Many Aboriginal families are postponing funerals indefinitely.(ABC: Joshua Spong)
Dead bodies are banking up at morgues in remote Australia, as some families delay funerals indefinitely due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Some corpses have been in refrigerated storage for almost three months, forcing funeral directors to have confronting conversations with families about the potential for deterioration.
While restrictions have begun to lift in various ways — WA will allow up to 100 people at funerals from next weekend — the rules have had a significant impact.
Andrew Pinder, president of the Australia Funeral Directors Association, said the situation was arising mostly in remote parts of the country, where families were waiting for restrictions to ease so they could farewell loved ones with the required cultural ceremonies.
"We're aware that the Indigenous community is particularly affected by the restrictions and are opting to delay funerals more than any other community that we are aware of," he said.
Andrew Pinder is the national president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association.(Supplied)
"It has been a very disruptive time and it is not ideal for there to be a backlog of deceased people being stored, for health reasons.
Shipping containers ready
The situation means there are more bodies than usual in storage at the small, hospital-based morgues scattered across northern Australia.
The WA Country Health Service said all its regional morgues had space available, with extra capacity organised due to the pandemic.
"The service has regional and overarching mortuary capacity plans to manage surge," it said in a statement.
In regional WA, bodies are stored in small morgue facilities at local hospitals.(ABC: Vanessa Mills)
As part of its pandemic planning, the health service contacted owners of private morgues and funeral homes to see if storage facilities could be accessed if needed.
The ABC understands refrigerated shipping containers have been sent to some regional centres to ensure bodies can be safely stored in case of a localised COVID-19 outbreak.
Families waiting for cultural reasons
The longest backlog of burials is in Aboriginal towns and communities, some of which remain locked down under stricter COVID-19 measures.
Gordon Marshall, chairman of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, said some families were waiting to bury elders because traditional ceremonies could not be held due to travel restrictions and limits on attendees.
"A lot of people don't really understand [the funeral practices], but it's something that is very embedded into most cultural people, the ones who follow law and customs," he said.
"For the old people, they have to have ceremonies before, during and after the funeral to give them a proper send-off."
Also off limits are traditional "sorry camps", where extended family gather to camp in the bush and grieve.
"With the sorry camp, you've got the different skin groups that need to be represented and sit together," Mr Marshall said.
Mr Marshall and elders from the law and cultural centre have broadcast warnings in local Aboriginal languages to warn people not to attend sorry camps and to explain the rules limiting funerals.
Only two larger funerals approved
It is hoped burials will resume as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted across northern and central Australia.
Derby-based funeral director Jayden Cornish, who works across the remote Kimberley, said not many funerals were being conducted at the moment.
"We are not too sure how it will play out, as it will depend on how the restrictions go," he said.
Some families have applied for an exemption that would allow them to exceed the 10, 20 or 30-person attendance rules that have been in place in recent months.
The Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries said two applications had been approved for larger funerals.