'Our staff are tired': Alberta funeral homes see demand rise as fourth wave continues

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Some funeral homes in Alberta are seeing an increase in demand during the fourth wave of COVID-19.

Kirstie Smolyk, Park Memorial president, told CTV News that many funeral homes across the province are starting to feel the effects of an increasing number of deaths.

“Our staff are tired,” Smolyk said. “(We’re) definitely busier than we were this summer.

“There’s COVID, there’s cancer, there are drug overdoses – unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of those,” she added.

In September, an emergency protocol between funeral homes and Alberta Health Services was activated twice to keep hospital morgues from surpassing capacity.

“If the capacity of the hospital morgues are maxed out, they call all the funeral homes to see how we can help,” Smolyk said.

“Within hours it was brought back to normal and everything was handled as it could have,” said David Roots, Alberta Funeral Service Association board of directors member.

From November to January, Smolyk says her staff served twice the number of families they normally do. Roots estimated funeral homes in the province experienced 20 per cent higher demand than normal, depending on the location of the facility.

As COVID-19 cases and death rates rise, Smolyk said her staff are worried.

“It’s scary,” she shared. “The medical professionals are cracking, and it’s a trickle-down effect to everyone in our whole community.

“We’re looking after people in their darkest hours when they’ve had a loss. Whatever we can do to accommodate them to make the service happen on the day they choose, and the time they choose, we’re going to continue to do so.”

Roots echoed Smolyk’s fears, adding that he’s also worried about the other types of deaths funeral homes are seeing, like drug overdoses.

“We’re definitely seeing situations occur and definitely seeing an increase in deaths and having to serve more families,” he said.

For Root and Smolyk, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the industry to adapt.

“(We’re) getting used to managing that pace and working through it,” he said. “Even as competitors within the same market, we are commonly working together to try and help families deal with some of the situations that are there.”

An unexpected issue starting to crop up for funeral homes is proof of vaccination. While mandatory in Calgary due to a city bylaw, the Restrictions Exemption Program is optional across the province.

“In some of the rural settings, we’re seeing them not elect to follow the exemption program,” Root said.

While the industry is experiencing a staff shortage now, Root told CTV News that the pandemic has brought about a 30 per cent increase in some of the funeral service courses he teaches.

“The class sizes I’m instructing,” he said, “are the largest I’ve ever seen.”