), according to some funeral directors.

Health officials said on Monday the morgue was designed to hold around 55 bodies, but is currently at nearly three times its capacity. The Public Hospitals Authority (PHA) provided new figures yesterday.

It said the morgue at PMH has “an excess of over 150 bodies in storage, well beyond its maximum capacity of 66”.

The PHA said it is doing all within its capacity to facilitate the holding of unclaimed bodies, bodies that are pending release and bodies that are under investigation by the coroner.

Minister of Health Renward Wells on Monday urged families to collect the bodies of loved ones and warned that funeral homes would be charged storage fees if the situation is not soon resolved. 

Matthew Sweeting, owner of Commonwealth Funeral Home on Independence Drive, said one of the main challenges faced by funeral homes during the pandemic is the delayed funerals caused by family members.

“…What people did was a lot of people started going back to not having the funerals,” Sweeting said.

“That there creates a problem where the funeral homes will be overwhelmed because they may have 10 bodies in the funeral home and another five in the morgue because they are running out of space because people are postponing funerals, so hence the morgue becomes the storage facility until space can be made at the funeral home.” 

He added, “That started from March when the first set of orders were sent out in reference to funerals where you are only allowed 10 people at the funeral.

“They started postponing funerals. There were people who died in April that were not buried until July. In June, they started to relax the process.

“When they started to relax the process in June, there were people that died in April and they were buried in July and there were people dying before that. People were delaying or postponing funerals because of the numbers of people [allowed at funerals].”

According to the current emergency orders, funerals held on New Providence, Grand Bahama and other islands listed in the second schedule grouping of the emergency order are to be conducted only at the graveside and are limited to 10 individuals, not including the officiant and mortuary workers.

Funeral Director of Emerald Memorial Mortuary Wendell Dean II said on Tuesday that the morgue’s legal fees are not new to morticians.

“It’s simply a matter of public education and I think over the years we have fallen down in educating the public on the system that governs and controls us,” Dean said.

“The storage fees thing that was put in place, that was relaxed and all that other stuff.”

Dean added, “…Because the storage has been relaxed, they have decided not to enforce the policy. I think what has gone back to happening is a level of abuse. When you don’t enforce policy, this is what happens.

“The rule is I have all the releases for your loved ones; I have a certain timeline to get up there as quickly as possible, 24 hours, but each case and circumstances are different and have to go through processing.”

Sweeting said he is prepared to pay any fees if he is at fault for not collecting bodies from the morgue.

“What he (the minister) is speaking of, maybe sometimes I have known it to happen, whereby bodies are ready and perhaps the funeral homes don’t come to collect them,” he said.

“So, if that is the case, definitely the funeral homes should pay. If I’m in a situation and this arises and I’m involved in it, I will own up to it.”

Denalee Penn-Mackey, managing director of Evergreen Mortuary, said the overcapacity at the morgue is not an issue caused solely by funeral homes.

“Anytime a family comes and they contract our services, we are out to get those people out of the morgue as quickly as we can,” Penn-Mackey said.

“All of the funeral homes know the refrigeration at the morgue is not operating at its highest standard. The refrigerator is not working and bodies are breaking down.”

The PHA said yesterday that while it attempts to mitigate its limited storage capacity with the use of a temporary repository, the increasing number of bodies threatens morgue operations.

“Recently and regrettably, the overflow conditions compromised the integrity of a body in long-term storage,” it said.

Sweeting noted on Tuesday that some families are facing a rough economic situation due to the pandemic.

“I think the main reason is that people are unemployed and they want the best for their loved ones, so they try to seek out funds and those who are planning funerals are probably just waiting until more people are allowed to come to the service because you know some of the children [are] more than 10 people,” he said.

“They would not want their loved one to go with only 10 people.”

Dean, who has been in the industry for 40 years, noted that families of deceased individuals in some instances do not contact the funeral homes right away.

“In this COVID-19 environment and this pandemic, the normal way of doing this in The Bahamas and in the world has changed,” he said.

“When people are now making decisions, they are not making the decisions as quickly as they ought to in connecting with the funeral home.”

Despite this, he said, funeral homes should ensure that bodies are collected in a timely manner.

“The responsibility is still on the funeral home once they have been given the proper authorization from the legal next of kin,” Dean said. “The funeral home has a responsibility to make sure that they follow the process and carry out the service that they have been given to take care of.”

Sweeting added that with the reopening of the country, funerals should be allowed in churches.

“Once they follow the proper health protocols,” he said.

“I’ll make an example, some [churches] like St. Agnes Anglican Church or Christ Church Cathedral, you can have as [many] as 40 people because they are very big.

“You can implement social distancing. We always do that with our ushers. We use our hand sanitizers at the door. You wear your mask. [There’s] no reason why 30 or 40 people can’t sit in a big church because the churches have aisles. I think that’s coming on stream soon, but we are still doing the graveyard services.”

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Italia Clarke

Italia Clarke joined the Nassau Guardian in August 2020. Clarke covers national, human interest and social issues. Education: University of The Bahamas, BA in Media Journalism

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