Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Funerals and Lockdown

After nearly 30 years in ordained ministry I have lost count of how many funerals I have taken. Over time I realised that whilst the vast majority of people have only attended a few (if any funerals), within a year I had been to more than most people do in a lifetime. That's also true of funeral directors, organists, vergers, crematorium and cemetery attendants and of course others who lead services, ceremonies and celebrations.

In my present parish, I don't have large numbers of funerals to deal with - in 2019 there were 18. They don't all come in at regular intervals, and winter is usually busier than the summer. However, things are starting to feel a bit different. I took a funeral on Friday, and I have 5 more booked in the diary for the next 2 weeks. Our local funeral director said they had 13 ceremonies in their diary for this week, which was significantly busier than usual for this time of year, and altogether they were dealing with 35 families. 

I appreciate that it's not a representative sample, but it does seem to correlate with what is happening nationally. More people are dying than would be expected, based on statistics from previous years - whether from covid-19 or for other reasons - and we will see the consequences for some time yet. 

What makes this all the more painful is that bereaved families can't be given the support and attention we would usually want to provide. Funeral directors and ministers alike are unable to visit people in their homes, and have to do everything by phone or video call. Likewise there are restrictions at funeral services - only a few can attend and there can be no singing of hymns/songs. One of the most difficult issues is that some crematoria won't even allow a small gathering in the chapel, whereas others (such as our local one) do. I am sure that many grieving people will be frustrated, disappointed and even angry at the limitations that have been imposed.

Friday was my first experience of the new regulations. We had prepared the service by phone and email, so I had very good information to work with. I met the relatively small family group at the cemetery, and greeted them from a distance, and everyone stood apart in their household groups. The deceased was a Roy Orbison fan, so we even managed to play Pretty Woman on my bluetooth speaker at the end. Again, as everyone left, I could only say goodbye from a distance. Luckily the sun shone.

One things that struck me afterwards was that my funeral director colleagues have to take more risks. Not only do they have to regard every body as potentially infected, and take precautions accordingly, they are not able to keep to all of the distancing guidelines. Some of them have to travel together, and you can't keep 2m apart carrying a coffin from a car to a graveside. Unseen and unnoticed until you really need them, they are all working hard behind the scenes to help in a key role during this crisis.

I was also very aware that people often write down what they would like to happen at their funeral, and in many cases this won't be possible to fulfil. Once the crisis period is over, and we're in the recovery phase, I suspect that a lot of people will have a kind of renewed grieving period, when they are able to spend time with family and friends, gather to remember, hold memorial services, and try to fulfil the wishes of loved ones they have lost. Those of us in roles that can help at such a time will need to be ready.

So please spare a prayer or a thought for the funeral directors, the mortuary, cemetery and crematorium staff, the ministers of religion, civil celebrants, humanists and others who lead funeral ceremonies. Most of all remember those who have lost loved ones in this period, many of whom will feel that they have more to do, in order to do justice to the memory of the person they have lost.

1 comment:

Sue Kiernan said...

Thank you Mike - very helpful