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Funerals in 2020: better for mourners?

13 November 2020

Marking death and loss during the pandemic has meant rethinking funerals in every way. Report by Sarah Woolley


Since March, funerals are commonly experienced remotely via tablets and and smartphones, as services are live-streamed or recorded

Since March, funerals are commonly experienced remotely via tablets and and smartphones, as services are live-streamed or recorded

THE pandemic has upturned the rituals of grief and mourning. The Revd Ángel David Marrero-Ayala has conducted more than 100 funerals since March. “The thing that has surprised me the most is the ways in which technology has almost seamlessly been welcomed into the mourning practices,” he says.

“I think in particular of a funeral for a beloved matriarch who died owing to Covid. Only five members of her family were present, each of them holding a tablet, with a Zoom call packed with faces of loved ones who could not be present because of the restrictions.”

For now, small services are possible, andthe clergy are seeing their fair share of Covid-secure funerals. Fr Marrero-Ayala (Padre Angel), who is the Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Hyde Park, in Boston, in the diocese of Massachusetts, has often been the only person present at a funeral, with the deceased and a cameraman; but he has seen some unexpected results from live-streamed services.

“The biggest learning for me has been in demystifying technology: from something grotesque, perhaps sacrilegious, to a permanent tool that can help people mourn. After this crisis is over, I don’t think it would be awkward for anyone to live-stream or record a funeral for those that cannot be there.

“A smartphone is no longer an intruder into the numinous, but an acolyte in service of the sacred. The tablets have transubstantiated into pallbearers: holders of the moment, and not transgressors of it.”


THE coronavirus has affected the way in which people mourn beyond the disease itself. “There’s this whole other kind of grief, which isn’t just about grief for a person, but grief for a kind of a way of living and a way of life,” says Dr Claire Sedgwick, an academic, whose grandmother Ada died earlier this year.

For Dr Sedgwick, the pandemic drew a line in the sand just after the death of her 88-year-old “nana”. “She was the nicest person I’ve ever met,” Dr Sedgwick says. “The fact that we did have a proper send-off is something I’ve been able to kind of cling to.” It enabled her to grieve. “I could really process that loss. If it had happened even a month or so later, our experience would have been completely different.”

At the spring peak of the pandemic, some families were left with little choice, like the family of 13-year old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, who had to self-isolate while Mohamed, who died from coronavirus, was buried alone. Today, funeral restrictions vary across the UK.

In Northern Ireland, up to 30 people may gather at a graveside for a burial, but there is no restriction on the overall service. Funeral guests are limited to 20 in Scotland, and 30 in England, while Wales is advising people to keep numbers as low as possible.

For Ian Collier, an IT project co-ordinator in Reading, the pandemic took away a final goodbye. Since boyhood, he has visited his home country of Sweden to see his aunt Kerstin, a quick-witted woman with a sharp sense of humour who, in the 1950s, was the first woman to graduate in chemical engineering at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm.

Kerstin contracted coronavirus in hospital, and died soon afterwards. Unable to attend her funeral, Mr Collier watched a ceremony live-streamed from Kerstin’s garden. “I feel like I witnessed it,” he says. “I don’t feel I took part. There’s definitely this feeling of something unfinished. Funerals at their best, for me, are a chance to remember what it is we loved and valued about people. And that’s a good thing to do collectively.”

The Good Grief Trust, a charity that works with more than 700 services to offer comfort and support to bereaved people, has been responding to the sense of loss exacerbated by remote mourning.

Some, like Mr Collier, are struggling with live-streamed funerals, especially those who’ve already had to Facetime a dying loved one on a Covid ward.

“The fact that people have had to say goodbye on an iPad or a telephone — it’s absolutely shocking,” the trust’s CEO, Linda Magistris, says. “A lot of people felt very robbed of their grief.”

Even people attending funerals in person can struggle without familiar rituals: the singing of hymns or a last touch of the coffin. “We’d really love to get involved more with the churches,” Ms Magistris says. She hopes to see more church leaders at all-party parliamentary groups on funerals.


WE ARE now in the second national lockdown, and others may be looming, but they are unlikely to bring the same culture shock as spring 2020 did. The Church of England is now equipped with advice for those who cannot attend funerals, including a resource that guides people through “a simple reflection” at home. That can including sitting quietly with a photo, or writing down special memories.

The Church has also provided a way for people to light a virtual candle in a loved one’s memory. Some clergy have found that a limited guest list has given funerals more space for sorrow. The Team Rector of Beaconsfield, the Revd Dr Jeremy Brooks, observed this when only two out of 20 families requested a live-streamed funeral from All Saints’, Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire.

“Suddenly, you couldn’t have 150 people gathered to say all the lovely things,” Dr Brooks explains, “So they became much less focused on that kind of celebration and thanksgiving, and much, much more focused on grief, because the family thought, ‘We’re on our own here, no one’s watching us. I don’t have to be strong for the 120 people in the room.’

“So I think it’s a very healing thing. During the pandemic — particularly during lockdown, when numbers were so small — funerals got back to their original purpose of being allowed to grieve. And we’d almost forgotten that in funerals before then.

“The interesting thing will be what the long-term impact of that is, whether we’ll hold on to that. We want ritual, but we’ve got to reimagine ritual, because we can’t have singing as part of it. We still can’t gather in any meaningful numbers.”

As a member of the Archbishops’ Council’s working group on life events, and a member of the Churches’ Funerals Group (CFG), Dr Brooks is mindful that Covid-19 isn’t the only shadow looming over the future of funerals.

Since 1982, the CFG has come together as an ecumenical group to represent the main churches in England and Wales. High on its agenda is one issue that has become especially pressing in the pandemic: people who go into debt over funeral costs.

According to Sun Life’s report Cost of Dying, the average basic funeral costs £4417, and the wider cost of dying is likely to reach £10,000 by 2024. It represents a daunting future for families who cannot afford to pay into a funeral plan — something that, even then, is not guaranteed to cover the bill.

“We don’t have a framework within the United Kingdom to support those who can’t pay for funerals, period. And yet it’s this business that’s thriving in the current climate,” says Frances Quarau, who has been volunteering for Age UK while recovering from a mastectomy.

Her 74-year-old father, Naibuka Samisoni Quarau, was a Methodist, born in Fiji, whose philosophy on life was “be human and be kind”. His death from coronavirus came when Ms Quarau was in her tenth year of living in temporary accommodation after fleeing domestic violence with her three children.

A hefty funeral bill was unthinkable, and Naibuka’s funeral could easily have plunged Ms Quarau into debt, if it weren’t for a wave of kindness and community mobilisation from his home country and beyond.

“In the Fijian tradition, when somebody passes away, the immediate family then have to go to the home of the family of the person who’s passed away and then they look after them,” she explains.

“Meanwhile, everybody else in the extended family starts to contribute money.” Financial contributions toward Naibuka’s funeral came from Fijians around the world and the British Army community.

“We got £18,000 in three weeks,” Ms Quarau says. It was more than enough, and the leftover funds went to Communities Fiji Britain: a charity supporting Fijians who served in the UK armed forces, as Naibuka did. “If it wasn’t for this traditional aspect, we would not have had the funeral,” Ms Quarau says.

Other families may not have a community to support them, which is why the diocese of Liverpool set up the Good Funeral Company. It sets aside some profit for its own social fund to help people in extreme need, as, for example, when someone dies in prison.

There are also parishes that have sought training on funeral poverty from Quaker Social Action (QSA), which provides practical support for people struggling with funeral costs. In April alone, QSA experienced a 177-per-cent increase in requests for help.

“The pandemic has unfortunately seen the Competition Markets Authority postpone some of the remedies it had previously been considering, such as price controls,” a QSA development worker, Lindesay Mace, explains. “But it is positive to hear that all funeral directors and crematoria will be required to publish their pricing information.”

After a difficult year, QSA hopes to see further action from the Church after the General Synod backed a motion calling on the Government and council leaders to set basic standards for public-health funerals.


THROUGH collaboration, funeral poverty could become a thing of the past, but funerals are still facing a more global crisis: the climate emergency. The current cremation rate in the UK is about 78 per cent, and each cremation releases roughly 400 kg of carbon dioxide.

Traditional burials can pose problems, too, as space runs low; but greener alternatives are emerging, with an array of newer methods on the horizon. More debatable is whether the Church will play any part: it reported a 29-per-cent fall in clergy-led funerals between 2008 and 2018.


A desire for funerals to be personalised may be the reason. “I think there’s scope for specialist ministry,” Mr Brooks says. “We’ve always seen funerals as part of parish ministry, but I think the model of chaplaincy, which works in hospitals and prisons and schools, may also have some relevance to funeral ministry.”

In the view of the Archbishops’ Council’s Head of Welcome and Life Events, Canon Sandra Millar, it is a vital time for outreach, aided by Church Support Hub resources. “We need to work in relationship with our funeral directors to make sure they know what’s available, so that they’re able to offer families proper choices. Families may not always know they could have a minister at the crematorium or to a woodland burial site.

“The last few years have seen a real rise culturally towards funerals’ being a celebration of life. I’d say that’s completely compatible. Sometimes, the historic memory of a Church of England funeral is that it was impersonal. And so we worked quite hard to say it doesn’t have to be like that.

“People ask us questions like ‘Can I have a distinctive coffin? Can we put dad’s rugby jersey on the coffin?’ Of course you can.”


THE pandemic has provided much that needs processing. “I really want to do some work with the Church of England on ritual starvation over this period,” the director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, the Revd Professor Douglas Davies, says.

Ordained in 1975, Professor Davies is both an anthropologist and a theologian who sees great value in ritual and ceremony. “Ritual is good for well-being for a battery of social-psychological reasons. To have that taken away, or just replaced by an online thing, I don’t think cuts the mustard at all, really.”

The need for rituals that are tactile and collective is driving some new ways to remember people. The Revd Lee Taylor looks after four churches around Llangollen, Denbighshire, in Wales, and has invited bereaved families to collect pebbles or stones. When the pandemic is over, they will be invited to a service at which they can “honour their departed loved ones by placing their stones in the shape of a cross”, Mr Taylor says.

A memorial on a national scale is something that Professor Davies would welcome. “I think they should put it in the National Memorial Arboretum. All British life is there.”

The national remembrance site is home to 400 memorials, and has announced that a memorial to NHS staff and other key workers would fit its criteria. For now, the first national memorial to the pandemic is online: the St Paul’s Cathedral digital book of remembrance, Remember Me, where people can upload a photo and a brief tribute.

Little thought has been given to those who die when homeless. No official body was logging how and when homeless people died, until the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism began investigating 800 cases in 2017.

The resulting Dying Homeless Project is now under the wing of the Museum of Homelessness, which posts a tribute to every life lost: more than 1460 since October 2017 when it began. A co-founder, Matt Turtle, says: “We must remember people in terms of their humanity, their character, their personality, the things that they loved, and the people who loved them.”


UNDERSTANDING and responding to the emotional costs of grieving during the pandemic are also important. Linda Magistris, of the Good Grief Trust, encourages anyone struggling to phone the free Covid-19 bereavement helpline staffed by NHS nurses: one of the services promoted by the trust’s “good grief card”. This was launched in response to the struggle faced by hospitals, schools, and HR departments to deliver appropriate bereavement support.

The well-being of people working in the funeral industry is a particular concern. “Our funeral directors are dealing with hard stuff,” Canon Millar says, “and, apart from anything else, we should be praying for them and offer our pastoral care to them.”

Sue Holden, who chairs the Institute of Celebrants, says: “I think there was a little bit of antagonism towards civil celebrants that we were still carrying on doing funerals — that we should be doing what the Church was doing, and not doing them at all.

“But I feel that, in a way, the Church missed out, because those who were shutting the door did push people into doing direct cremations or into having a celebrant. There’s a place for both.”

Whether or not a physical monument rises up, there is hope that healing on an individual and societal level is still possible. A board-certified chaplain, the Revd Earl Johnson, whose new book Finding Comfort During Hard Times: A guide to healing after disease, violence, and other community trauma draws on decades of ministry on the frontline of terrible disasters, has expressed concern for clergy who are serving at what he calls the “ground zero of the pandemic”.

Speaking on the anniversary of 9/11, Mr Johnson asks: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of your parishioners? It’s like the aeroplane instruction: put on your oxygen mask first, and then help someone else put on their oxygen mask. We’re no good to anyone else if we’re burnt out.

“My advice is that there has to be some wisdom in the congregation to nurture your leaders, and make sure that you are very rigid about taking a day off, because one of the red flags for anyone is they think no one else can do their job.

“Just remember, be a part of a team. You don’t have to do this by yourself. You can be part of a healing team.”

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