Funerals in times of Covid-19

Cherry blossom at the funeral of a young woman

Update 6th April 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.

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.

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 6-10 people (restricted to immediate family only) are allowed to attend the funeral service
  • People are asked to sit 2 meters apart from from each other and respect social distancing from funeral staff
  • Funeral directors no longer use limousines but ask people to arrange their own transport
  • People are 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
  • Crematoria no longer offer double slots or reduce time for services

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.

Funeral flowers

Funeral flowers may be hard to get by as many florists are closed and flower supplies are low. Some alternative ideas:

  • 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

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

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.

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 warmth.

For people who cannot attend the funeral in person a webcast may be an option for them to watch the service online. I will say a special welcome to them in my introduction to the service and, if permitted, we can light a candle for them.

If a webcast is not possible or not the best option for the people involved, I can help create a commemorative ritual, for example to be held at the time of the funeral service. Some examples:

  • 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
  • A son who could not attend his mother’s funeral organised a special ceremony in their garden with his family on the day of the funeral
  • A sister had received the script of the funeral service and the order of service so she could read it on the day and play the music that was chosen for her brother’s funeral. I had also taken a few photos so she had an impression of the service.
  • At the start of the funeral service we lit a candle for everyone who could not be there. The family had invited people to lit their own candle at home at the same time.

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.

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.

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:

  • 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 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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