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Church of England study exposes depth of mourning in UK pandemic

17 March 2021

National Day of Reflection planned next week, one year after the first national lockdown


MOST people who experienced a bereavement after the pandemic hit the UK in March 2020 were unable to attend the funeral, say goodbye properly, or fulfil the deceased’s funeral wishes, a new Church of England study suggests.

The study of 2008 people aged 18 to 75 was conducted by 9 Dot Research in January on behalf of the C of E; the Church was not revealed as the sponsor, however, until specific church-related questions were introduced further on in the questionnaire. The 35 respondents who said that they worked for a religious organisation were omitted from the analysis to “avoid bias”.

About two-thirds (62 per cent) of respondents said that, since the first lockdown a year ago, they had experienced a bereavement of someone whose funeral they would have attended in normal times. More than one quarter (27 per cent) had experienced more than one bereavement. Three-quarters (72 per cent) of bereaved people had not been able to attend the funeral.

For 42 per cent of respondents, their bereavement had been of someone close to them; ten per cent had lost more than one person whom they were close with. Most people (86 per cent) agreed that they had not been able to say goodbye properly or fulfil funeral wishes (82 per cent); the same percentage said that grieving people needed more support.

Funerals have been limited to a maximum of 30 people for most of the pandemic, and the rapid rise in deaths put funerals directors under huge emotional and physical strain (News, 15 January; 24 April 2020). According to the new study, 72 per cent of people who were bereaved in this time were unable to attend a funeral, mainly due to the government restrictions, but also because of anxiety about Covid (25 per cent) or the inability or unwillingness to travel (23 per cent).

At least 40 per cent of funerals involved live streaming (or video), and 86 per cent of people who would have attended in person watched online instead and felt that this was a good idea.

The study suggests that the coronavirus, which has been mentioned on the death certificates of more than 125,800 people in the UK so far, had brought mortality to the front of people’s minds: half of respondents said that they had thought about the death of someone close to them; one third had thought about their own death or how they might die; and about one quarter had thought about the fear of dying, life after death, how they might be remembered, or about dying alone.

The study also suggested that young people were affected more than older people: half of 18-29s said that they had lost someone close to them, compared with one third of people over 60; and more than half of the young group helped someone to cope with bereavement, including one quarter who helped to arrange funerals, compared to one quarter among the older group of whom fewer than one in ten helped to arrange a funeral.

The head of life events for the C of E, Canon Sandra Millar, said: “During this last year so many people have been unable to find comfort in their grief from being with others at a funeral or to hear a message of hope spoken. It has been particularly hard on many younger adults experiencing loss, perhaps for the first time, of grandparents and older relatives who may have been a key part of their lives.  But our recent research also shows that under 30s are leading the way in reaching out to those who are bereaved with practical help and support.”

The findings were released on Wednesday in advance of a National Day of Reflection due to be held next Tuesday, the first anniversary of the first national lockdown (News, 23 March 2020). Cathedrals and churches across the country are to open for silent reflection and prayers, including York Minster, which will hold a minute’s silence at noon. Bells will be tolled across the land.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said: “This Day of Reflection is an opportunity to pause and remember all that’s happened over the past year, to mourn those who have died but also to give thanks for those who have looked after us and our communities. It is a moment to pray together.”

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: “As we look back on the sorrows and difficulties of the past year and remember those who have died and those who have suffered so much, we also give thanks for the care we have received through our health service, but also in many other ways, not least the care we have been able to show each other in our local communities. On this day of national reflection and remembrance we pray for a more just and caring world beyond the horrors of Covid.”

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, also urged people to reflect, particularly at noon. “March 23 will be a very significant landmark for us all and particularly for those who have been bereaved due to Covid or any other reason during the past year. . . It will give us a time to unite, to reflect on this tragic loss of life, to support those who are suffering and to hope and pray for better times to come.”

The national campaign is being organised in partnership with charities including Marie Curie and Hope UK, who are also encouraging people to hold the minute’s silence, light a candle in their window at 8 p.m., or contact someone who has suffered a bereavement.

The chief executive of Marie Curie, Matthew Reed, said: “We cannot simply stand by and not recognise the effects the pandemic has had on the bereaved. We know people are in shock, confused, upset, angry, and unable to process what has happened.”

Marie Curie is also commissioning Dr David Tollerton of the University of Exeter to conduct research into how public remembrance of traumatic events of the 20th century might help people who are planning memorials for victims of the coronavirus.

Dr Tollerton is to work with other charities, faith groups, and public bodies to “examine lessons from the past which could make new memorials or events most beneficial. This will include memorials of the two world wars, the Holocaust, and previous pandemics.”

The head of research management at Marie Curie, Dr Sabine Best, said: “We’re delighted to partner with an established academic researcher who will support our activities on the National Day of Reflection. It’s so important to investigate our responses, as individuals and organisations, to such a momentous event as the pandemic and draw from historical examples of remembrance to learn how we can make sure these experiences are not forgotten.”

As part of the National Day of Reflection, the west front of Lichfield Cathedral will be lit with the words “Reflect, Support and Hope”; Blackburn and Leicester cathedrals will light thousands of candles to mark lives lost; 200 tear drops will be suspended above the altar St Edmundsbury Cathedral; and Chelmsford Cathedral is hosting a light installation, “Colours of Hope”, to mark the day.

The director of music at Bath Abbey, Huw Williams, has composed a new anthem — “Lord, you have been our dwelling place” — which will be performed by the Abbey choir of lay clerks at a special remembrance service the following day.

The director of music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, Sarah MacDonald, who also directs the girls’ choir at Ely Cathedral, has composed a hymn inspired by the words of Archbishop Welby after the UK reached 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus, including the words: “God is in the middle of this mess.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is also involved. Its president, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the vice-president, Archbishop McMahon, encouraged people to pray as well as reflect. “For all who live by faith in God, reflection and prayer always go hand in hand. . . Throughout this difficult year, so many have been inspired by prayer, so much effort sustained in prayer, in every place; so let us make the 23 March truly a day of prayer.”

Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) will be marking its own anniversary, on Monday — a year after it recorded its first death from Covid in one of its care homes. It has released a booklet, Relative Recovery, to support relatives whose experience of bereavement has been more distressing due to the impact of Covid-19. The booklet describes the “common features” of grief; identifies ways in which the pandemic has made grief more difficult; addresses particular difficulties relating to dementia; and suggests sources of support.


Other key findings of the C of E study:

Grief: Most people who took part in the study (78 per cent) agreed that grieving people needed more support, that grief was inevitably harder due to the restrictions (77 per cent), and that it was hard not to be able to gather to mourn together (74 per cent). About half of people strongly agreed with these statements.

Mortality: Death was on the minds of half of respondents over the past year: 48 per cent thought about the death of someone close to them; 35 per cent thought about their own death or when and how they might die (32 per cent); 27 per cent feared death and 26 per cent wondered whether there was life after death; 25 per cent thought about how they might be remembered, or of dying alone (24 per cent). “Older people were more likely to think about their own death. Younger people were more likely than others to think about whether there is life after death, how they might be remembered, fear of dying or dying alone.”

Support: Most people would turn either to a close family member or to the internet or social media to talk about or learn more about death and bereavement; one quarter said that they would seek information from a funeral director; 19 per cent from a peer; 14 per cent from a church person; 13 per cent from an older friend; 12 per cent from a doctor; eight per cent from books; and six per cent from a faith other than Christianity.

Among the 18-29s year olds, more than half (54 per cent) had helped someone cope with bereavement compared to just more than one quarter (26 per cent) of over 60s. One respondent said: “I almost felt like Covid hanged over the death of my grandfather. It was not a death caused by Covid but Covid ruined the day — having to wear a mask, feeling guilty about cuddling people, the wake. This has impacted on my mental health immensely.”

C of E support: There was a clear expectation of the Church in the answers to questions about what support the Church should provide in relation to dying, death, and funerals, the study suggests.

Most people agreed that the Church should definitely offer indoor or outdoor spaces for reflection (63 and 54 per cent); a place to light candles (57 per cent); a listening ear about death (61 per cent); guidance or preparation for someone’s death (55 per cent); private services to remember or celebrate people who have died (53 and 51 per cent). About half definitely thought that the Church should offer online support for people affected by death (47 per cent) or an online space for writing prayers (40 per cent).

Generally, the study found that younger people were more positive than older people about what support the C of E should offer. One 21-year-old male from London commented: “I’m not sure how much support is presently available. Although not religious I am aware of some community work the church is involved in. These are immensely useful for the local community. I would imagine their support around bereavement is equally impressive.”

Church awareness: Only 44 per cent of all respondents (35 per cent of young people) knew that anyone could have a Church of England led funeral. People were more likely to consider this had they known. To contact the Church, most people, including older people, said that they would search online; younger people were less likely to contact their local vicar. About 19 per cent of respondents said that they had a close relationship with the Church; 40 per cent a distant relationship; and 41 per cent no relationship at all.

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