A funeral at the Roodal Cemetary, San Fernando, in May this year.

With T&T’s COVID-19 deaths having crossed closing in on 900 (879 as of yesterday) and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) occupancy rates hovering around 98 per cent, the easy availability of burial plots and ready access to a crematorium has been virtually eliminated.

In some instances, this challenge has now led to hundreds of families having to wait for weeks before the bodies of their loved ones are disposed off.

In one case, a family whose beloved aunt died from the virus on June 1, had to settle for a virtual funeral service being held on June 14; and were forced to wait another week before the burial could be done on June 21—due to the lack of an available spot in one of a handful of approved cemeteries that are allowing such bodies to be buried within.

This, despite the edict stipulated by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in “The New Normal: Recommendations and Guidelines for Hospital Staff and Funeral Agencies in the Context of COVID-19” which states, “In accordance with Chapter 12 No 4, there should be speedy burial/cremation of the deceased. The burial/cremation should occur within 24-48 hours of the body arriving at the funeral home.”

MOH document guides funeral agencies

President of the Association of Funeral Professionals of T&T (AFPTT), Keith Belgrove said the document which was published in May 2021 by the MOH, is what now guides all funeral homes in T&T.

Apart from having adequate manpower; refrigeration facilities; the necessary vehicles; and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); Belgrove said funeral homes approved to handle COVID-19 deceased must meet the following criteria which include a full-time embalmer in its’ employ; and the embalmer(s) must possess qualifications from accredited schools in the USA, Canada, or the UK.

The AFPTT head told the Sunday Guardian, “We understood from day one that we had to manage the COVID-19 death scenario because even now, we don’t fully understand the pathology of the virus at the point of death.”

Admitting that not enough research has as yet been done in this area due to the continuing severity of the pandemic, he went on, “As such, absolute precaution is required when we are handling such deaths.”

Belgrove said even though all funeral homes were willing to handle the bodies of such deceased, the AFPTT and the MOH both, “recognised the need to limit it.”

COVID-19 burials restricted to handful of cemeteries

It is this thinking that has been guiding each Regional Health Authority (RHA) as they must conform to these guidelines.

The list of funeral homes authorised to handle COVID-19 deaths which was last updated on June 23 by the AFPTT, featured 31 agencies who have so far been granted approval.

Belgrove stressed, “The RHA’s cannot authorise a funeral home that is not on the list, to pick up and store persons who have died from COVID-19 related causes.”

Revealing the strict handling procedures governing their operations upon receipt of a COVID-19 deceased, he said, “We are not authorised to open the encasement in which we receive them. We are to place it into refrigeration for safe-keeping, and when the funeral, whether it is burial or cremation is available, we place the person into the coffin or casket and conduct a service with five persons present, not more than half an hour, and those five include the religious minister.”

Belgrove added, “If we are burying, the grave-diggers are to be in PPE, or the funeral home staff in full PPE if we are cremating.”

Challenged to find available burial plots at approved cemeteries across the country authorised to handle COVID-19 bodies, he said this decision was taken, “with good reason again because we still do not understand the organism and we want to be sure the burial will not be in a cemetery with a high water table where you can run a risk of impacting the water table of the country.”

As such, “only particular cemeteries were approved.”

They include the Carapo Public Cemetery; the Cunaripo Public Cemetery; the Marabella Public Cemetery; the Waterloo Cemetery; and the Point Fortin Public Cemetery.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 burials are scheduled at all the cemeteries. At the Carapo Public Cemetery, it is limited to four per day, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Even though this move is adding to a backlog of bodies currently awaiting disposal, Belgrove said this allows room for both burials and cremations to be done by the respective funeral home.

Regarding cremations, he said, “Funeral homes are not allowed to cremate a person who has died of COVID-19, at traditional cremation sites, largely because of the crowds that gather there.”

Utilising crematoriums in Port-of-Spain, Trincity, Arima, Sangre Grande and San Fernando, the AFPTT head went on, “These all operate at four to five capacity per day.”

And with daily deaths ranging between five and 20 per day in the last week, it will not be easy for a grieving family to calculate when and how long it will take before their loved one is laid to rest.

Embalmers risking lives; can be de-listed

Although they are not authorised to sanitise, dress and present the bodies of the deceased under the current regulations, Belgrove said many funeral homes are engaged in this dangerous practice.

He claimed, “They are doing this at great risk to themselves and the community, and we have advised them that if you are authorised and doing such things, you could be de-listed and taken off the list of authorized funeral homes.”

To the public, he indicated, “The funeral home is not authorised to open the bag and they are not authorised to dress.”

Belgrove said prior to the body being collected from the hospital, a viewing can be arranged and if this was not done, “The funeral home may open the bag to show only the face so the family member can properly identify and satisfy themselves that yes, this is the correct person.”

Families being charged by funeral homes to store bodies

Describing the cost of storing the body as a normal funeral cost a family would usually incur, Belgrove said, “With the high volume we have been experiencing, some funeral homes have been charging the families for the transportation and refrigeration from the medical institution as well.”

These rates are said to vary from agency to agency.

But Belgrove pointed out, “Most funeral homes have a reduced charge for additional refrigeration over the period of time which they will apply, because the delay is not really the family’s fault, but rather, due to the circumstances we find ourselves in, in this COVID environment.”

Briefly commenting on bodies being transported via seafaring vessels, he said maritime law was clear that a deceased must be embalmed and placed in an appropriate container.

“Because we are not allowed to open or sanitise a deceased COVID-19 body in any way, it means you cannot embalm them and as such, persons cannot be transferred between Trinidad and Tobago on any seafaring vessel, so bodies of persons from Tobago who passed in Trinidad…their service will have to be completed in Trinidad and vice versa for Tobago.”