One of the worst jobs of the pandemic
James MacLeod gets a letter from a woman in his 80s whose friend had recently died.
They had been bridesmaids at each others' weddings and when it came time for her friend's funeral, she wanted to be there, just like so many other Australians across the country who have lost loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.
Victoria's Tobin Bothers Funerals, where Mr MacLeod works as managing director, made that possible through livestreaming.
"One of the positive things (to come out of the pandemic) is funerals have changed forever," he says.
"We've always felt the need we have to be physically present for a funeral.
"What this articulates is it's okay to participate in other ways. I think livestreaming will be part of funerals forever going forward."
It's one of few positives to take from the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for the funeral industry, where people facing unimaginable grief have been forced to choose who will get to say goodbye in person because of tough restrictions on guest numbers.
In Mr MacLeod's 33 years as a funeral director - and more when you count growing up with parents as funeral directors - he's never seen anything like it.
"I've seen things in my lifetime, extremely confronting things, because we knew so little about them, like caring for our first AIDS death," he says.
"I've never seen anything like COVID-19 before, in the sense of it being the first pandemic I've ever lived through that's impacted Australia as such."
Mr MacLeod has spoken at funeral conferences in Wuhan before so when the virus was ravaging China, he was asked to help the Chinese Funeral Directors Association in January.
He helped write infectious disease guidelines and sent over supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
By the time the virus hit Australia months later, Tobin Brothers knew what to do when it came to caring for a person who'd succumbed to COVID-19.
"We were well advanced beyond many in the world because we'd been working with it, studying it, from January," he says.
"When it hit late in March we were very well prepared. We got PPE in January to ensure we were ready."
'VERY PAINFUL PERIOD'
But nothing truly could have prepared the funeral industry for what was to come.
"We weren't ready - no one was ready - mentally, for what this period of time was going to bring with it," he says.
After the initial fears over contracting the virus from the dead were subdued, attention turned to how Tobin Brothers - and any company like it - would navigate holding a funeral.
"One of the most challenging things, for the health and safety of our staff, was what we soon learnt," he says. "There was a very low likelihood of contracting COVID from someone who died, it was someone who was living who was the risk.
"Then came the public gathering limitations of 10 people at a funeral. That's been the most difficult thing I've witnessed in my lifetime as a funeral director - families having to select the 10 people who can attend."
Mr MacLeod says there was a woman her in 60s who had never married but had 12 other siblings.
They applied for special consideration so all 12 siblings could attend the funeral but they were unsuccessful, so they had to split up people to attend a service at the church and at the cemetery.
"They're the sort of things we've been seeing on a daily occurrence," Mr MacLeod says.
"Death is difficult enough. Grief will be the most difficult thing one will confront in a lifetime, but to add having to pick and choose - the additional burden and pain and suffering it brings with it.
"It's been a very painful period. Unless you've been one of those families I don't think you can understand it."
Tobin Brothers had already been live streaming for a decade so going virtual wasn't difficult in itself.
But where the company used to do a handful of livestreams a week, they were doing more than 100.
And they had to get creative. With people unable to get to funerals in other states or overseas, or gather at a home to livestream one together in Victoria, they worked with funeral directors to have services for gatherings of 10, streamed back to the live event.
They connected people to other states, New Zealand and Asia.
They've provided virtual eulogies that make it feel as if the person was delivering it at the funeral, and played tributes from grandchildren.
For one livestreamed event they had 1700 people dial in.
For elderly people who have never used technology, Tobin Brothers has had several people on their help desk troubleshooting how to set up a livestream from home, having no one there to help them.
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THE 'PROFOUNDLY SAD' SILENT TRAGEDIES
Among everything Mr MacLeod and his staff have had to navigate during the pandemic has been the "silent tragedy" few openly talk about.
At one point Tobin Brothers had nine people in their care who had taken their life - one woman and eight men, aged between 21 and 43.
The coroner then came out saying suicide numbers weren't up this year - and indeed the Coroners Court of Victoria's new monthly report showed they aren't - but for Tobin Brothers the numbers were "not normal".
"They were unusually high, which is profoundly sad," he says.
"It's caught the attention of the community at least and that's to be welcomed."
Last month's report - which revealed there had been 466 suicides this year compared to 468 this time last year - marked the first of ongoing monthly public data reports on suicide from the Court, aimed at supporting safe and open conversations about suicide and prevention in the community.
It's an initiative Tobin Brothers has been advocating for for a long time, having run a suicide campaign for the past seven years.
"We're in lockdown, we've got rising unemployment, divorce rate applications are up by 275 per cent in Victoria, we've got so much uncertainty in the community," Mr MacLeod says.
"All the conditions we have are ripe for people having suicidal thoughts.
"Suicide has been a silent problem forever and a day. It's been not talked about. It's in some ways seen as taboo."
Mr MacLeod says if someone took their life on a train line or in a car it would be spoken about as a train line incident or connected to the state's road toll.
In previous years their campaign - held in August - was called #sayitnow to encourage people to talk about suicide.
"Sitting at funerals for such a long time you get to learn so much," he says.
"People will say in their eulogies, 'I never told mum this'. It's not too much good them hearing it now laying dead in the coffin for the first time.
"Don't wait until it's too late."
This year was different, with the campaign changing to #listennow.
"It was encouraging people to reach out to those in their life and listen to them," he says.
"We were seeing suicide numbers and I was perhaps more attune to them because of the environment we're living in.
"I think it's something we really need to be addressing and continuing to address because the suicide numbers today are still too high, and I'm sure they will still be high when we come out of lockdown.
"We've just got to do more to address this thing."
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare together with the National Mental Health Commission yesterday launched a website that provides more timely monitoring of suicide and self-harm data.
Previously it would take up to 18 months for statistics to be released and experts have criticised the lack of real-time monitoring.
However, it's hoped the National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring System website will soon see monthly reports provided from each state, with many already providing regular data.
The monitoring of suicide in particular has taken on a sense of urgency, with experts warning that lockdowns required to control the coronavirus, as well as huge job losses, could lead to an increase in cases.
"It's a silent tragedy that's going on and we've just got to continue to talk about it," Mr MacLeod says.
"When you see the emptiness in their faces when they come to you, when they don't have any answers. They don't get any in their lifetime.
"These poor families are left to deal with it in silence and it's just so unfair.
"If it was cancer, heart disease, leukaemia, if it was a road toll, people would say we have to do something. People are not willing to discuss it and talk about it."
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Originally published as One of the worst jobs of the pandemic