Funerals in the time of coronavirus

The funeral world is changing.  Rapidly.  A month ago it was unthinkable to say that churches would close, that crematoria would restrict numbers attending funerals, that mourners would have to sit 2m apart, that at the time when we most need connection and support no-one would be able to comfort a friend with a hug.  Yet with funerals in the time of coronavirus that is exactly what we are facing as I’m writing this.  And even this may change.  Within days or weeks we may get to a point where funerals are banned; where the physical act of burial or cremation of the deceased takes place with no mourners in attendance.  As this excellent article from The Good Funeral Guide says, we will need to consider the possibility of funerals at a distance, funerals without mourners present.

The importance of a funeral service

I have long argued that funeral services are critical.  They are, after all, more for the benefit of the mourners than for the person who has died.  Yes, a funeral service remembers and perhaps pays tribute to the deceased, but for those who are present it also confirms the reality of the death, provides a rite of passage to mark the transition from life to death, enables mourners to say goodbye, gathers together the community of those who knew the deceased, and it should also provide comfort for the future by reminding mourners of what they have and take forward in their lives that came to them from their loved one.  The psychological importance of a good goodbye cannot be understated.  Saying goodbye in a meaningful and appropriate way has a huge impact on the grief journey.  Despite the times we are living in, I still firmly believe that a funeral service is critical.  The challenge facing me, along with everyone working in the funeral sector, is how to deliver a funeral at a distance which still provides that meaningful goodbye and supports those who are grieving.

Distance funerals

Distance funerals are going to have to be part of the answer to supporting the families we work with.  There is already the facility to webcast a service from many crematoria, and this has been of value when families live overseas.  Back in November I worked with a family who Facetimed the whole service of a service at the South Downs Natural Burial site to a grandchild travelling in New Zealand, for example.  Technology already allows us to connect with friends and family from all over the world, and those connections are going to become even more critical.  Along with many other celebrants, I am working on ways to deliver a funeral service from my home, connecting to the friends and family of the deceased via an online meetings platform so that I can lead the service as I normally would, and bring in those who wish to speak, as I would do in the course of a normal funeral service.  I’m also considering how I could work with families to write a simple funeral ceremony that they could use or share in their own home.  It’s not going to be ideal, but I firmly believe distance funerals will be better than nothing – which may well be the only other alternative for time being.

Other ways to remember

I have also argued in the past that funeral services don’t need to be formal, that they can be as informal as a gathering in the local pub to raise a glass and share memories.  Even more so now I stand by that argument.  These ways of remembering, again especially if connected by technology, could be really valuable in bringing together the community of those who knew and loved the person who has died.  You could nominate a date and time for all friends and family to join in with an act of remembrance.  Something like wearing a particular colour, eating the deceased’s favourite food or enjoying a sip of their favourite tipple.  A few years ago the husband of an online friend I made through a dieting app died.  We couldn’t physically attend his funeral but she’d mentioned that he often had a pencil tucked behind his ear. Many of us all over the country did exactly that and then shared photos of ourselves with said pencil in place to let her know that we were supporting her and thinking of her that day.  Simple gestures of solidarity and support like this can be really powerful.  They tell someone you’re thinking of them, you’re there for them even if you can’t physically be together.

How to involve those who aren’t online

Technology can bring us together even where we’re apart, but only if we have the connection.  Sadly the majority of those who don’t have the technology are likely to be in the older generation.  We will need to think creatively about how we support and include them in distance funerals.  It may be possible to call them on the telephone so that they can at least hear a service being webcast or otherwise shared online.  Maybe everyone could write to them to share their favourite memories of the person who has died.

Memorial Services

Another option is to delay the gathering to remember someone’s life.  Instead of having a traditional funeral, some families may wish instead to hold a memorial or celebration of life service at a later date when it is safe for us once again to gather together.  The coffin does not need to be present at these types of service.  Instead the deceased can be represented by a photo or something else that will call them to mind.  For example, my Grampy always wore a flat cap so that would have been a good object to represent him.  Planning for these services may be a way that families can put together the kind of tribute to a life that they would ordinarily have had at the time of death, but even if there is a plan for a later service, I still think that it will be important to mark the death at the time.  Even when we are physically apart, we can find ways to connect, to come together to support those who were closest to the person who has died. 

Who can help?

Funeral celebrants, ministers, funeral directors and crematorium staff all care deeply about doing the best for the families we work with.  We are all thinking creatively, changing the ways we work, doing our best to help as much as we can until this crisis is over.  If you’re facing the prospect of a distance funeral for a loved one, talk to us.  We’re all here to help. Please contact me if you need advice or guidance about distance funerals at this time.