Funeral director welcomes Government U-turn on gathering limit

coronavirus 14/05/2020

Funeral directors are applauding the Government for listening to feedback and increasing the number of Kiwis who can attend services.

There was public outcry earlier this week after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that during the first stages of alert level 2 - which began on Thursday - only gatherings of up to ten people would be allowed, including at funerals and tangi. 

Funeral Directors Association President Gary Taylor told The AM Show on Tuesday he was "shocked and disappointed" by the decision, relatives of the recently dead told Newshub of their anguish, while the National Party set up a petition calling for the "inhumane" rules to be struck out.

The Government bowed to pressure on Wednesday afternoon, with Health Minister David Clark confirming up to 50 people will now be allowed at funerals if they are registered by funeral home directors with the Ministry of Health. A range of public health measures will need to be met, including having people physically distance themselves from others, no food or drink after a service and good hand hygiene. 

Taylor told The AM Show on Thursday that he was pleased with the U-turn, which came after a discussion between Government, funeral directors, iwi, and church leaders. 

"We thought it was obvious. The Government needed a little more convincing," he said.

"The Government took [our feedback] onboard and we are pleased they have revisited this."

Taylor said that unlike other events, funerals aren't something that can continually be postponed. Under alert level 4 lockdown, no one was allowed at funerals or tangi unless they were in the same household group as the deceased. Directors were forced to livestream services to wider family and friends instead.

"This is a very time-dependent event. We don't get a lot of choice around when it is going to happen, unlike weddings and things like that, which we understand are very important, but can be put off," he said.

"Getting this wrong now can have consequences for our emotions further on. Gathering together and acknowledging the deceased at the time they die, I think that is a very important part of our culture."

Asked if police could potentially break up a service or issue fines if the rules weren't being followed, Taylor said they could, but directors were working through how to "gauge the number of people" at services. 

"That might be that there is a ticket-only event, it might be that people are invited only," he said.

"I think the most important thing, and certainly this was expressed by the Government to us yesterday, we need to apply these rules with compassion and common sense. We will be looking at the ways we can monitor the attendance and ensuring that we don't upset anybody."

Prime Minister Ardern said on Wednesday that "no one wants to see" police have to break up a gathering at a funeral.

"These guidelines are in place, ultimately, because we want to protect people, and we want to make sure that no one experiences harm in their own family or in their own community."

So what if 51 people turn up at a funeral, with the additional person promising to stand metres away from others? Taylor said compassion and common sense was key. 

"The important thing there is that we would keep the register that we have that social distancing. What we find normally at funerals is that people tend to do what they are told. It is an unusual environment for them, they are looking for guidance and this will be just a little bit more guidance. We are quite happy that we can manage it."

He personally would allow an additional person to attend. 

Dr Clark said the limit of ten on funeral gatherings had been previously imposed to be consistent with other small gatherings or groups. The Government stressed the decision was in the interest of Kiwis' health, pointing to overseas examples of how outbreaks of COVID-19 have begun at these events. 

"Around the world we have seen the virus spread at funerals as well as a second wave of infection taking hold just as countries were getting on top of the virus, like we are now," Dr Clark said.

"For example, a funeral of 100 people in the US led to an outbreak resulting in 30 deaths across one county, three funerals in South Africa led to 200 cases, and 143 cases in Canada have been linked to one funeral home."