At the peak of the pandemic, Widnes Crematorium was running at full capacity.
Staff worked 12-hour days performing seven or eight cremations a day and the service had to hire a temporary cremator to provide back-up if one of the two permanent facilities failed.
And yet it could all have been worse.
Paul Wright, who oversees the crematorium as head of Halton Council’s open space services division, said: “There was legislation put in place where the local authority could have taken over the end of life process. That never happened.”
If the death toll had climbed even higher, this would have seen the council decide when funerals took place, whether someone was cremated or buried and even whether mourners could show up to the funeral at all, as staff worked to stop bodies becoming health hazards.
Paul said: “That allows us to say there’s eight slots a day, we’re going to use each eight so we would say ‘That’s your slot’.
“That allows us to be more efficient, but that’s not great for families in mourning because their loved one goes from them.
“We never got to that stage, and I hope we never do.”
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Even so, the height of the pandemic saw extreme stress placed on the team at the crematorium.
By mid-July, the service had already performed 749 cremations. Last year, the same period saw just 523, while the number of burials also rose by around 40%.
The crematorium suspended routine maintenance and drafted more staff in to make sure the service kept running smoothly.
Paul said: “It was busier than anything they had ever known before.
“Staff got very tired, but equally there was a feeling of being on a mission and a feeling of camaraderie. It was commented on by a number of staff, there was a real sense of doing their bit and feeling part of a team.”
But there was also the need to guard against staff burning out under the strain of the extra funerals, with the team encouraged to take time off in the few moments when there was a lull.
Paul said: “Most people couldn’t even begin to imagine what it means to perform a function of cremating people day in, day out.
“They probably couldn’t even comprehend doing that task, people don’t realise what that entails. It’s not a completely mechanical function.
“One of the things that mattered to me was keeping an eye on the staff, visiting them frequently.”
Through taking breaks when possible, he said, the team managed to keep going, although now they feel in need of a rest.
He said: “I feel that seemed to manage itself very well. I’ve not had staff members go off sick or anything like that.
“They are incredibly proud of what they have done, and rightly so.”
Paul is proud of their work too, but there is still more to be done as deaths continue to run slightly higher than in previous years, part of a trend that has seen deaths increase steadily as baby boomers approach the end of their lives.
He said: “Even in what we described as the peak, we were thinking it’s odd, we were getting far more other causes of death than we would have expected. It’s not all Covid deaths.
“I do wonder, have people died who might have gone to hospital [in normal times]?”
There is also maintenance work to be done. A recent council report said the Widnes’ cremators had been “worked to their limits” and were in need of urgent repair, meaning the crematorium will rely more on the temporary cremator it hired during the peak.
Paul said: “Cremators are very heavy on maintenance requirements. We often do have to shut a cremator down for a number of days, possibly even a week.
“If there was an unexpected breakdown, we would have no cremators, so we took the decision early on to hire a temporary one.
“I know nationwide there was a scramble to get hold of these temporary cremators, and I’m quite pleased we were one of the first to get one.
“What that means is we can carry on offering a service to people who choose cremation at Widnes and service our permanent cremators.”
With the peak now in the past and the number of deaths declining, Paul hopes the pandemic has prompted people to think a bit more about what happens at the end of someone’s life.
He said: “I think what the coronavirus has thrown a light on is that these processes matter, they’re essential, and it’s only when stress is put on them that people really think about it.
“Sometimes, we wish people would think about it a little bit more because it is an important aspect of what goes on.”