Category Archives: Death

Funeral Services under attack from Coronavirus

Yesterday I officiated at a funeral service for a wonderful gentleman. At any other time, this service would have been attended by a couple of hundred people. The chapel would have been full, standing room only as family and many friends gathered to honour his life, his achievements and acknowledge his legacy. However, we currently live in different times and the coronavirus crisis resulted in affecting the number of people who were allowed to be in the room, restricting this to be just a fraction of those who would have wanted to attend.

I stood at the lectern, leading the ceremony. The mourners sat spread across the entire chapel, socially distancing themselves as best they could from one another. I read a tribute on behalf of a close friend, who had intended to read the words himself, but he was unable to attend due to his need to self-isolate. Sat in the front row, alone and apart from her family was the widow. She was bereft having lost her life partner with whom she had shared nearly 40 years and as she sobbed, nobody felt able or allowed to simply hug her and comfort her in what is essentially such a vital and ordinary way. Amongst the eloquently spoken words, the need for a reassuring hug, handshake or pat on the shoulder is so very important, yet in these current days, touch and physical interaction needs to be entered into so much more sparingly.

I drove home from the crematorium very reflective, even sad at how this crisis was impacting how we honour and celebrate the lives of our departed. Yet today, as I continue to have the same feelings, I am increasingly thoughtful that what we were able to achieve yesterday as a small and intimate group of family and close friends was infinitely better than what might become the reality for thousands of families over the next couple of months.

Hospitals are no longer able to welcome the families of their patients in the same way as they have done so for many years. The need for the staff to afford all their efforts on caring for the sick and the potentially contagious environment that they are working in, means that generally, family visiting or accompanying their loved ones to hospital is no longer wise, welcomed or permitted.

Currently, gatherings of people, even in very small groups is banned, except for gathering for funeral ceremonies. Some chapels are limiting numbers to 25, many more are restricting the number of mourners to 10. Even with restricted numbers in the chapel, if there are 10, 12, 14 services each day that is upwards of 100 people attending that space every day. It will be no surprise to people to hear that chapel staff are self-isolating and managers are worried about being able to continue to carry out their tasks in the coming weeks as demand on them increases.

My heart breaks at how the coming weeks might significantly impact families who lose a loved one. There is increasing likelihood that, for a period of time, all crematoria will move to ‘direct cremations’ with no family or mourners being allowed to attend. There is a very real possibility, as I see it, that someone may be sick and taken from home in an ambulance to hospital without any family being able to go with them. Should that person pass away it is likely that no family member will be with them. The opportunity to allow family to view their loved one in a chapel of rest is not without serious problems, especially if in the immediate days following the death, the family are having to self-isolate themselves having been in contact with the now departed loved one. If direct cremations don’t afford the immediate family with an opportunity to hold a ‘meaningful goodbye’ ceremony or funeral service I worry what sort of lasting impact this might have on the mental health of grieving families.

Nobody, in the funeral industry wants to impose restrictions, but it seems that for at least a short period of time, this might become necessary.

Therefore, are there new ways of enabling an immediate family the opportunity to still pay respects and honour their wife, husband, mother, father, child during these days? I am very grateful to many colleagues with whom we talk, support one another and explore how best we can support families during this crisis. One option that I would very much like to explore that was suggested to me, is the idea of the hearse, en route to the chapel, stops outside the home of the next of kin and a minister/celebrant leads a brief committal ceremony in the street, prior to the hearse continuing the journey to the crematorium. The immediate family would be able to stand at their front door, like we did to applaud the NHS staff, and participate in a brief ‘farewell ceremony’. Alternatively, might I open up my church building or car park area and allow a chapel service to take place there, again with limits on numbers.

I know that it is far from what a family would dearly want, but in these challenging times, any opportunity to provide a grieving family the opportunity to honour their loved is what I would consider to be essential.

My complete admiration extends to everyone working in the funeral industry. To those who collect our loved ones and bring them into the care of the funeral home. Those who diligently prepare the deceased for their final journey, those who deal and make arrangements with the grieving families. Those who work within our crematoria and provide a first-class service to the community at a sad time in peoples lives. Finally, to all my colleagues who lead the chapel services, who speak words to and on behalf of mourning families and strive to pay tribute to their loved ones as they gather to remember. Might we all, together, continue to do the best that we can at all times.

Keep safe and keep well and keep caring!

Bless you
John Graham

 

The Funeral Service – How Long Do We Need To Celebrate And Honour A Person’s Life?

funeral procession

In almost every crematorium that I have ministered in, there is a sort of welcome note present on or around the lectern for each visiting minister, officiant or celebrant regarding the time allowance for the funeral service within that chapel.

The message may read something like ‘Officiants are reminded that the service must NOT last any longer than 20 / 25 minutes’.

In one particular crematorium where I sometimes go there is a red light bulb that says it will light up when the service has 5 minutes left. I have never seen this bulb actually light up, but the impression that it gives me is that if I do not conform to their timings that a large trap door will open underneath me and the ceremony will immediately terminate with me falling into the bowels of the crematorium works.

Service time slots vary from venue to venue. Some crematoriums have services that are held every 40 minutes, some allow you 45 minutes, whilst others only offer ‘slots’ of 30 minutes in duration.

And in this time frame the mourners are required to enter the chapel, leave the chapel at the end of the service, allow a few minutes for ‘handover of the chapel’ allowing preparation for the next service and, oh yes, honour the full life of a much loved deceased member of a family.

As someone who has been leading funeral services as his full time ministry for in the region of 5 years, I still consider myself as something of a new kid on the block despite having officiated at somewhere near to 2000 funeral services. Yet from my humble perspective, I observe that the template for a typical funeral service has altered so much in recent years and it will, no doubt continue to do so in the short, medium and long term future.

Families are increasingly aware of how they wish the bespoke service should be in order to celebrate, honour and mourn their loved ones. A 20 minute time frame in order to achieve this is frequently hard to adhere to, for a host of valid reasons.

As families become sadly, increasingly disconnected with faith communities, there are fewer services that take place in churches where there can be often greater time for tributes and reflections, prior to the formal committal happening at the crematorium. This results in all the eulogies, tributes, hymns, poems, prayers, music, etc now taking place within the allotted 20 minute chapel service. The services are increasingly becoming more like memorial celebrations of the individual rather than a simpler, dignified and loving service of committal.

Even with a very real awareness of the need to manage the chapel time effectively, there are a host of factors that can present during a service that causes the clock to tick round all too fast.

A large congregation is never something that you are going to be able to move quickly.

There is an increasing desire from families to retire from the chapel with the curtains having stayed open. Generally, families no longer wish to see the coffin proceed and roll through away from their sight, neither do they wish to stand and watch the curtains close. Instead, the opportunity to have a procession passed the coffin, either pausing to touch the coffin, place a rose upon it, place a bingo dauber, packet of Jelly Babies or even drape themselves over it in grief is becoming more frequent and obviously, from a time point of view this adds considerable length to the time within the chapel.

Hymns, two hymns, poems read by grandchildren, prayers, and just as you are going into the chapel the emotional widow mentions to you that ‘Oh by the way the golf club captain is just going to say a few words’ can all add substantial time to a ceremony.

Then factor into the service the music. Especially the request that we listen to the entire length of his favourite song which turns out to be something like Shine On You Crazy Diamond (extended version) by Pink Floyd.

Anyone of these situations can result in you getting only about half way through your service when you see the next Funeral director standing outside the chapel door waiting to be able to bring his grieving family into the chapel for their service to commence.

Then consider the future….

With the increase in multimedia facilities more and more crematorium are already adorning their walls with large screens able to have rolling photographic images of family celebrations, holidays and other treasured memories being looped throughout the ceremony.

How soon will it be before video tributes from family members will be played, or You Tube clips replace the CD for a visual rendition of a song rather than simply reflective audio music?

Then, abhorrent as this may sound to many, with the technology being available, how long will it be before the deceased does a ‘piece to camera’ in their final days that is to be played to the family at the funeral.

The A5 folded card Order of Service Booklet can soon be made to be inadequate when a scrolling lifetime of memories can be screened throughout the chapel service.

Is the simple funeral service being replaced by a posthumous episode of ‘This Is Your Life’? For some families this may well be what they want to express their love, grief and affection for their family member.

Whether this is an over exaggeration of how things might develop is open to conversation. The truth is that the component parts that many families request for their service are increasing and perhaps the time available to accommodate this needs to expand to reflect this.

Yes a family can book a double slot but this requires the family being able to express to the funeral arranger all their hopes for the service when the ceremony is booked and often the family are too raw with emotion to know that at that point.

From a ministers perspective this can be understandably difficult at times. I may be asked if my diary permits me to officiate at a particular time, and then told that the family have already chosen 3 pieces of music, a hymn and that the family wish me to deliver the eulogy but an uncle wishes to add his own tribute with other members reading a poem. So even before the minister has met the family there can be a host of items with the expectation I will make it all flow and fit within just 20 minutes.

Yes, I can suggest that some of the tributes are held back to be given at the wake, but that is never a popular suggestion as not everyone will be going back afterwards. I am almost unable to suggest that we reschedule the service so that a longer time can be booked, as already by this point arrangements will be well in hand, hotels booked etc.

So when the service overruns and exceeds the time allocated, who is responsible? Is it the minister for bad time management of the service, the funeral directors for not booking a double slot, the family member for blatantly going on for well over the 3 minutes that the minister had stressed was his absolute limit? Or is nobody to blame and it is just something that happens and is a part of the culture of the industry?

I have on a few occasions stepped away from the lectern to allow the family tribute to be spoken when it starts with words like ‘well I have been told I must not speak for more than 3 minutes but as you know Johnny was such a great man that I will need longer so I will try and keep this to under 10 minutes’. What can the minister realistically do in this situation? Only once have I interrupted a tribute and brought it to a close and I felt dreadful doing it.

The great thing about the funeral industry is that overwhelmingly we work well together. We recognise that things happen and nobody sets out to cause the chapel to run late. Every funeral director, minister, officiant, chapel attendant, organist, crematorium staff member that I have worked with always takes immense pride in serving and supporting the families that we support and work alongside. We all at times assist, support, cover for each other when things don’t always go as we might wish. Thank you to all those colleagues who have in the past and will again in the future help me in my role.

So if the funeral continues to become a memorial celebration of someone, does greater time need to become the norm? Will services go in windows of 60 minutes rather than the 30 – 45 minute spread that currently is situation? Sadly, I appreciate that whatever time slot is available services will still on some occasions overrun, hopefully far less frequently.

My personal wish is that our services remain an opportunity for a family to celebrate and honour their loved family member. That services can be bespoke and reflect each individual whilst remaining tasteful and appropriate at all times.

I love my ministry and the opportunity it provides to support people in the early stages of their bereavement. I know that everyone in the industry shares that passion with me. Funeral Directors, Casual staff, Crematorium staff, organist, floral arrangers, ministers, officiants, and celebrants – you all do an amazing work… God Bless You.

Maybe over the coming weeks or months I could discuss this in more depth with other ministers and officiants. I would genuinely value your thoughts and insight into this whole area.

 

 

Caring for Elderly Parents -This is what it is really like…

hands

***Do not read this posting on an empty stomach… Actually, do not read on a full stomach either…. Perhaps the best advice is DO NOT READ THIS AT ALL…. You have been warned!!!!’

 

In life there are seasons. Some seasons last longer than others. Some seasons pass by without much happening whilst others can be at times quite turbulent.

For some people the seasons that they have to go through can be far more challenging, demanding and emotional than I may ever have to experience. They may have to face and deal with situations that go on for years.

This season that we find ourselves in as a family is only temporary. It will conclude sometime, maybe fairly soon, with one and then another sad day at West Herts Crematorium.

For many of us who are of a certain age, the issue of caring for elderly parents is a season that we now find ourselves managing our way through. I have frequently said that we are on a roller coaster ride, we will ride it to the end, but I wish I knew how long the ride was going to last.

My father in currently 91, suffering with Alzheimer’s, he spends his days between his hospital bed at home in his bedroom or sitting in his chair in the lounge. Sleeping the majority of the time, he no longer leaves home, rarely gets dressed and whilst the TV is on he is unaware of what is being shown.

Sadly, dad has lost so much weight over recent months that he looks like he could have recently been released from a concentration camp, he is frail and often unsteady on his feet.

Conversation with dad has never been a sport that he has excelled in and whilst he can still recall the Morse Code that he used when he served us as a nation during the wartime years, other conversation on the earlier parts of his current day will not engender a lengthy chat at all.

Personal care and toilet management can be a challenge and that is where this tale is centred.

What follows is just one episode, a snap shot of caring for elderly parents.

On this particular day, mum was staying at a local 5 star all-inclusive location called Watford General Hospital, I called in to see how dad was and as soon as I entered my old family home my nose told me that I was about to play the game that I have entitled as ‘hunt the poo’. Dad was actually in bed munching his Meals On Wheels and greeted me with his usual ‘Hello John’ and I was thinking either that dinner smells rank or there is a parcel somewhere needing to be found, addressed and tidied up.

Fortunately, the offensive area was located, the toilet area dealt with, bleached, floor cleaned and then I was starting to wash my hands in the bathroom when my father returned to the scene of the crime and entered the toilet for what I will call round 2.

Lets fast forward through the next few minutes to the point where I managed to walk my father into the bathroom as a fairly extensive clean up job was now required. Sometimes in caring for your elderly parents you just have to roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath and get on with it and this was most certainly one of those times.

I managed to get dad to stand at the sink to wash his hands and try and get his fingers clean after they had previously been very inquisitive as to what the contents of his pull up nappy were. This was basically what I will call distraction tactics whilst I knelt down behind him to assess the cleaning operation that was needed.

OMG! It was everywhere!

I lifted his pyjama top out of the way to start wiping his bottom when I realised that the task was greater than I first thought. For those whose nappy changing days revolve around a baby or toddler allow me to point out that a hairy backside brings a very different dynamic to the bottom cleaning experience. After I gave it a pretty good tidy up, my heart sank. There, right in front of me, staring straight at me was what appeared to be a large poo that was as I can best describe it, hanging there needing to be removed. Well, I was in for a penny, so I took another large breath and taking a firm grip attempted to remove the offensive object from its lodgings. It was at this point, accompanied by something of a yelp from my father that I discovered that the object was not at all what I had thought it to be, but instead I was pulling on my dads testicles.

Now you may laugh… Go on feel free… You may say your poor dad…. Listen, seconds later my father has no recollection of this experience at all – perhaps some small benefit of memory loss, instead feel sorry for me as I am left with this memory scarred on my memory for the rest of my days…

Anyway, maybe not as clean as I would have liked, I simply put a clean ‘Pull Up’ onto him, fresh pyjamas and had just managed to return him to bed when I received overwhelming proof that God is real. His carer arrived! Hallelujah! ‘Sorry I’m a bit late he shouted as he came up the stairs…’ ‘Sorry???, sorry???’ I replied ‘Don’t be sorry at all…. You are my Angel!’ Dad was then given the professional and dignified care that he deserved with a full shower and another change by a lovely man who deserves so much more than what I imagine may simply be close to minimum wage.

Caring for ageing parents is a season. A season full of challenges and experiences that we may wish we never had to face. But within these days, weeks, months or however long it lasts there are conversations, and in this case experiences that I am grateful to have had. Some make us laugh, others make us cry but we do them because they are Mum and Dad… Nuff said!