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Covid-era funerals leave a gap

31 December 2021

The burial of ashes has a new significance for the bereaved, says Mark Rudall


NEW online-ministry opportunities have arisen during the nearly two years of Covid-19’s devastating impact on the Church, but I detect an offline trend quietly emerging without being much talked about.

The pandemic has forced a change in funeral expectations: a limited number present, short time-slots at crematoria — usually 30 minutes, to allow for chapel ventilation and cleaning between ceremonies — face coverings, and no singing. At the same time, the universal adoption by crematoria of the useful Obitus system has meant that music of all kinds can be synchronised with picture presentations, and services or humanist ceremonies can be live-streamed to those unable to attend, anywhere in the world. But they are not actually “there”.

Until the recent past, the main pastoral “closure” event was the funeral: mostly, a “thanksgiving and celebration” of a life well lived.

But, if people have not been able to attend a service, or it has been necessary to abbreviate the ceremonial because of Covid restrictions, then mourners may feel that something has been lost: “She loved singing, and we couldn’t sing”; “We would so much have loved his friend Barny, and someone from work, to have been able to speak, but there wasn’t time.” And thus has arisen a gentle flow of demands for some kind of non-restricted memorial service, sometimes many months after the funeral itself.

I HAVE also observed a desire for more-than-usually significant ceremonies of interment of the ashes, attended by more people than just immediate family. My past experience of these brief ceremonies has been that they were very brief, although not perfunctory, opportunities for some final words of closure for the bereaved.

We know that the ashes of loved ones can hang around at the back of cupboards, sometimes even for years, waiting to be surreptitiously spread when busy relatives get a chance to take that favourite country, seaside, or riverside walk that Grandma loved. At the same time, I am also aware that actual disposal can be a problem. Snowdonia National Park, for example, has clamped down on the spreading of ashes at the top of its highest peak, because their deposition has been upsetting the plant ecology of the summit.

Keeping this kind of scenario in the back of our minds, we recognise that it is important that ashes be handled responsibly and discreetly. Requested to do so by the Christian family of someone with a strong waterways link, I have used an open electric launch as a platform for such a ceremony or brief service. Close family were with me in the boat, while others contributed readings, and so on, from the bank near by. I should probably comment that it is important to ensure that there is flow, and be careful of wind direction. . .

The main thrust of this for me, however, is to highlight that the burial of ashes seems to be acquiring a new significance for bereaved people who have felt that the “Covid funeral” failed, somehow, to do justice to the one whom they have lost. This is particularly so if there had been an expectation that the funeral service would be a packed-out celebration of the life of a popular figure.

I have, therefore, found it a privilege to help families to deal with ashes, and also to plan those simple memorial events, one involving a mini “Songs of Praise” of hymns that could not be sung at the funeral 15 months earlier, all taken with cake and some carefully chosen pastoral words and prayers. We sang with face coverings, but still sent tremors through the roof.

Obviously, such pastoral occasions need to be individually thought through, mostly written creatively from scratch, and delivered with great care and attention to detail. There is a wealth of source material out there to draw from as required.

AS A retired priest, I am happy to do that, but parish churches are also blessed with licensed lay ministers and other figures for whom this could be a significant ministry, because it seems likely that, in the years to come, such pastoral opportunities will become much more common.

There are no fees involved, of course, but there is real satisfaction in seeing people lifted up and sent on their way — if not exactly rejoicing, certainly better prepared for the next stages of what might have been a devastating bereavement.

Furthermore, since so many funerals have been lost to secular celebrants, invitations to support bereaved people with these demonstrations of Christian hope are to be grasped with both hands.

The Revd Mark Rudall is a retired priest based in the diocese of Guildford.

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