As I start to speak, the lady sitting down in front of me starts to sob and shake. The few other people who are dotted around the cavernous chapel are helpless and cannot comfort her. As we listen to the music the couple first danced to fifty years ago, I begin to tell the story of her dear husband’s life.
This is the reality of being a celebrant, conducting a funeral in April 2020. You won’t have met the family before the ceremony and current restrictions demand that a maximum of ten people can attend the cremation or interment. In addition, social distancing rules must be enforced and nobody can touch the coffin or each other, mourners are given gloves or hand sanitiser at the entrance.
The situation can seem clinical, heart-breaking and overwhelmingly sad, especially in the instances when the loved ones were also denied a chance to see or spend time with the deceased in hospital or be with them when they died. However, funeral directors and crematoria staff are being incredibly professional while managing to keep families and staff safe while also giving the deceased the respect and dignity they deserve.
Despite the tragedy of the current situations, there are some positives that have come out of having to work in this way which may well be useful to bear in mind in the future. I don’t think that any aspect of our lives is ever going to go back to ‘normal’, but it is important to see that not all the recent developments have necessarily been negative in terms of our future practice.
For example, even technological dinosaurs like me have had to get to grips with using technology more as a part of our day-to-day working life. I now Skype instead of attend family meetings in person and, after a few hiccups at the start involving children and dogs walking in, this seems to work well. Crematoria too are now regularly streaming and recording ceremonies as a matter of course.
Ironically, this move has meant that funerals can now be experienced in real time by a larger number of people, in various geographical locations than before. Recently, a family expressed to me how seeing all the other mourners on the screen whilst being in their own family units gave them all time afterwards to stay connected online – something in which they found great solace.
Indeed, those who have been unable to attend have had to be creative in developing rituals in order to feel that they are partaking in the ceremony: lighting candles, joining in with songs, or raising a toast to the deceased while being able to experience the ceremony in real time has become much more common. I have also noticed that families have been much more likely to wear bright colours to the ceremony, almost in defiance of the restrictions and a clear determination to “celebrate” rather than mourn their loved one. Again, I welcome this move from the traditional wearing of black to a more colourful, creative expression of how they would like the person to be remembered.
However, the current restrictions have highlighted how important that physical proximity is, not just for the celebrant, but for all funeral service professionals. I’ve had many funeral directors confide in me recently that they are finding it extremely stressful and upsetting not being able to give a hug or even shake a hand as a sign of respect and empathy. It’s not always recognised that the kindness and diplomacy that is required in the profession leads to its members becoming skilled counsellors. Perhaps this could be more formally recognised; there might even be implications for future selection and training in the profession.
Though the structure and length of the ceremonies has not changed, the fact that the congregation is usually just family, all of whom obviously knew the life story of the deceased, means that the content of the eulogy/tribute section is far more intimate and personal.
Tailoring ceremonies so that they perfectly represent the deceased and how his nearest and dearest saw him/her is crucial to offering the family the closure that they need in order to grieve. This focus on describing the real essence of the person, and the influence they had on family and friends, rather than merely listing the chronology of their life is surely a good thing. The closeness of the family group has always been intrinsic to the ceremony but somehow it seems even more important now, especially when a spouse is isolating.
Similarly, this intimacy is also revealed through the choices of music and readings that families are making. Not having to cater to a wider social circle I find that the personal nature of the choices of both music and poetry and the reasons behind these choices are incredibly moving. Families are being encouraged to really think about what was important to their loved one; the ensuing conversations can only be helpful as they slowly begin the difficult journey of coming to terms with their loss.
Therefore, despite the utter tragedy of the current situation I am finding that we, as officiants, are still able to celebrate the life of the deceased in a positive and meaningful way, that offers their friends and relatives a sense of comfort and closure. Though it is an option for many, I personally don’t believe that the majority of families will necessarily want to hold a memorial or celebration of life in the future. For some, revisiting their feelings of loss and grief in eight months or a year might just be too painful, particularly when their own lives will, necessarily, have moved on.
Whatever a family decided to do now and in the future – the clothes they chose to wear, the music and readings they wish to be recited – the only important thing is that they are given the choice to conduct the ceremony in the way they want.
I am so pleased that, as I write this, in South Wales where I work, we continue to be able to offer families a full ceremony for cremation and burial. I am, in addition, immensely proud of the way the whole funeral industry has responded to the current crisis.
Julia Page, funeral celebrant and founder of funeral planning platform Way to Go