When we talk about funerals in the UK we have a shared image of what we’re talking about. A gathering of mourners at either a place of worship or a crematorium. This usually takes place within a matter of weeks of the person dying. There’s usually a hearse and, very often, the immediate family follow behind in a limousine. There’s lots of hugging and kissing, gripping soggy tissues and shaking hands. Funerals are touchy-feely. And rightly so. At this time of immense grief holding other people and feeling their physical presence is one of the few grains of comfort you have.
A funeral is part of our journey through grief. It’s about closure. It’s about acknowledging that the person really did die. It’s about saying goodbye. Hence, at a time when weddings, festivals, parties, events and exhibitions have all been banned… funerals have not. The exemption of funerals from the ‘gatherings’ ban has clearly been made for all the right reasons. It comes from a place of compassion. But, in an attempt to compassionate, we have possibly ended up in a place, for some, of inadvertent cruelty.
What does it mean to be able to hold a funeral in the middle of a virulent pandemic? It means numbers are limited (immediate family only, five-ten people only depending on the crematorium), social distancing is to be maintained (guests to sit two metres apart and not touch each other), choices are removed (you may not leave the curtains open, you may not approach the coffin) at some crematoria hymn books have been removed and singing is not allowed. But, more than that, people are uncomfortable, anxious, nervous. Elderly and vulnerable people are having to make terrible choices – to put themselves at risk by attending or to feel guilty and heartbroken for not. And then, if they do attend, facing the unimaginable pain of having to sit, alone, staring at the coffin of someone they love and unable to seek comfort from those around them.
To be frank, social distancing at a funeral feels inhumane. It feels torturous and I truly believe it is not in any way healing, in fact, the converse is probably true. But what are the alternatives?
Well, we have found that if families are made aware of the fact that they can separate the cremation from the celebration of life, that they are offered this as an opportunity, rather than a cop-out, the main emotion they often feel is relief. They no longer have to choose who can attend, they don’t have the anxiety of being put at risk in a public place, they don’t have the trauma of being unable to comfort each other in their grief, rather than having choices removed they are being given choices. They can take back control and ownership of the send-off and often, that’s what really matters. They have a focus for the future, a point where we will be through this and they will be free to truly honour the person who has died.
Kate T and Kate D of Kate and Kate Celebrants are very used to conducting end-of-life ceremonies where the person who has died is not present. It can be that they’ve already been cremated or that their body has been donated to medical science. The physical remains of a person do not need to be there in order for a ceremony to have meaning. In fact, it can be said, that not having a coffin there changes the atmosphere and allows family and guests to honour that person in a less formal (often more appropriate) way.
Of course, funerals are seen as something that ‘draws a line’ under a death. It is a step in the grieving process. We often hear ‘let’s get the funeral out of the way and then we can move on.’ So, if you can’t have a funeral straight after someone’s died, but you feel the need to mark their death, what can you do?
Well in this time of mass connectivity you can do lots of things ‘virtually’. Set up a zoom group and swap stories. Each choose a piece of music that represents that person or reminds you of them and share it online. You can do the same with an object. Synchronise a time when everyone connected can raise a toast or light a candle. Facebook, or other social media platforms, can be used as online ‘guest books’ with people leaving their thoughts and comments. You can, of course, conduct a whole ceremony online, but we have found that these too can feel disconnected and, potentially, make your feeling of isolation even worse.
So, if you’re not going to have a funeral now what happens? Well, the one thing we can reassure you of is that if your dead are cremated or buried with no family in attendance they will still be treated with the utmost respect. The staff at all our local crematoria – Hastings, Eastbourne and Wealden – are absolutely lovely and will fulfil their duties with compassion and care and in a way that you can be reassured that the person who has died is in safe hands.
That done, and once this time of lock-down is over, the world is your oyster. You can book a barn or village hall, or host an event in your back garden. You can have a mini-festival, or performance. You can have live music, audio/visual, dancing girls (as my friend who was in a belly dancing troupe actually did!). Kate and Kate can help you craft a ceremony that is unique and totally fitting for the person who’s died and, because you haven’t got a ‘slot’ at the crematorium, there will be no time restriction. The flow of the day is completely different, too, as you don’t have the stop/start nature of a ‘normal’ funeral.
We are in no way trying to make light of how hard this is. Such difficult and heart-breaking choices having to be made. But, if you can find it in you, this could be seen as an opportunity to do something wonderful. Kate and Kate have years of experience in preparing and conducting alternative end-of-life celebrations. They can advise you on every aspect of a family-led funeral.
*Funerals are currently still allowed but with attendance and social distancing restrictions
*Funerals can be ‘live-streamed’ but many crematoria do not have the facilities to do this
*Some crematoria elsewhere in the country now don’t allow funerals at all – they only allow unattended burial/cremation – other areas may follow in this
*You can separate the cremation/burial from the celebration of life and have that at a later date, wherever and however you would like it
*If you still want to go ahead with a family-only funeral during this time, Kate and Kate can provide you with a script to work from so that you can conduct a service yourselves