As the death rate climbs from COVID-19, what happens to the bodies of those who've died will become an increasingly pressing issue. People who have lost loved ones will have to contend with the additional trauma of not being able to give them a proper "send off", as funerals change dramatically in the short-term.
The law's treatment of human remains has always been premised on two things: respect for the dead, and public health concerns around bodily decay and risk of disease. And while all possible steps will be taken to uphold respect for the dead, in pandemics the emphasis inevitably shifts to public health.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 is the emergency legislation passed by the UK parliament to deal with an outbreak that could affect up to 80% of the UK population. The act introduces a range of sweeping powers that allow public bodies to respond to the pandemic. These and other government measures will have a significant impact on what happens to the dead and how funerals are conducted in the coming weeks and months - as I outline below:
1. Family-only funerals
As part of the lockdown introduced on March 23, funerals can still go ahead to prevent a backlog building up - but with attendance limited to immediate family.
This will make social distancing easier, protecting not only the small numbers of mourners, but also funeral directors and other cemetery staff who will play a vital role as mortality rates increase.
Of course, the emotional impact of altered funeral formats on the living will be horrendous. Closed coffins prevent families from seeing a loved one who may have died alone in hospital, or kissing them goodbye. And limiting attendance at funerals will upset relatives and friends of the deceased who cannot physically attend.
Live-streaming funerals may help - as some families are doing - but many people will feel that it's not the same - with the wider social support that funerals provide, which is such an important part of the grieving process, lost as well.
2. Death registrations
Deaths are usually registered by a family member who attends the registrar's office in person. But to allow greater flexibility as pressures on the system increase - and to curb the rate of virus transmission - the Coronavirus Act also allows funeral directors to register deaths, and for documentation to be submitted electronically.
When doctors certify the cause of death for COVID-19 victims, the rule that a second doctor must also check this and provide a confirmatory certificate has also been relaxed to speed things up. The rule was introduced after Manchester GP, Harold Shipman, was convicted in 2000 of murdering 15 of his patients and cremating their bodies (though the suspected number is over 200).
3. Scrapping inquests
Deaths by certain diseases trigger jury inquests as a matter of law. Jury members hear evidence and can return conclusions where there are questions over how the deceased died. But the act removes the legal requirement for jury inquests into confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths, since jury inquests take a long time to carry out. Delaying these inquests until after the pandemic would also be traumatic for families of COVID-19 victims.
4. Transporting, storing and dealing with bodies
Local authorities have been given extensive powers under the new act to ensure that bodies are treated with care and respect and that the system does not become overwhelmed. Examples of this have been seen elsewhere: in Bergamo, Italy, bodies had to be dispatched to other crematoria in the province when the city's own crematorium was struggling to cope.
In the UK, local authorities can now request that organisations help them transport and store bodies. Additional facilities can also be set up to handle the volume of deaths -- though it is hoped this won't involve converting an ice rink into a temporary morgue, as authorities in Madrid were forced to do when death rates soared. Increased space for graves will also be set aside and crematoria may have to increase their operating hours to cope with the influx of bodies.
Every society prides itself on how it treats its dead, and it is hoped that the more radical measures contemplated in the Coronavirus Act never have to be implemented. Yet, in a time of such fear and uncertainty, when governments worldwide are adopting emergency powers to protect their citizens, there are no guarantees. How we deal with our dead will change - and funerals, as we know them, will regrettably but necessarily, be another of our social rituals that must radically alter in the short term.
Author: Heather Conway - Professor of Property Law and Death Studies, Queen's University Belfast