Coronavirus: Hopes that COVID-19 level 3 will ease up 'upsetting' lockdown restrictions for funerals

Level 4 lockdown is tough for everyone, but particularly so for those coping with the grief of losing a loved one. It's also not easy for New Zealand's funeral directors, who have no choice but to tell devastated families that they can't say their final goodbyes.

According to the Government's official COVID-19 website, funeral directors are deemed as essential and are permitted to work during lockdown. However, gathering for public funeral services, tangi or private whānau tangihanga within the home is prohibited under level 4 lockdown protocol. 

Only people who lived within the same household 'bubble' as the deceased are permitted to go to the funeral home and cemetery with their loved one. Both must be within the same region as the household and physical distancing is still required. The restrictions extend to burials, cremations, memorial services, open or closed casket viewings, funeral wakes, processions and receptions, both indoors and outdoors.

Hawke's Bay-based funeral director Terry Longley says the preliminary four-week lockdown period has been tough for everyone involved. 

"It's been a pretty upsetting four weeks, not just for us as funeral directors but for the families going through all of this," he told The AM Show on Wednesday morning. 

"I think that's been one of the hardest things in our role as a funeral director - to say 'sorry, you can't come and see mum, you can't say goodbye' and 'you can't have a funeral'."

When asked if he believed the funeral restrictions had gone too far, Longley said he had to agree. 

"There's two parts to a funeral service. What we aren't really talking about is the viewing, letting people in to spend time with their loved one before the funeral service. That's what has been stopped, and up until now they've only let those in the same isolation bubble as the deceased come and see them," he explained.

"I think we really want to see that expanded. Hopefully in level 3 it will allow the wider family to come and spend time [with the deceased] before the funeral."

Level 4 will be officially lifted at 11:59pm on Monday, April 27, the country moving into the less restrictive level 3 as of Tuesday. Under level 3, there is more freedom for local businesses to get back up and running, but the vast majority of New Zealanders are still asked to remain at home as much as possible. Self-isolation bubbles may be extended to include immediate or close family, and funerals are permitted to operate with a maximum of 10 attendees.

Longley says the restrictions still make it difficult to hold a traditional funeral service, but it is a positive step forward.

"Level 3 will allow up to 10 people, which will mean the closest family members will be able to gather at the funeral home, spend time with their loved one and be able to support each other and be present together," he said.

However, embalming can buy families critical time if they are committed to having a traditional send-off. 

"Embalming has always been one of our greatest tools as funeral directors to give people time. We can embalm for a few days up to a few months. 

"We should be working closely with families and saying, 'hey, if we embalm sooner rather than later, perhaps we can have that full funeral service in a week or two', once the restrictions have eased off."