Funeral directors desperate for 'essential health worker' status

By D'Angelo Martin

A plea to the government from the Funeral Directors Association to urgently grant the sector's workers essential health worker status is still on hold.

This comes after 80 or more funerals were estimated to have been postponed in Auckland because of the city's move into alert level 3 at midnight on Sunday.

A series of discussions have been held between the association and government to find mutual grounds on granting the status to this sector but the association's chief executive, David Moger, says they've been through multiple lockdowns now and "still we have to justify ourselves".

"Funeral directors are classed as essential workers but not essential health workers. The differences are quite technical but it is still very important for us to continue serving our people and those who mourn for their loved ones," Moger says.

He says a series of issues have come forward for funeral directors in Auckland during this lockdown, as well as in previous lockdowns.

"Travel and border restrictions have been an issue for funeral directors. To transport the deceased, we have to apply for an exemption to travel, whereas if we were an essential health worker we would be automatically granted access to travel."

Long backlog

Being classed as just an essential worker has proven to have an impact on resourcing funeral homes with PPE gear from the government.

"Our members have had to supply themselves with PPE gear that they've had to buy. But in the event of a mass outbreak, we believe we should have access to the government's health service supplies and PPE gear." Moger says.

Tipene Funerals pou tikanga Mana Epiha says before Covid-19 arrived, Tipene Funerals was already backlogged with a long list of deceased bodies waiting to be farewelled by loved ones. Covid-19 meant the funeral home had to adapt and adjust accordingly.

"There was already a high number of deceased bodies in our freezers and coolers. The only difference now is that they are now overflowed and we are struggling to meet the demand. Not just Tipene Funerals but all funeral homes here in Auckland under the lockdown restrictions," Epiha says.

Epiha says funeral directors are in a sense stuck in a rut, trying to uphold tikanga Māori when it comes to tangihanga and abiding by the rules and restrictions given by the government.

"It's hard to uphold our tikanga when we have little space and flexibility to do so. As a pou tikanga I say our protocols play a huge part in the survival of what a tangihanga Māori is, and during last year and this year we have had to put that on hold." 

The sector waits patiently for the government's update on Wednesday to see if Auckland and the country's alert levels willchange.

Funeral directors have had to have sensible conversations with families in the postponing of funerals until later on this week and or possibly next week.