Funerals in times of Covid-19

Cherry blossom at the funeral of a young woman

Update 8th June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only turning our lives upside down, it also deeply affects how we die, mourn and pay tribute to a life lived.

In the UK, funeral directors and crematoria are following different approaches as a mandatory national guideline is not available.

I have deep respect for bereaved families who, on top of the overwhelming and emotionally intense process of arranging a funeral, express understanding for the current restrictions and come up with creative ideas on how to include their relatives and friends safely.

Also a huge thank you to all funeral directors and crematorium staff out there who are working around the clock to ensure that meaningful funerals are still possible whilst prioritising health and well-being for all involved.

The below gives an overview of what to expect when attending a funeral service at a crematorium, how to include people who cannot attend and options to have a meaningful funeral in times of Covid-19.

Funerals are an impoverished experience at the moment. On the other hand people have shown resilience, flexibility and creativity in finding meaning despite the restrictions in place.

In the below I will also touch upon the positive aspects of funerals during the corona crisis and how it is still possible to have a meaningful, personalised funeral.

If you are organising a funeral, please check with your funeral director and celebrant what the options are as guidelines vary per location and change regularly.

The new normal at crematoria

Some crematoria have closed their chapel doors and only offer direct cremation. At a direct cremation the body is being charged into the cremator without people attending. As per early June, some crematoria are now allowing a limited number of people to witness the charging.

The crematoria in London I work with still offer funeral services but they have put actions in place to keep guests and funeral staff safe:

  • A maximum of 10-20 people are allowed to attend the funeral service
  • People from different households are asked to sit two meters apart from from each other and respect social distancing from funeral staff
  • Funeral directors may not use limousines but ask people to arrange their own transport to and from the crematorium
  • People may be asked to stay in their car until it is time to go into the chapel
  • Hymn books have been removed from the pews
  • People are no longer allowed to carry, touch or approach the coffin. At some crematoria, committal (closing of curtains or other way to move coffin out of sight) is mandatory to prevent this from happening
  • People are asked to dispose of used tissues in bins provided and to take orders of service or any personal items with them
  • Some crematoria no longer offer double / triple slots or have reduced service time
  • It is not possible to gather after the service, or have a reception

This list is not complete and that each crematorium has their own specific guidelines. As a celebrant I keep a close eye on the developments and when working with a family I touch base on a regular basis with the funeral director and crematorium to make sure families are timely being informed.

Enfield crematorium during covid-19
Funerals during Covid-19: Social distancing at Enfield Crematorium

Funerals during Covid-19: an impoverished experience

As a funeral celebrant it has been painful to work with bereaved families during this time. It goes against my core values to tell people they cannot have the funeral they had wished for. I will never forget the father who said that he had to live with not being able to attend his daughter’s funeral for the rest of his life. Or the widow who broke down during the service whilst her own family was not able to comfort her. It was heart-wrenching not to be able to be with her in her grief and to know that, after the service, she would go home alone.

I usually meet people in person to learn about their wishes for the funeral ceremony and talk about the person who has died. These meetings now happen virtually or on the phone, which means I am missing out on valuable non-verbal information. There is so much to learn from a silence, someone’s body language, meaningful objects in the house, or simply a chat over a cup of tea about how someone is feeling. It’s been harder to create a true connection with people and get a vivid understanding of the person who has died.

Although I no longer meet people face-to-face, my approach to creating a person-centred ceremony has not changed.

During the call or virtual meeting with the people involved we take al the time that is needed for me to explore the family’s wishes and to get an impression of who the person who has died was to ensure that everything that will be said and done during the service feels unique and right for that specific funeral. If needed I will make multiple calls to ensure everyone’s voice is being reflected. I will circulate a draft script and families have the opportunity to make amendments until they feel comfortable with everything that will be said and done.

How to have a meaningful funeral in times of Covid-19

Despite the restrictions it is at the moment still possible to have a meaningful funeral and I work closely with families and the other funeral professionals involved to ensure we do the best we can.

Small gathering at crematorium or burial site

On the day I meet the family at the crematorium chapel or burial site. I conduct the service as I would normally do, with dignity, compassion and sensitivity. Before and after the service I wear a face mask and gloves and I will respect social distancing.

The service time may be restricted but we can fill the time available with meaning and soul. People still have the option to choose the music, poems and readings they feel is right for that moment. There is still an opportunity to tell stories about the person’s life, or for families and friends to share a personal tribute. Many chapels offer the option of a visual tribute where photos of the person can be shown along with a favourite piece of music.

Funeral during Covid-19
Wearing a facemask at a funeral during Covid-19. At Hendon Crematorium, London

How to include people who cannot attend

Families have inspired me in finding new ways to make funeral services meaningful and inclusive for people who can’t attend. Examples:

  • Live-streaming a funeral allows people from near and far to watch the service. By offering them a special welcome and thank them for filling the room with their love and thoughts we create a connection with them and those present.
  • We can read out personal tributes sent by people. Some have sent voice recordings that were played during the service.
  • Children, if they are not attending, can be included by creating a drawing which can be placed on the coffin or printed on the order of service sheet, writing a memory or choosing a piece of music.
  • A candle (if permitted), individual flowers or cards with a photo and personal message can represent people who cannot attend. 
  • If there is no live stream, asking people to do an alternative ritual at home may help say farewell and create a sense of connection. They can receive a digital copy of the order of service, play a song or read a poem that’s used for the funeral, create a shrine at home, say a prayer, light a candle, or go on a commemorative walk. A mother who could not attend her son’s funeral went to her local church to pray and light a candle at the time of the service
  • Photographing the service is a way to give people an impression of what happened.
  • Some families organised a private outdoor ceremony at home. I led one for a family who could go to the crematorium. Neighbours witnessed from rooftops and across fences.
  • Families have organised online receptions via Zoom where they invited friends and families to raise a glass, wear the person’s favourite colour and share memories.
  • There have been moving examples of neighbours paying a final tribute on the street when the hearse passed by the person’s house.
Greeting people who are watching the service via a live-stream. At Putney Vale crematorium.

Funeral flowers

During the first weeks of the pandemic, funeral flowers were hard to get by as many florists were closed and flower supplies were low. This has inspired families to use alternative options. Although funeral flowers are now available again, these suggestions may continue to be an inspiration:

  • Buy your flowers at a supermarket and tie them together with a ribbon (you can add a personal message too)
  • Pick flowers or branches from your own garden. Herbs, such as rosemary (symbol for remembrance) are also a meaningful touch
  • Consider paper cut flowers, some small businesses specialise in them and offer beautiful pieces
  • Create a bunting with paper cut hearts or flowers – this is also a meaningful way to include people who cannot attend a service in person

Zoom funeral service: a virtual farewell

If a physical gathering is not possible, a virtual funeral provides a meaningful alternative.

At a virtual funeral people gather online via Zoom. With the family I create a meaningful ceremony in a similar way as I would do for a traditional funeral service. We collate thoughts and ideas, we work on a script and test the platform the day before so everyone feels comfortable using it. During the ceremony relatives and friends can read a poem, share memories or play (live) music.

After the ceremony a virtual wake can be held where everyone raises a glass to the person’s life.

A virtual funeral or memorial can never replace the physical get-together but it helps connect people in grief and love from wherever they are and can be a vital way to support each other in the first days and weeks after someone has died.

More information about Zoom funerals can be found in a blog I wrote about virtual funerals.

Online funeral service led by Rosalie Kuyvenhoven, London based celebrant
Zoom funeral service

Memorial service at a later date

Many people I work with at the moment are planning a memorial service when the pandemic is over. A memorial service is a beautiful way to commemorate a person and celebrate a life. It can be done anywhere, there are no time restrictions and you can often have a reception at the same site.

It may be good to remember that a memorial service is not the same as a funeral service. A funeral service takes place briefly after a person has died. It is an opportunity to say farewell to the person’s body. As grief is still raw, you will be in a different place than when the memorial happens.

Rituals for grief and remembrance

The above options are examples of more structured, formal ways of mourning a death and honour a life. There are also small and creative rituals you can do in your own home to express your grief and commemorate your person. Some examples:

  • Create a (digital) photobook of favourite photos
  • Bake their favourite cake or cook a meal that reminds you of them
  • Plant seeds in their memory and watch them grow
  • Write a letter to them
  • Create a special remembrance space with, for example, a photo, a candle, flowers, and meaningful quote or poem, a meaningful object

Grief and Covid-19

Covid-19 has a profound effect on the way we grieve. It adds a heartbreaking dimension to the already for many devastating reality of living with the death of a loved one. Some things people have shared with me:

  • “I am living with the regret that I could not attend my daughter’s funeral”
  • “Not able to meet others in person to talk about my grief”
  • “Grief is an isolating experience in itself and not being able to connect to others in person is so difficult”
  • “We were not able to give her the funeral she wanted”
  • “It was so sad that there were only four of us. She would have loved all her family and friends there”

Whatever you feel, it is ok. Continue to reach out to others to share your thoughts and grief. As an accredited non-religious pastoral carer I can offer a listening ear.

If you need more support, check out bereavement support organisations, such as Cruse, who offer free help and resources.

The Irish Hospice Foundation has issued a helpful guide for bereavement in times of Covid-19: ‘Grieving In Exceptional Times’. Read their guide here.

If you have any questions or concerns about funeral services in times of Covid-19, if you would like to have advice on the current options, or simply need a listening ear, please do get in touch. I am here to help.

Sending you all my best. Look after yourself and each other. Kindness and compassion are more important than ever.

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