'This room was full of coffins': Funeral directors and volunteers work non-stop amid soaring burials

If you want to count the cost of coronavirus on one community, you'd need look no further than the storage room at Manchester Central Mosque.

Just a few days ago, it was full of coffins.

Now, there are only a handful left - the empty spaces a palpable reminder of the losses the congregation has suffered in just a few days.

This room was full of coffins just days ago.

We had five rows of thirteen, and now there are only a handful left . That's the volume of deaths that we're having to deal with. I think it hits home more when you come in here, and every day you're picking coffins out...It's a loved one lost, another family grieving, and there are too many.

Hammad Khan, President of Manchester Central Mosque

Over the last 12 months, the mosque has carried out 40% more burials than the year before.

The President says they're seeing younger and younger people lose their lives to the disease - and it's putting an unprecedented demand on the volunteers who step up to prepare the dead for burial - carrying out the bathing and shrouding of the deceased.

"I think last Friday I was at that point where I didn't see how we could get through this week, we were so stretched. I had to ask for more people and 15 volunteers came at the drop of a hat", said Hammad Khan.

"Words cannot express how grateful I am to them. It takes someone I think with a lot of bravery to come out and do anything like this."

Three people helped with burials here before the pandemic - now, they have a team of 22.

It is compassionate work - sacred work - but it also takes considerable skill. The volunteers have to be trained to work in full PPE, and now they're seeing first hand the immense pressure the NHS is under.

Some of the deceased are arriving with medical equipment still attached.

This is work on the final front of the frontline.

New research from The National Association of Funeral Directors shows the pressure building on this sector:

  • a workforce of 20,000 is now dealing with 30% increase in services compared with what’s expected in January

  • Waiting times for a funeral vary around the UK, but can now be as long as 5 weeks

  • Mortuary space is a “real challenge" with some funeral directors reporting “zero capacity”

Despite the ongoing restrictions, religious leaders, volunteer groups and funeral directors are still working to bring comfort to the living, and dignity to the dead.

There has been a 40% increase in burials from 2020 to 2019.

At the Co-Op Funeral Home in Chorlton, Manchester, they've had to hire additional hearse drivers to deal with demand.

"It's not been easy for families coming in - some have lost more than one loved one in a very short time", said Funeral Director Jane Dyer.

"Our message to anyone concerned about not being able to give a dignified send-off is please don't worry about that. Yes it will be slightly different from what we would probably class as traditional, but there's many different things that we can offer at the moment, things like live webcasts, a lot of people are putting visual tributes together." 

But nothing has changed in the dignity of the farewell to the loved one, we're just having to adapt.

Jane Dyer, Funeral Director, Co-op Funeralcare

Back at Manchester Central Mosque - a team of 22 volunteers are doing everything they can for the dead.

But their message to the living is this: follow the rules, take this seriously.

The Mosque's President added "Anybody that still has doubts that we are dealing with something very, very real - I would say please volunteer for a funeral service, don't sit at home, come out and volunteer and do the work and see the impact."

The impact is all too clear at Manchester's Southern Cemetary.

Zubair Saeed volunteers during funerals, helping with traffic and distancing. He says he's never seen anything like this before.

"Emotionally it does drain you", he told ITV News. "I see all these new graves and how the ground's filling up in the cemetery, it gives me a sense of disbelief and shock at the same time."

You look at a plot of land and it's empty one week, and you come back next week and it's full. That is the reality, that is what's happening. 

Zubair Saeed

Community leaders including Mr Khan have also been working to raise awareness of the vaccine in their area.  

Around 100 mosques have used Friday sermons to encourage their congregations to accept the vaccine when it is offered to them.