International Perspective: OGR international members on forced innovations they have undergone in the wake of COVID-19

OGR asked some of its international members to offer perspective on how the coronavirus pandemic has forced innovations in their cities and countries.

Arlington Memorial Chapels & Crematory – Manila, Philippines

The attack happened without warning. There were no war planes. No gunships. No soldiers nor weapons but the devastation of this war was felt everywhere. Casualties are in the millions and there is no end in sight yet. 

We are at war with the worst kind of enemy. They have mercenaries who are ruthless. They kill with no regard for age, gender or nationality. 

How do we battle an army of COVID-19 soldiers? Our world’s survival now depends on how we pivot from this pandemic.

As a funeral service provider, we are in the eye of this storm. We must adapt or die. We are forced to adjust to the needs of our clients while following restrictions imposed by the government. 

Since cremation was mandated for all COVID deaths in the Philippines and visitations were restricted to immediate family members, the majority of our clients opted to either have no visitation or to hold a virtual one. This challenged us to find ways to add value to our services—this led to our company rolling out Arlington’s Digital Services, which includes unique online streams for masses and tributes, curated musical playlists and digital guestbooks for all our client-families.

Our chapel facilities also needed to be refitted with sanitation equipment and required a new layout. Our staff needed extra PPE as well as training for virtual arrangements and services. We are forced to decline mass gatherings and limit our engagement with family members to the minimum.

This is not how we are used to doing business, but it is a good time to re-think our future and evolve as the challenges continue to change the landscape. --Bettina Jose

Nelson Bros. Funeral Services – Melbourne, Australia

In Melbourne, Australia, we remain under a tight lockdown. Only essential services may open, citizens are limited to 5km travel from home, schools are closed (home learning only) and we are limited to 2 hours outside of our homes a day, accompanied by only one person. Funerals are permitted, but with a maximum of 10 mourners. Since the start of 2020, we have had over 250 days with that same limit. For an additional 80 days, we were permitted to have up to 20 at a funeral. It’s been devastating for families who have lost a family member.

The flip side of the severe loss of liberties created by these strict public health directives is that we have had very few COVID deaths - only 1,100 across the entire nation since the start of the pandemic. The health directives have meant we've had almost no flu cases, and our overall death rate has fallen in 2020-21.

Our client families have been forced to have very basic, small services. They have been disenchanted to have a meaningful event with friends and other mourners in support. Pre-COVID, the vast majority of funerals at any of our five funeral homes would be followed by full catering in our reception rooms, an opportunity for those attending to share stories, memories and be together. Restrictions have completely halted this.

Off the road are our fleet of black Rolls Royce coaches in which we would transport the family. The hearses of course are still used, but our Rolls Royce fleet is such a feature of our business, it is disappointing not being able to offer it.

The biggest permanent change to our business is the adoption of technology by our client families. Our website has had Tribute Walls with links to webcasting for a number of years. However, the uptake had been incredibly slow, despite our encouragement. Virtually overnight, families were forced into using the technology and have fully embraced it. Our Tribute Walls are full of messages and photos, and we have had more than 45,000 viewers of our funerals from over 80 different countries around the world. --Adrian Nelson

PMR Post Mortem Restituo Sweden AB – Malmoe, Sweden

The past year has meant major changes for most funeral homes in Sweden. From early in the pandemic, funeral homes have quickly had to adapt to the new everyday life to meet both restrictions and customer demand and needs.

That included funeral homes early on choosing to offer livestreamed funerals, something that has turned out to be very popular with the customers. Today, approximately 20% choose livestreaming when they order a funeral.

Thanks to creative ideas like this, the business has been able to solve many obstacles.

In addition to livestreamed funerals, the new way of life has also led to a lot of other changes within the funeral industry. There is no doubt the digital ideas we see in the industry are here to stay. 

The number of digital memory pages increased at the same time as the number of traditional obituaries declined markedly. That's because many newspapers received more subscribers to their digital edition compared to the physical one.

More than half of our customers choose a digital memory page these days. Despite the digitization that has been both decisive and appreciated during the pandemic, there still is a strong need among many customers for in-person services. I think it is very important to offer the possibility of a physical meeting if the situation allows it. --Kristina Lindmark

Digital options that people in general hadn't requested before the pandemic have become quite popular, like livestreaming, online services and more. We can also see that the requests for these services decreased at the same time we were able to start offering in-person funerals again.

We have had two spikes of COVID-19 cases in Sweden so far. During the first, families were unprepared and the rate of direct disposition cremation cases increased a lot. At the second peak, customers had adapted to the situation and we still had more traditional funeral services, though with fewer attendees.

For our staff, the best thing we could do was to protect ourselves. We haven’t had any extreme number of deaths, but we are trending about 10% higher than a normal year. --Jimmy Serler

This message was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Independent® magazineClick here to read the entire issue.

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