Unsung Heroes: Coychurch Crematorium, cemeteries and register office staff

They have been there at one of the most painful and heart-breaking times for families over the last two months – helping those who have lost their loved ones say a final goodbye in the middle of a pandemic.

With many people having been unable to visit their relatives in hospital or care homes before they died due to the pandemic restrictions, the number of mourners strictly limited to just 10 and funerals only being allowed to take place at a crematorium or at the graveside, there’s been additional worry and stress at an already agonising time for families.

For those working in bereavement services, at Coychurch Crematorium and council-maintained cemeteries across the county borough, staff are used to providing a sensitive and professional service, helping families navigate through very difficult periods in their lives.

But amid the uncertainty and restrictions of the pandemic, staff have done so while adapting to both major changes in regulations and a significant increase in funerals.

Bereavement services manager Joanna Hamilton said: “Our role has been to ensure families are having a rewarding and fulfilling funeral service as if there wasn’t a pandemic happening.

“It’s been an extremely challenging time – for families, they have lost their loved one in the most tragic circumstances. A lot of them haven’t been able to say a proper goodbye to them in hospital because of coronavirus and then there’s the restriction in numbers at a funeral service and social distancing in place.

“We provide our service in the most sensitive way under normal circumstances, that’s our role, but there is even more need to ensure bereaved families are as comfortable as possible at the moment.

“Most people have just been extremely grateful that the service is operating and they’ve been able to attend a funeral with a minister in attendance and say a final goodbye in an intimate environment.”

Joanna who has managed the crematorium for 22 years said her main priority has been keeping everyone safe so staff are able to come to work and families attending services remain safe from transmission of Covid-19.

She said: “We have always had a pandemic plan, there were times when we thought we would have to use it in the past with bird flu and swine flu. But while we had planned for it, the reality is we never thought we would face anything like this.

“It happened so quickly – literally within weeks we went from ‘it can’t happen’ to being in the thick of it where deaths were happening every day, in hospitals and nursing homes, and funeral directors were phoning us all the time.

“We had to implement new regulations for medical certification, bring in social distancing and ensure that bereaved families felt as comfortable as possible in the new environment. It’s certainly been a difficult and highly pressured time but staff have really responded to the challenge.”

As the pandemic progressed, specific crematorium regulations were brought in by Welsh Government which dictated how services could operate under pandemic conditions.

At Coychurch Crematorium, around 14 funerals have been taking place on a daily basis at a time of year when seven or eight would be expected.

Due to the specialist nature of the work, two additional cremation technicians are being trained, having been redeployed from other areas of the local authority. They will be used to provide additional support should staff fall unwell.

Cemetery staff have also continued to carry out their own vital role in the 14 cemeteries and churchyards across the county borough.

Joanna said: “Within the constraints of social-distancing requirements the cemeteries staff have done a wonderful job in keeping cemeteries maintained and undertaking burials with family attendance while being sensitive to the needs of those visiting the cemetery.

“The key thing is everything has gone on as it should. The staff have been wonderful – because we aren’t a big team, we are like a family and everybody is just working together united against the virus, trying to help families have a service that looks to all intents and purposes as it would do under normal circumstances.”

Between March 23 and May 26, around 400 deaths were registered by the Bridgend Register Office. For the same period last year, about 320 deaths were registered. All have been registered by a small team usually based at the Bridgend Register Office but now working from home.

Present at the most significant moments in life, registrars register births, marriages and deaths. The team also deal with replacement certificates and undertake citizenship ceremonies.

But with births not being registered during the lockdown and marriages having to be postponed until October, registrars’ time has been primarily spent registering deaths.

Superintendent registrar Lucy Bratcher said: “Our service is usually face-to-face and we experience all the significant moments of life for people, we really miss that side of things, it’s a different rapport you need to build over the phone.

“The government changed the law during the pandemic so for the first time in history deaths could be registered over the phone.

“When someone has passed away, a family member normally has to go and pick up the death certificate from hospital or GP surgery and then ring us to make an appointment and they come in.

“Instead, now, the hospitals or surgeries are scanning in the death certificate and emailing it to us directly – we then contact the family member or next of kin and scan the document to the undertakers.

“Working from home you miss the moral support your colleagues can help provide – registering a particularly emotional death can take its toll and with there being no births, every day is about registering deaths. There have been long hours and it’s been very stressful but the team have done an amazing job.”

Over 400 births in Bridgend county borough have not been registered due to the lockdown and more than 200 weddings have been affected. Registrars have been working closely with those involved to rearrange wedding services.

Lucy said: “Most people are going for next year when it comes to weddings so they haven’t got the worry or anxiety if it’s still not possible in October. There’s already pre-existing weddings next year, it will be busy.”

On top of the changes in working environments and workloads, Lucy who has been with the service for 19 years, is also managing the relocation of the register office from Ty’r Ardd to the civic offices. Due to have taken place at the end of April, it is now expected to take place sometime in the summer.

The Leader, Cllr Huw David, said: “The work of staff in bereavement services and the register office is absolutely essential, and they have played an important role in supporting our local communities during the pandemic.

“Their continued dedication and support for those who have lost their loved ones in very distressing circumstances is greatly appreciated.”