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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