Funerals in churches are too risky, say bishops

30 March 2020

Crematorium chapel or graveside is safer, says C of E letter

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TO PROTECT people further from the coronavirus, clerics and licensed Readers should only conduct funerals at the graveside or in a crematorium chapel, a letter from the Archbishops and bishops of the Church of England says.

Though current government guidance states that funerals may continue to take place in church buildings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and diocesan bishops, believe that this presents an unnecessary “layer of risk”, owing to the difficulty of cleaning churches.

In a letter to all C of E clergy last Friday, they state: “The medical, epidemiological, and public health advice we have received clearly indicates that this represents an additional layer of risk that we do not need to take. Cleaning a church building after a funeral is much harder to do than a crematorium chapel.

“Furthermore, the ability of a parish priest to control the number of mourners will always be compromised by the proper instincts to care for the bereaved at the moment of a funeral. Of course, this is costly, but we believe the cost is less likely to be in human lives. Consequently, we are continuing to ask clergy to conduct funerals at the graveside or in a crematorium chapel.”

The letter makes no mention of Readers. It is understood, however, that the central advice applies to anyone licensed to take funerals and that it has been widely circulated to the relevant groups.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, who chairs the Church’s coronavirus task group, writes in a separate letter to Readers in his diocese: “The Coronavirus Task Group has been reflecting on the demand for funerals which is sadly going to be inevitable over the coming months. Readers who have a licence to conduct funerals are going to be much in need.”

Reader training for funerals is in two parts: a classroom-based module and a practical module that requires experience participating in services. Bishop Chessun asks Readers who have undergone the first part to contact the Discipleship and Ministry Team to “discuss whether it will be possible to authorise you immediately”. Readers who are already authorised to take funerals and wish to be more involved in this ministry should contact their area dean, he says.

He continues: “We are sending this email to licensed Readers only and not to Readers Emeritus because most of our Readers with Permission to Officiate (PTO) are over 70 and are advised to stay at home in all circumstances. However, if our PTO Readers under 70 want to be involved in this way they should contact their area dean.”

Church House has published new resources to accompany the latest advice, including specific guidance for clerics on conducting funerals and caring for the bereaved.

Present public health regulations, it states, permit only “a short service at the crematorium, with or without a very small congregation, which may only include spouse/partner, parents, and children of the deceased; a short service at the graveside, under the same conditions.”

How many people constitutes a “very small congregation” is not stated.

Telephone or online pastoral care is encouraged, as is providing a PDF copy of the order of service for people unable to attend. A separate two-page guide includes prayers and suggestions on how people can mourn the loss of loved ones without attending a funeral. This might be sitting quietly, finding a photograph of the person who has died, writing down memories of the person, or playing a piece of music that has a connection to the deceased.

The Archbishops’ Council’s Head of Welcome and Life Events, Canon Sandra Millar, said: “You might have wanted to support a friend, or show respect, or to say your last goodbye. . . Many will not be able to do this now.

“When this time of social distancing is over, there may well be a time to share memories with others, but, for now, people can find comfort from setting aside time at home for a simple reflection, lighting a candle online, or sharing a prayer card with someone else. God can feel very close in those moments.”

The Good Funeral Guide, a not-for-profit company that works for the interests of dying and bereaved people, has called on the Government to ban funerals altogether. A blog post published on its website last Friday stated: “With the heaviest of hearts, today we are going against everything that the Good Funeral Guide has become known for over the years and calling for funerals to be stopped completely. . .

“The decision to exempt funerals from the current ban on social gatherings was undoubtedly made for compassionate reasons, but the current lack of clear instruction and direction is leading to anguish and suffering beyond imagination.”

Mourners were risking their lives to gather for funerals that were so stripped-back that they were “almost unrecognisable”, it said. “What we are left with is worse than nothing.”

The lack of clear guidance meant that funeral directors and companies were all responding differently, the blog continued. “Crematorium staff in some places are being required to monitor the numbers of people arriving and restrict entry — one crematorium has stated that the chapel doors will be locked and the police called if more than a certain number of people gather for a funeral. Yet in other crematoria, no restrictions have been imposed. Everywhere is doing things differently.”

It concluded: “The current confused and confusing situation is dangerous. It is frightening. It is unfair on everyone. . . Unattended burial or cremations are the safest, kindest, simplest way to deal with our dead right now.”

The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) disagrees. Banning funerals would “cause untold misery for bereaved families and do little” to prevent the spread of the virus, a statement on Tuesday said.

The chief executive of SAIF, Terry Tennens, said: “Our association is completely opposed to a ban on funeral services at this time — our members are telling us that families would rather go ahead with a funeral with just a handful of close relatives present than not at all. We think stopping funeral services altogether would create significant misery for people already struggling with the isolation caused by the necessary national lockdown.”

Most crematoria remained open and distancing measures had been introduced, he said. “Nobody is trying to put anyone at risk unnecessarily. As long as the Government’s social distancing guidelines are followed, we believe it is possible for funeral services to continue safely. What would be beneficial at this stage from the Government is an indicative figure for the number of people allowed at a funeral, as this would minimise the risk of large gatherings at services.”

Funeral services should continue in the current situation, the statement concluded, however, “SAIF accepts that in an extreme situation where the system is overwhelmed by a significant number of deaths there might be a cause to move to direct to cremation disposals of the deceased.”

Canon Millar responded on Monday: “C of E ministers can still take funerals at graveyards and crematoria, keeping all physical distancing, attendance and hygiene restrictions and encouraging families to record the service and to find ways of being present at a distance.

“We know that it is a very difficult time indeed to be facing death and grief. Not being able to go to a funeral because of the strict rules on attendance makes it even harder. The Church is committed to helping people through this, with resources to use at home. . . When circumstances allow, there will time to think about having a memorial service. . .

“We are also praying for our funeral director colleagues. They are at the frontline, having to explain the situation to grieving families, manage expectations about graveside and crematoria services, and care for their own staff. Together, we all want to help in these strange times and help everyone to find comfort and hope in their grief.”

The Methodist Church has also produced a short act of worship to help people who are unable to attend funerals to say formal goodbyes to loved ones while remaining at home. The Church has pointed to other online initiatives to help its members to continue worship during the lockdown.

 

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