Authorities are seeking to expand capacity for storage of bodies in Northern Ireland amid concerns the funeral system will be overwhelmed by coronavirus.
Stormont’s Justice Committee was told officials are working to increase the current capacity of 280 bodies due to fears of a backlog of burials and cremations.
Doreen McClintock, from the Department of Justice, said she hoped the current practice of holding funerals within three days of a death would continue for as long as possible.
But the senior official acknowledged there was likely to come a point where that was no longer possible.
As well as an increase in death rate due to the disease, she said sickness among funeral directors and council staff would also put added pressure on the system.
Ms McClintock was briefing members on the contents of emergency coronavirus legislation going through Westminster – laws that are set to be introduced in Northern Ireland by way of a legislative consent motion in the Assembly on Tuesday.
“We are trying to speed up the system to manage as long as possible with burials and cremations,” she said.
“We will try to continue with normal burials and cremations until the point where the system is no longer able to cope with that and then we are looking at body storage solutions beyond that.”
Ms McClintock added: “We already have capacity at the minute for 280 bodies if we need to over and above normal capacity, and we are actively seeking to increase that so, if we need to, we can store the bodies until such times as we are able to facilitate the burial.”
She said she was mindful of the requirements of certain faiths for burials within a certain time frame.
Ms McClintock told committee chairman Paul Givan that the authorities would try their best to comply with the wishes of bereaved relatives but cautioned that it might not be possible as the outbreak worsens.
“At all stages, we want to treat the deceased and their families with dignity and respect,” she said.
“It will be a lot about communicating and making sure people are very much involved in the process.
“We will be looking at the different faith requirements as well as facilitating that as far as possible.
“But we are in a very different situation now and we are looking at a situation we thought we would never have to face and we hoped we’d never have to face, so we may have to get to the stage where people’s wishes may not be able to be taken into consideration but that will be a very good reason for that.”
Ms McClintock said additional storage would be sought within the private sector.
“We are confident that we will be able to secure additional body storage,” she said.
“Where we can, we will continue with burials up until a point where the system can no longer cope and we will get to that point, I imagine.”
Noting Ms McClintock’s evidence, DUP committee member Gordon Dunne said: “We trust and pray it will never happen and come to this.”
SDLP member Patsy McGlone said: “Unfortunately we are facing into a reality that none of us this time last year, even a few months ago, would have thought we would have been in.”