As 2020 draws to a close, it’s a good time to sit and reflect on everything that has happened. No one could have predicted how this year would play out. No one could have been prepared for the loss, the heartache, the grief.

Here at Austin’s we have done our utmost to assure you of our continued support and compassion throughout this pandemic, despite the ever changing rules and restrictions. We’ve been caring for bereaved Hertfordshire families for over 300 years; here’s our story of 2020…

We started the year on a high, reporting on Claire’s epic arctic survival challenge in aid of Home-Start Hertfordshire who help support struggling families in our community. Thanks to everyone who supported her, Claire raised a brilliant £5,000 after a week of -10 degree temperatures 150km south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden!

Back at home, the team were busy taking in people’s Christmas trees at Harwood Park to recycle into new coffins.

It was at this time that we also introduced Cruse Bereavement Care as our 2020 charity of the year. Cruse exists to enable anyone suffering bereavement caused by death to understand their grief and cope with their loss. Little did we know back then just how many people would need additional support this year in these most challenging of circumstances.

Then, in March, as the cherry blossom was in full bloom and looking beautiful at Harwood Park, the UK went into its first lockdown.

It was a difficult time for everyone. We stayed open with all funeral arrangements being made over the phone to begin with, as we asked people not to come into branch for the time being. Only close family members were allowed to attend funerals, hugs were no longer safe or allowed, and mourners had to stay six feet away from each other. Coronavirus had changed funerals beyond recognition, but we supported everyone as much as possible and shared information on how to grieve for a loved one when you can’t say goodbye in the ‘normal’ way.

Despite difficult times, we received some lovely feedback from people. One lady talked of her late husband’s funeral in April: “It was different, special and intimate with just the Reverend and myself. Nevertheless, it was a special service and I was able to say a very personal farewell, which I am certain would not have been possible with a large congregation. I will treasure this always.”

Behind the scenes we were also helping to move PPE supplies to colleagues around the country and supporting the Hertfordshire Coronavirus Disaster Relief Fund, which had already raised over £20,000 by early April.

By the end of the month, Stevenage Community Trust’s ‘Stevenage Helps’ appeal had attracted donations of £26,966; £10,000 of which was specifically to support the over 60s. It had also approved 46 grants totalling £14,870 for local charities, voluntary organisations and directly to families in crisis, helping many hundreds of local people directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

In May it was more important than ever for us to help promote Dying Matters Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Week. Thankfully by June, the number of mourners allowed to attend a funeral were slowly increased and by mid-summer this number hit 30, where it has since remained.

Acutely aware of the negative impact of these restricted numbers, we started to offer a streaming service at Harwood Park where families can have a loved one’s funeral service streamed to their wider family and friends, or those unable to travel. Harwood Park itself has also stayed open throughout for individuals to visit for quiet reflection.

Another family who organised a funeral with us in July said: “Given the restrictions and life-changing circumstances we find ourselves in you all went the ‘extra mile’ and the family can’t thank you enough for leading us through all the decisions and practicalities.”

From early August our branches and Chapels of Rest reopened via appointment only. Whilst our staff offered a heartfelt service over the phone in earlier months, we know some people much prefer to talk through arrangements for funerals in person, so it was good to be able to reopen with all Covid secure measures in place.

When the second lockdown hit in November, funerals were not hugely affected. A lady who’s mother passed away in late October just before lockdown said: “Though there was a lot to deal with before the funeral could go ahead at such a difficult time. Austin’s staff in all areas of the process were very professional and respectful at all times and nothing was too much trouble… We have used Austin’s before for family funerals, but during this difficult year, the staff have all gone above and beyond what was required of them, which made the situation for us a lot easier.”

Now, as we near the end of the year, we’re pleased to say our new Funeral Arrangement office in Hoddesdon High Street will be opening in January and are delighted to confirm that we have now taken ownership of 74A High Street, Stevenage. Over the coming months, we will be working to transform this building into an exceptional Bereavement Centre for Stevenage and the surrounding communities.

We’re sure you’ll agree that 2020 has reminded us of the value of community, love and support – as well as what we can achieve when we all pull together. Merry Christmas to you all and we wish you the very best for 2021.

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