SETTING THE WORLD’S AGENDA
Tobin Brothers Funerals has been a world leader in dealing with COVID-19 deaths, helping write the policies and procedures first implemented in China. But no-one, including Echuca’s funeral director Sean Green, pictured, could have predicted what the pandemic would do to the industry and the rest of the world. Brayden May reports,
NOT EVEN death is immune to COVID-19.
Funeral directors across the country have been forced to change how they deal with death.
The COVID-19 pandemic means funerals are not like they were in January and they might never be again.
Tobin Brothers Funerals have been a world leader in helping shape the way forward in dealing with death.
Most notably those who have died because of COVID-19.
James MacLeod, the managing director at Tobin Brothers, helped write the policies and procedures that were first implemented in China in January.
The Chinese Funeral Association contacted Mr MacLeod after he had spoken at its conference in Wuhan two years earlier.
When the first COVID-19 death occurred in Victoria, the Tobin Brothers team was ready.
And if required, they can put the procedure into action in Echuca.
“The company felt like it was in a good position before the virus even arrived on our shores,” Mr MacLeod said.
“We purchased a significant amount of Personal Protective Equipment gear, so we were ready.
“But I don’t think anyone could have been mentally prepared for what was to come.”
And whatever was to come, Mr MacLeod said the company had a clear plan in place to use moving forward.
And it’s one it is still following as Victoria continues to battle the second wave of the virus.
“From March, we had to change virtually all of our procedures for all transfers of deceased from hospitals and other places where COVID-19 is prominent, even if the person we were transporting wasn’t a COVID-19 case, because we were going into positive zones,” Mr MacLeod said.
“We set up a COVID-19 taskforce of people on rosters just to care for COVID-19-positive cases.
“These teams were trained and wore full PPE gear when they went to transfer the deceased into our care. The gear includes scrubs, full body suit, face coverings, goggles, two sets of gloves and gumboots. All of those items are then disposed of except the boots, which are sanitised.
“We would transfer the deceased from the bed, mortuary or place of death in a zipped body bag and that bag would then be placed in a bio-seal bag which we would medically seal at the location we are transferring from.
“It would be airtight, so the virus wasn’t being transferred through hospitals and aged care facilities.
“Everything we’ve done is about keeping our staff, client families and community safe.”
Tobin Brothers has held more than 3500 funerals across Victoria and the NSW Riverland since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Australia.
More than 200 of those were for people who died from the deadly virus.
And organising services for a family’s loved one has become much more difficult.
“Let’s remember everything in dealing with a funeral — right from when a person dies to saying the final goodbye,” Mr MacLeod said.
“Whether it is meeting the family or them coming in to spend time with the deceased, there is a lot of physical contact in every process.
“Because this virus is transmitted through physical contact, we needed to review and put appropriate structures in place.
“For example, in March we moved to arranging all funerals in only our branch locations and not going to family homes. We moved to arranging services via electronic means, including Zoom and FaceTime.
“Two people have been able to meet. One funeral director and a family member. We would have other family members coming in through Zoom.
“It has completely changed the way we do things.”
While the business has had to make plenty of adjustments to its processes along the way, one of the biggest changes Tobin Brothers has undergone is its viewing process.
“I met with our senior team of embalmers who are responsible for preparing the body for viewing and we drew up a plan about how we could make it work,” Mr MacLeod said.
“They have been involved in dealing with other diseases including AIDS and hepatitis and we also brought in an infectious control professor.
“We decided that any family members who desired to see their loved ones, we would embalm them and prepare them for viewing as we would anyone who is not infectious.
“We have a room which we built some years ago which is a fully locked and sealed facility.
“We embalm all of the COVID19-positive deceased in our care in the evening shift. That way there is less exposure to staff.
“We were finding families were coming to us because other funeral directors were saying no and, in some cases, they hadn’t seen their loved ones for over a month.
“It was really important for clients’ families to have closure.”
Saying goodbye to a loved one arguably has never been more difficult in 2020, as coronavirus has limited the number of people who can attend services.
At the moment, only 10 people can attend in metro Melbourne, while there is a 20-person limit in regional Victoria.
... we had to learn to deal with this. We knew the disease was going to be here for a very long time, so we need to learn how to work with it. Tobin Brothers managing director James MacLeod
But live streaming has been a big addition to many companies.
Although Tobin Brothers has been doing that for about a decade, according to Mr MacLeod.
“The big step for us was the scale we are now doing it on,” he said.
“Previously we had only been doing a handful of live streams a week and it might be for people who were living overseas, for example. It might have meant only a handful of people were joining the webcast.
“Whereas now, each week we are doing in excess of 100 live streams right around Victoria. And we’re going out to hundreds and hundreds of people for each service.
“At times, we’ve had in excess of 1000 people on one stream.”
While the COVID-19 situation continues to change in Australia on a daily basis, Mr MacLeod said it was important the community remained flexible. Even in death. “The important thing is that we had to learn to deal with this,” he said.
“We knew the disease was going to be here for a very long time, so we need to learn how to work with it.
“The principle that we apply for every person who comes into our care is that we treat them as if they are infectious.
“We are just doing everything we can to keep the community safe.”
Tobin Brothers Funerals local director Sean Green.
A Tobin Brothers staff member wearing PPE equipment.