RITUALS and traditions are a vital part of the grieving process, helping families cope with the loss of loved ones.

But the past year has seen forced change to those traditions at a time when they have been more vital than ever before.

Funeral directors have been working under increasingly difficult and stressful circumstances, ensuring dignity for the deceased while following strict safety measures for families and for staff.

For generations T & R O’Brien Funeral Directors has been an integral part of the Maryhill community, but the past 12 months have been the most challenging in its history.

John Boyle, area manager, said: "The numbers of funerals began to increase, and you would go through a couple of weeks and see the numbers building and building.

"We have been saying to staff it's alright to be upset. We are not robots. We feel for the folk who come in and you can see the folks who come in and they are really upset, and it would be wrong not to be upset for them."

Carol Robertson, Frazer McGown, Linda McGreskin and John Boyle outside their premises on Maryhill Road Picture: Colin Mearns

Carol Robertson, Frazer McGown, Linda McGreskin and John Boyle outside their premises on Maryhill Road Picture: Colin Mearns

At the start of the pandemic it was clear that the mortuary would need increased capacity and so the firm spent £100,000 on making more space available.

John said: "We had the feeling the death rate was going to be increasing and we wanted to still provide the best possible care to our folks."

For safety reasons, staff travel in separate vehicles when collecting the deceased and they wear full PPE, including forensic-style suits.

So far, no one at the firm has contracted Covid-19.

Funeral director Frazer McGown Picture: Colin Mearns

Funeral director Frazer McGown Picture: Colin Mearns

John added: "We explain on the phone we'll be wearing our PPE.

"We have to put ourselves in risky scenarios where we are going in to a home where someone has died of coronavirus.

"As soon as that removal has been affected and the deceased is carefully placed into our ambulance, the PPE is clinical waste and binned.

"We take the deceased into our care and produce more PPE to move the deceased into the funeral home.

"Because we are out and about, if we're called to a nursing home where people are frail, or a hospital, the last thing we want to do is cause anyone harm."

John said the increased measures have placed a considerable financial burden on the firm, which it has chosen not to pass on to customers.

Frazer McGown cleaning the covid safety screen in one of the limousines Picture: Colin Mearns

Frazer McGown cleaning the covid safety screen in one of the limousines Picture: Colin Mearns

He said: "No one ever wanted to be in a pandemic.

"We're conscious of the fact that T&R has been here forever and we have looked after generations of folks and we want to continue to look after generations of folks.

"When the pandemic landed at our door there were people dying before their time who would never have planned for arranging a funeral."

John, the son of two teachers, had no funeral connections in his family but when his twin brother Gerry went in to the undertaking business at 21, he followed him.

"It's not the job people think it is," John says. "I think when you get a family coming in who are devastated at the loss of a loved one, who might be angry, if it's been sudden, they've absolutely no idea where to turn or what to do.

John Boyle, area manager for T&R OBrien outside their premises on Maryhill Road Picture: Colin Mearns

John Boyle, area manager for T&R O'Brien outside their premises on Maryhill Road Picture: Colin Mearns

"They come in and have a wee cup of tea, and we say we'll sort everything. And we take the burden off."

The pandemic has made multiple changes to how funeral services are organised and held - some small tweaks and others profound.

Newspaper intimations have become less popular as families are hesitant to announce days and times of funerals in case they risk forming a public gathering.

At the start of the pandemic there was a disruption to flower delivery and the funeral arrangers had to be creative in ensuring floral tributes were still provided.

John said: "There was never a point where we failed to get flowers but it became more difficult at the very start and it was about finding alternatives.

"Floristry has been a great comfort to people. That's sometimes the best medicine, to know that someone's thinking of you.

Funeral director Linda McGreskin in the viewing room at T&R OBrien with a display coffin Picture: Colin Mearns

Funeral director Linda McGreskin in the viewing room at T&R O'Brien with a display coffin Picture: Colin Mearns

"We've also seen an increase in flowers being taken away by families. We're hearing that people are making up small bouquets to share with family members who weren't able to attend.

"That's a lovely gesture."

Families were also supported to come up with creative alternatives to the traditional purvey.

Some chose not to hold any while others had digital gatherings over Zoom or Skype.

John said: "We've had others who might have prepared individual boxes with sandwiches and cakes for friends and family so they share a funeral tea remotely that way."

Another change has been to the collection at funerals. John acknowledges that charities are missing out due to diminished collections and so T & R will offer to set up a JustGiving page for families to collect for charity.

Initially the use of limousines to transport people to services was banned but the cars may now be used.

T & Rs has made changes to its fleet to enhance covid safety with special screens fitted and additional cleaning steps.

Strict restrictions on the number of mourners permitted at funerals was one of the most difficult things to cope with but also led to new developments, such as an increase in the use of webcasts.

Services are broadcast live online, allowing those who can't be physically present to take part in the funeral remotely.

Mourners are able to post comments underneath the video footage, which John says families have found comforting.

There has also been an increase in requests for copies of funerals on DVD or USB drive to keep and watch at another time.

"Nobody wanted to ever put a restriction on the number of funerals and we understand why it was done, for public health reasons and to control, the virus and we fully appreciate that," John said.

"But for those who have lost someone, it's a very, very difficult thing to do."

A lack of physical comfort has been another difficult hurdle, with mourners forced to stay two metres apart meaning no hugs, or reassuring hand holding.

"To watch that, to witness that, and we've had staff members who have lost people through the pandemic as well, is very, very difficult," John said.

"Even in the workplace, you can't go up and put your arm around them and we've had to find other ways of dealing with that with our own team.

"When people leave the crematorium traditionally you would always go up and give somebody a big hug or squeeze their hand and that's been a very difficult thing.

"You hear people saying, 'I'll give you a hug when it's all over'."

John said changes to the laws around registering a death have also been very useful and he hopes they become permanent changes.

There is a statutory obligation to register a death, which is done by making an appointment with the local registrar in person, using the appropriate documents.

The Scottish Government very quickly made changes to legislation that allowed for the remote registration of a death and for necessary documents to be transferred electronically.

John said: "The pandemic has brought about changes to the law which have been hugely beneficial from a funeral director's point of view but also a family's point of view."

Nine years ago, when he left school, Frazer McGown went straight into the funeral business, joining his father, brother and fiancee.

Linda McGreskin and Frazer McGown Picture: Colin Mearns

Linda McGreskin and Frazer McGown Picture: Colin Mearns

Frazer, a funeral director, said: "What's been important is focusing on what we can do, rather than what we can't.

"Families have been very responsible when it comes to following the guidance but deciding who comes to the funeral has been very hard.

"That's been the fantastic thing about the streaming service, is that everybody has been able to participate in some manner in the hope that in the future they can have a memorial service, they way they imagined the funeral to be.

"Another great thing has been the change in registrations of deaths. It has sped the process up and that's important for families too."

Linda McGreskin started in the funeral profession 18 years ago.

The funeral director lost her mum when she was just 15 and says she "wanted to look after families the way I was looked after".

"I wanted to make sure families had dignity," she added, "Seeing the ins and outs of behind the scenes made me want to get into it to make sure things are done properly."

It has been hard, she says, not being able to give families the funeral they want for their loved one.

Funeral director Linda McGreskin in the viewing room at T&R OBrien premises Picture: Colin Mearns

Funeral director Linda McGreskin in the viewing room at T&R O'Brien premises Picture: Colin Mearns

Linda said: "Families have known that everything is outwith our hands. They know that if we could lift these restrictions we could.

"But people have dealt with the changes absolutely remarkably. I just think nobody thought it would last this long."

The pandemic has brought the team closer together, especially because they have been following restrictions rigorously and not visiting their own families.

Linda said: "In this profession we do comfort each other, we counsel each other. It is such a personal business.

"Definitely this year has been challenging, of course it has. We've not been able to see our own friends of family so this is all we have had.

"Because we go in to nursing homes and we are going in to places where the virus is very present, we are being super cautious.

"We have the utmost responsibility to not spread the virus and we respect we are in a job where we have to give 110% to protect our families."

Linda added: "Care homes, hospitals and funeral homes definitely have more of an appreciation for one another now.

"We are key workers and I don't think that was appreciated before. We are one of these professions that is unrecognised and no wonder, because that's the profession we're in.

"You don't want us to come and chap your door."

The T & Rs staff believe virtual funerals will continue, even as restrictions are lifted, and will be popular with families who have loved ones overseas.

He also hopes emergency changes to legislation will become permanent.

John said: "Funeral services are very traditional. There's not a great deal of innovation with funerals but the digital age has arrived and is here to stay.

"Change of legislation to allow us to avail of technology has been big progress and good for families and for us.

"I also think when the pandemic is over attendee numbers will go back to where they were because people want that physical contact, they want the hugs.

"It's such a lift for a family to know they are not alone."

On April 26 restrictions will ease to allow 50 mourners at funerals but John said the firm will be taking the changes slowly.

He said: "The last thing we want to do, and I speak for the whole industry, is to make people unwell because they've attended a funeral."

Funeral arranger Carol Robertson is a familiar face for families in Maryhill, having helped hundreds of people prepare the perfect service to say goodbye to their loved one.

Carol Robertson, funeral arranger Picture: Colin Mearns

Carol Robertson, funeral arranger Picture: Colin Mearns

She often supports the city's Chinese community and says having live streamed funerals has been particularly important for including friends and family overseas.

Horse drawn carriages have become more popular during the pandemic too, she said.

Carol said: "It has been different for everyone. Some have really struggled with the limited numbers while others have been grateful it has been so intimate.

"When I first heard about the option to have funerals saved on DVD I was sure no one would want that but, actually, it's been very popular as a keepsake.

Thank you cards in the office Picture: Colin Mearns

Thank you cards in the office Picture: Colin Mearns

"We are also seeing an increase in people wanting more orders of service as keepsakes. Hymns are banned but people want lots of photographs of their loved one.

"It has been rewarding to help people through the crisis. I have never had so many thank you cards and that's amazing, that through all this, families are thinking of us.

"I just can't wait to be able to give everyone a wee cuddle again."