Photo: Jamaica Observer

Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON, JA – Some undertakers say they have been making concessions for families since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but are now unable to give a commitment to absorb the full cost of extended storage should the Government stick to its decision to ban funerals and burials for two weeks.

The prohibition is expected to take effect on Monday, but funeral directors are hoping for a ninth-hour change of heart.

“We try our best to work with the families with the cost. What we have done is extended the free storage time and also reduce the per day (cost) after a certain time. We can’t totally eliminate it because it’s a huge cost to store human remains.

But we do reduce as much as possible,” managing director of Sam Isaacs Funeral Home Gordon Chuck told the Jamaica Observer.

He said a more reasonable alternative to the prohibition would be to allow burials and cremations.

“Allow the deceased to rest in peace but get rid of the gathering, which is what you’re worried about. If it (the ban) stands for the two weeks, it’s going to be very difficult. If they extend it, it’s going to be that much more difficult,” Chuck said, noting that directors anxiously await the Cabinet decision that is expected following discussions with the Government this week.

Storage costs for bodies can run between $5,000 and $15,000 daily, depending on the funeral home. Chuck said regulation is an even bigger issue which needs to be addressed to bring some order to the industry.

“Funeral homes are allowed to price whatever they want… this is a part of the big problem. So funeral directors operate on their own rules for the most part,” Chuck explained.

The average costs for a basic funeral can range from just over JA$200,000 to JA$300,000, with additional fees for extended storage, he said.

“Nobody has decided to waive fees, but what I know is that we will be as lenient as possible with the families,” head of the Jamaica Funeral Directors’ Association Melvin Honeyghan told the Observer.

The association represents about 20 of the more than 100 funeral homes across the island.

Honeyghan said any director who breaches the law should bear the brunt of it, referring to instances of large funeral gatherings, which have resulted in charges under the Disaster Risk Management Act.

“One of the directors who they charged, I’m not sorry for him… when the Government said no church funeral, straight to the grave, that was good enough for us. All of us need the business but we must ensure that we walk as close as possible to the line. Being too craven and showing that you have connections doesn’t make any sense,” he argued.

At the same time, Honeyghan lamented that the law, while necessary, should be within reason in order to foster compliance, noting that, for example, there are families with up to 18 siblings which would push the 15-person gathering outside the limits.

He stressed also that it is time to bring order to the industry, as it is currently plagued by worrying issues such as undertakers having inadequate or no storage at all thus having to make arrangements with other funeral homes to store bodies.

He said the lack of regulated standard opens the door for contamination, particularly amidst the pandemic. The undertaker claimed that in some instances funeral homes are not collecting bodies from relatives at home, but are meeting relatives at agreed points and moving bodies from one vehicle to another without sanitisation protocols.

“There is a lack of health standards. Some of them don’t even want you to know where they have the body stored. Where do you have time to wash your hands? Where do they wash their hands? So these are things that the Government needs to step into,” he insisted.

He argued that only a minority of funeral homes are what he considers “legitimate” — having actual and adequate facilities — as a vast number are mere offices or don’t have proper storage.

Honeyghan said there are some complexities which the Government may not have considered that will emerge once the prohibition comes to an end, such as bungling in cemeteries as a result of delayed burials. He said this is a recipe for further COVID spread.

With no burial orders or permits being issued, he said this also affects all activities related to the burial process, such as grave-digging, which means this, too, will be backlogged.