Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Funerals, Churches and covid-19

You may have seen headlines about a letter written by Chris Loder, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, about resuming funerals in parish churches. It was signed by 35 of his party colleagues, and asks for the Bishops of the C of E to give permission for funerals to take place in church, in line with government guidance.

The first thing to say is that we would all like to be back to normal. I would rather have taken today's funeral in church than at the graveside. We want our buildings to be available to the communities they are there to serve. However, that can only happen when it is safe and practicable to do so, and pressure from a group of MPs is not a helpful contribution at this stage.

It's worth taking a look at the current guidance for managing funerals during the pandemic, which has been published by the government. It addresses a number of issues, including who should attend and the management of the 'venue'. The guidance (or are they really regulations?) make it clear that there are significant restrictions on who should attend, and that a series of hygiene and social distancing measures need to be in place at the venue.

Perhaps the place to start is about who can attend. Funerals are one of the few occasions when a small gathering of more than 2 adults can occur legally. The guidance says that numbers should be limited to ensure that 2 metres can be maintained between people:

"alongside the Funeral Director, Chapel Attendant, and funeral staff only the following should attend:
  • members of the person’s household
  • close family members
  • or if the above are unable to attend, close friends
  • attendance of a celebrant of choice, should the bereaved request this"
Round here, for practical purposes, that is being interpreted as 10 mourners at the crematorium or at the graveside (although in the latter case, I have spotted an occasional extra mourner standing at a significant distance in the cemetery).

I am told that some crematoria have security checking people on the gate, but thankfully that isn't the case where I am. However, there are full-time staff around if required to assist were there a problem. We have to anticipate the same scenario at a church door, should restrictions ease. Church buildings are often closer and more accessible to the bereaved than a crematorium, so more mourners might be expected to try and come. Someone has to enforce that at the door, and I don't relish the thought of anyone having to turn people away from a service in church - especially a funeral. I don't know who I would want to ask to do that. Funeral directors might oblige, but they are not members of or representatives of our church community, so if there was an issue about access, I'm not sure it should fall on them.

Then there is the issue of precedent. A blanket ban on all activity has the merit of being clear. Once the church doors are open for funerals, it inevitably begs the question as to why they couldn't be open for other services too. It is reasonable to argue a case for funerals as an exception to the rules, but it would increase disquiet about other services being blocked. Opening up churches has to be looked at as a whole, and not just on one specific issue.

The current regulations themselves lay down a whole set of conditions for the funeral ceremony venue, which all make a lot of sense. These include:
  • "mourners who attend should be signposted to the advice on social distancing and that they should not attend the funeral if they are unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • venue managers should ensure that handwashing facilities with soap and hot water and hand sanitiser are available and clearly signposted
  • venue managers should ensure that processes are in place to allow a suitable time to clean and disinfect the area in which the service has taken place both before and after each service, paying attention to frequently touched objects and surfaces, using regular cleaning products
  • venue managers should consider how to manage the flow of groups in and out of their venues to minimise overlap between different groups and allow for adequate cleaning
  • venue managers should maximise ventilation rates of the premises by opening windows and doors where possible."
A minority of C of E churches will be able to cope with this fairly well - especially churches which are physically large, have a good set of loos, and paid staff who can police, usher and clean. But for many parish churches, that is a set of obligations they would struggle to fulfil.

For example, many church buildings don't even have windows that will open, or sinks with hot water (a cold tap in the vestry is sometimes all they have!). Smaller churches often have narrow aisles which will make getting in and out a slow and laborious process. Furthermore, the people who volunteer to assist at funerals as vergers, wardens and organists (and cleaners) in many churches are over 70 and so should be at home while the infection is in wide circulation (as well as those with health conditions). 

I am sure that some easing of restrictions on the use of church buildings will gradually come through over the next few weeks. That may include funerals, and managing expectations in the midst of all of that will be a significant challenge for clergy and church councils. Some churches will probably be able to do more than others for periods as we transition from where we are now to whatever the new normal will look like. We will also have to carry out thorough risk assessments on all of our activities (including services), asking questions that we never thought we would need to ask. 

The false assumption in the MPs' letter was that churches aren't already asking the questions as to how long these arrangements must persist. We ask them every day, but we also know that we have a duty of care for every gathering in our buildings (often of a vulnerable demographic). Church of England ministers are taking funerals in these strange circumstances every day, so we are painfully aware of the difference between this and what used to be normal. I've been impressed by how bereaved families have not only coped with, but fully understood and accepted the current situation. In all 6 funerals I have dealt with since lockdown, the families have been very helpful, cooperative and appreciative. But I wish I could have done more, and I wish the church building could have been an option, but it can't and shouldn't be until we know the risks have been reduced to a minimum.

Perhaps if Mr Loder and his friends had a chat with some of their local clergy, they might find it helpful in learning more about the challenges we all face in moving forward as lockdown eases, and a little more understanding about why the current measures are in place.

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