By JEFFARAH GIBSON
Tribune Features Writer
It is a common social practice for Bahamians to greet people with hugs, handshakes and sometimes high-fives. They are freely given to say hello and bid farewell. And this physical expression of affection is given not only to the living, but sometimes to the deceased as well. However, during the current coronavirus outbreak this poses a problem.
Bahamian funeral home owners and employees often witness relatives, while viewing the body of a deceased loved one, reach out physically one last timeto express love and grief. So because of this, one local funeral home is imposing the necessary restrictions to keep everyone safe.
The Curtis Memorial Mortuary is prohibiting hugging, kissing or any form of physical contact with the bodies that have been prepared for burial. The rule ensures health and safety best practices, according to Uranda Curtis, embalmer and funeral director of the mortuary. Ms Curtis operates the funeral home alongside her father, who established the Curtis Memorial Mortuary decades ago.
“It was something we never really encouraged before, but Bahamians are very warm and loving, and many of them touch and kiss deceased relatives,” she told Tribune Health.
“We are still allowing visitation and we are enforcing social distancing. You view, but do not touch. We are highly discouraging this now, and on top of that we are enforcing rules so people must wear masks when they come to the funeral homes. The masks do not allow for kissing.”
Social distancing measures are also in place to ensure the funeral home remains a safe place.
There are ongoing studies being conducted on the virus, its transmission and its impact. While the primary way of transmission is from respiratory droplets, researchers said people who have died from the new coronavirus may still be contagious after death. How long the dead body is infectious remains a question.
The warning about the potential infectiousness of dead bodies came from Won Sriwijitalai of the RVT Medical Center in Bangkok, Thailand, and Viroj Wiwanitkit of the Hainan Medical University in Haikou, China.
The research was prompted after a forensic scientist in Thailand tested positive for the virus in March, contracting it from a dead body. The scientist later died from the virus.
Like the forensic scientists who study bodies to determine cause of death, morticians are last responders in the COVID-19 fight.
Curtis Memorial has not prepared the bodies of any of the 11 Bahamians who suffered a coronavirus related death, but said they are fully prepared should the need arise.
“A lot of people are dying in their homes, so we are having first contact. They call the police and then they contact us,” said Ms Curtis.
“For us, we are not in a state of fear or panic because this is what we deal with on a consistent basis. There are other communicable diseases; you can have a case with HIV. So the thing is we are always in a state of universal precaution. We use our masks, our gloves, we have waterproof aprons, shields, and the necessary equipment to protect us. There are different types of personal gear and equipment, goggles, whatever is needed.”
In terms of sanitation, Ms Curtis said the mortuary has taken extra measures to disinfectant spaces.
“When it comes to any home removals, we are disinfecting ourselves and our staff; we are using masks, face shields, respirators... those things are standard. We operate always with a sense of safety and we want to protect ourselves as well as the families,” she said.
Ms Curtis said the nature of mortuary science means there is always a risk for morticians to be infected by communicable diseases.
For this reason, morticians must ensure best sanitation practices are carried when it comes to embalming – the process where the deceased person’s body is prepared for public viewing and burial. Special chemicals are used in this process.
“The chemicals are going to kill bacteria; they kill virus because you are going to have a public viewing, a visitation and a service. And because Bahamians are affectionate people, they sometimes touch that hand, so we are sanitizing. We have sprays, we have gels, for instance, to spray the nostrils, ears and fingernails. We bathe them, wash their hair. All of these procedures are to ensure the health and safety of all involved,” she said.