The heartbreaking reality of Covid at the funeral front line and its toll on grieving families

The Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium in St Asaph boss speaks out about the terrible impact of lockdown

A North Wales crematorium manager has revealed the heartbreaking realities of life during the coronavirus pandemic – including empty chapels and mourners forced to stay two metres apart.

Grieving families are not able to hug each other for comfort and the lectern has to be disinfected after every service, such are the changes forced upon the funeral business by the global health crisis.

Nan Wynne Evans, in charge of the Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium, admits the reality on the funeral front line in the past 12 months has broken her heart.

“The overriding feeling has been sadness, watching people trying to cope with their grief while having to obey the restrictions,” she said.

“Back in April and May last year, when things got really busy with some of the first victims of the pandemic, the services in our chapel were heartbreaking.

Nan Wynne Evans is in charge of the Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium
Nan Wynne Evans is in charge of the Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium

“Sometimes there was nobody there, just a minister talking to a webcam because the family couldn’t come due to having to self isolate.

“Later on there might be only two people when normally you’d have a chapel full to give someone a proper send-off.

“It’s been really hard watching those services and listening to the stories of what’s happened through all of this.”

With the number of mourners restricted to 30 – it went as low as 10 in June last year – and social distancing measures in place, Nan says families have struggled to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic.

The current situation is, of course, in stark contrast to this time last year.

She said: “Back then, we were still having full services. I can recall one in February 2020 where there were 100 people in the chapel, 50 people in the lobby and another 100 people outside.

“Around a month later it all changed very quickly. There were a lot of enquiries for people asking, ‘Can I come to the crematorium? Can I travel to a funeral?’

“We were looking at the regulations every day to see what the government was advising at that time, but it was constantly changing.

“It was confusing and, of course, the news about the spread of the virus was really frightening.”

At the height of the pandemic, the Denbighshire site – owned and operated by thethe Memoria Group – had to pitch in to help clear the backlog when crematoria in North West England became overwhelmed.

Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium
Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium

Some of those who had chosen direct cremations, when the cremation takes place without a service, were transferred to the North Wales coast where cases were not as high.

Now, almost a year into the Covid crisis, they are allowing 26 people into the chapel and all staff use full PPE and work independently of each other to ensure safety.

Nan, 55, added: “Because people have to sit two metres apart, we can only allow two family bubbles at the front and up to 12 other people who sit separately.

“We don’t turn on the speakers outside because that could potentially encourage a larger group than the 30 that’s allowed by law.

“But grieving families who want to be together to mourn their loved one and share with their family sometimes don’t think about certain things.

“You can have families outside without masks on hugging and kissing before they go into the chapel.”

The internet has been a useful tool, with webcasts of services providing huge comfort for family members not able to travel or attend.

But there have been challenges at every turn for Nan and her team of three staff, who have now received their first doses of Covid vaccine.

She said: “There have been so many decisions to make to ensure the staff and everyone who uses the facilities stays safe.

“We realise how lucky we are to have been able to carry out our duties. You hear all the time about people losing their jobs and their livelihoods, so to be able to still work is a huge blessing.

The Garden of Remembrance at St Asaph Crematorium
The Garden of Remembrance at St Asaph Crematorium

“Regardless of the circumstances, we’ve always been able to treat the deceased and the families with dignity and respect – that’s been our overriding aim.

“We have relied on each other enormously for comfort and support, but more than anything we’ve worked together as a team.

“It’s meant lots of split shifts, early starts and late finishes – but we’ve worked really hard to ensure everything has been done.”

And the thing she’s missed most in these testing times? Those famed Welsh voices soaring in song.

“Hymns are such a big part of the traditional services we have in Wales,” said Nan. “In fact, many of the funeral directors we work with are members of choirs and often stand at the back of the chapel signing their hearts out.

“We’ve not had an organist since the start of the pandemic and it’s been strange not to hear hymns like Calon Lan and The Lord is My Shepherd which normally offer plenty of comfort to the mourners.”

The Memoria Group owns and manages 11 crematoria and memorial parks in locations throughout England and Wales.

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