Archbishop Makarios released a communique on Monday calling for changes to church services to restrict the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, including in the way in which sacraments are carried out. “I urge and plead with our faithful to restrict the number of people participating in Sacraments and funerals,” he said. “They are to occur only with close and immediate family members,” he wrote.

Chris and Maria Stamelos, owners of Victoria Funerals, are one of the businesses directly affected by the coronavirus pandemic and they have seen first-hand how difficult it is for people in grief to conform to both the religious and political directives.

Victoria Funerals are urging parishioners to comply with best practices by minimising the number of mourners attending funerals for as long as the pandemic continues. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that those infected with Covid-19 can infect others around them before they show any symptoms.

“The biggest problem we have encountered over the last couple of weeks has been the management of mourners attending the funerals,” Mr Stamelos told Neos Kosmos.

The Stamelos couple would like to see greater education about coronavirus as there is currently the false view that those who don’t feel sick assume they are not infected, however people may be infectious without showing symptoms.

“We need to consider what this will mean for funerals in the coming weeks and months,” Mr Stamelos said. We are responsible for the wellbeing of our staff, the families that we look after in their time of grief and the mourners attending our funerals. Measures have been put in place to protect the community and hopefully restrict the spread of the virus but as we have come to realise while observing the funerals over the last couple of weeks, our job is going to be much harder than we anticipated. To be effective we will need the support and co-operation of the community.”

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Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  “At one of our funerals this week the priest announced that in keeping with the government’s directive of no physical contact, the family did not wish to receive condolences,” he said. “They would remove themselves from the Church and the mourners were to file past the coffin to offer their respects to the deceased. When the family was removed to another room the mourners followed them and filed past to shake their hands in contravention of the ‘no physical contact’ request, forcefully conducting the condolences away from the usual location of the first pew in the Church. One mourner at Church said ‘I’ve lived through the Occupation and famine, this virus is nothing’. Unfortunately some members of the community feel this way and they will be putting others at risk because of this attitude.”

At another funeral, family members requested that mourners walk past the family and bow instead of shaking hands though some mourners broke down and kissed and hugged the family. “The family were denied their request to protect themselves and by the forcefulness of the mourners, were not given the opportunity to refuse hugs and kisses,” he said.

Churches are varied in their approach to funerals. Some have enforced a ‘row by row’ method of lining up to offer condolences though these are limited. Most mourners they have seen do not adhere to the ‘one metre social distance’ directive.

Georgia Morakis from Morakis Funerals has had a similar experience. “As Greek Orthodox Christians, we have different customs. It is difficult to tell mourners not to pay their respects to the family during the funeral,” she told Neos Kosmos. 

Funeral service providers, such as the Stamelos couple, are also concerned as the virus may persist on surfaces for several days. Victoria Funerals has a mortuary on their premises so they have always used hospital grade disinfectants however in view of the current pandemic they have upgraded from anti-bacterial to ant-viral products that kill the coronavirus.

“We are fortunate to have the required 70 per cent alcohol-based surface sanitisers at our disposal at a time when supplies are depleted and we have been using these as a preventative measure against the coronavirus,” Mr Stamelos said. “The only way to stop the spread of the virus within our premises is to frequently sanitise any surfaces that have been touched by the public. As a precaution we have temporarily stopped funerals and viewings in our Chapel as it’s impossible to be sanitising every surface in our building after every funeral or trisagio.”

The Infectious Diseases Prevention Plan currently implemented by Victoria Funerals ensures the protection of staff and client families with the following preventative measures. These include sanitising all walls and surfaces of the funeral home; calling the public entering the premises to limit the surfaces they touch; sanitise delivery items before these are unpacked; return coffins to Victoria Funerals after the trisagio in church; sanitise the coffin to make it safe for the pallbearers who carry the coffin; sanitise vehicles for the family before and after use.

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“We all need to work together with dedication and commitment to protect ourselves and our loved ones,” Ms Stamelos said. “As we all know, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. We can offer every measure of protection on funerals but at the end of the day, it’s your choice whether you accept the preventative measures or not, at your own peril and unfortunately at the peril of those around you and those closest to you: your parents, children and grandchildren. Do you want to live with that on your conscience?”