The Coroners’ Courts Support Service (CCSS) is a national charity providing free emotional and practical support for families in locating bodies and arranging funerals – largely for those who have English as a second language and struggle to navigate official channels.
During lockdown, the CCSS has acted as part of London’s Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team (PMART), who are first to attend when someone dies with coronavirus in the community.
The charity’s volunteer workers – who all complete training – have assisted more than 1,000 families and taken more than 3,500 calls on a helpline.
They have spent months liaising either with four temporary mortuaries for Covid-19 victims set up around the capital or with families who saw a relative die with the virus at home.
Their role – usually undertaken at Coroners Court premises – also includes helping make funeral arrangements and corresponding with coroners.
Now, after the peak of the UK pandemic has passed, volunteers are sharing their experiences.
Spencer Simmons, 62, a longtime volunteer who lives on a boat in the Docklands, said: “We used to get about 70 to 80 calls a month, but at our peak during this crisis we had 130 calls in just one day.
“When the lockdown started our usual volunteering at the courts was turned on its head, so we were all trained up on Zoom how to take and field calls about coronavirus.
“I jumped straight into it, supporting people from all over London, all different religions and many who haven’t experienced a bereavement before, let alone people arriving at your house to take your loved one’s body away – I can only imagine how awful it must be for them.”
Several temporary morgues – including a “super morgue” with the capacity to hold 3,000 bodies in Newham – were set up around London in early April.
Some have already closed, but four of the remaining mortuaries in Hillingdon, Wandsworth and Havering will continue to have round-the-clock security and site management, so they are ready to go in case of an intense second wave, or winter outbreak.
At the peak of the crisis, a line of hearses could be seen lining up outside the Newham facility.
Mr Simmons explained that the role is “not for everyone” as you are “dealing with very difficult situations”. During the pandemic, he was unable to help facilitate quick funerals, which was an issue for many London families.
He explained: “You don’t know what you’re going to get asked and people are understandably very upset.
“Many can’t believe their loved one had Covid – it’s a shock to people – and because things are taking longer than usual, we have to help people understand that they can’t have the funeral as quickly as they would want.”
Fellow volunteer Ruth Pressley, 70, who lives in Bedford and has volunteered for the charity for six years, added: “We always try and make it more comfortable for people to ask questions and they are always so thankful.”
The CCSS was founded in 2003 by Roey Burden, now 88, in a bid to help families get through the process of attending inquests at Coroners’ Courts.
An coroner’s inquest is held if there is reasonable cause to suspect that a death was due to anything other than natural causes.
The charity is part-funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. Spokesperson Helen Bushell said: “Funding is vital for projects like the Coroners’ Courts Support Service in keeping their communities connected and reaching those who need the most help. Our priority is to continue getting funding, which is more vital than ever before, out to community groups so they can rebuild and recover from this pandemic.”
The helpline is open 09.00 – 19.00 Monday to Friday and 09.00 – 14.00 Saturday at 0300 111 2141, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for support