Appreciating 'food for thought' conversations
2021-04-21

Vikki Entwistle reflects on the value of open team discussions in Care in Funerals project meetings

In our early team meetings, we have been sharing and discussing a broad selection of ‘food for thought’ items relating to funerals: news reports; guidance about regulations and policy changes introduced because of COVID-19; poignant stories, told from diverse perspectives, of disruption, distress, determination and innovation; and academic insights contributed from a range of disciplines. Our conversations range widely as we pick up on numerous points of interest and spark connections between ideas, with team members drawing on their own different personal experiences, academic backgrounds and the broader learning that reflects our complementary interests.

I thoroughly enjoy these weekly sessions, and the allocated discussion time always seems to pass far too quickly. We often agree to run a little over time, keen to keep sharing and learning. Perhaps, while we are all still working from home, and we have not all met each other in person, we’re also simply appreciating the company and opportunity to get to know each other a bit better as a team. But the conversations are not a luxury indulgence. Especially in an interdisciplinary and multi-component project like Care In Funerals, they are, I think, essential to ensuring we make good use of public research funds and deliver robust and useful project outputs.

Our ‘food for thought’ conversations feed variously into, and will increasingly draw from, the more formally described and systematic elements of our research. They help sensitise us to issues that it will be important to investigate carefully in our analyses of ‘artefacts’ relating to funeral provision during the COVID-19 pandemic and in our interviews with bereaved family members, funeral directors and celebrants. The conversations are also helping us to generate ideas and think creatively about the ‘ethics case book’ resource that will be a key project output.

The conversations do not cover all the topics that our ‘food for thought’ items touch upon, and we by no means exhaust particular themes within any particular meeting. We take the ideas and notes forward in various ways into the identification and analysis of artefacts, the questions we ask and lenses we will use in our analysis of interviews, and the selection of broader literature that we engage with. Sometimes we also bring them back into subsequent conversations. I fully anticipate that some topics and themes from these conversations will feature more prominently than others in our project outputs.

By way of illustration, I share here just a few fragments from our most recent discussion.

This week’s conversation ‘took off’ along several branching and interconnecting threads from points that most struck a couple of team members from our collective reading of a magazine interview about death rituals with the anthropologist Matthew Engelke, and of a funeral director’s webpages.

The magazine article reinforced our awareness of both the commonality (across many cultures) of the importance attached to good treatment of the bodies of people who have died and – at the same time – the diversity of what is considered good treatment. Although the details vary, people recognise, take up and strive to fulfil various responsibilities to care for the dead, including in their physicality.

Funeral directors serve in part to help family members and others care for those who have died. Many emphasise that they can facilitate whatever family members consider fitting: they respect and enable personal choices. What funeral directors say about their services, on their websites and elsewhere, often emphasises the care they take – of both the dead and the bereaved.

In the UK and many other countries, funeral services operate as businesses in a market economy. The quality of the care they provide has become one of the ways in which funeral directors compete - alongside the variety or particularity of traditions they can reflect and preferences they can fulfil. Perhaps especially when we are considering the physical care of dead people prior to their burial or cremation, competing on the basis of quality of care this can look or feel somewhat uncomfortable. As a caring business, the funeral industry like some institutional and home care provision, sits across a line of some tension in terms of what is considered appropriate for market exchange. This has various socially and ethically important implications that we anticipate exploring further.

One point we considered a little during this week’s conversation was the way that market arrangements have intersected with both COVID-19 restrictions and evolving ideas about what can be done in terms of funeral provision to shape expectations and understandings of good care. For example, the online streaming and digital recording and sharing of death rites and ceremonies have developed and become more widely used over the course of the pandemic. These are perhaps seen as ‘standard’ options in some places, but various questions, including of who pays for what, and who is or can be held responsible for ensuring what level of access and quality of experience for whom, perhaps remain somewhat contested and unsettled.

The increase in online and digital means of participating in (or at least witnessing) ceremonies remotely also opens out some new questions relating to funeral poverty. There are costs associated with both providing and accessing online and digital services, and broader inclusion/exclusion issues as well while digital literacy remains variable, especially among older age groups.

Recognising diversity, at least in terms of views about what constitutes good care of the dead and what people want as mourners, many funeral directors emphasise their commitment to tailor or personalise the care they provide. It has been a recurring theme of our discussions, since the Conversation with Abi Pattenden that sparked the development of this project, that one of the striking challenges that COVID-19 has presented for funeral directors has been the need to say “No, I’m sorry, we/you cannot…” when they are usually so committed to “Yes, we can do/arrange that”.

Our interviews will explore in more detail experiences of situations in which the pandemic situation has precluded usual practices of care for the dead and bereaved. Our conversation this week brought us back again to the profound distress that restrictions on the handling and viewing of the bodies of people who died from COVID-19 can generate, especially for people whose established death rituals involve physical contact or proximity. We anticipate including several examples of these in our ethics case book resource, with commentaries that bring additional perspectives from different religious and cultural traditions.

Talk of respect for the dead in their physicality also prompted a sharing of stories of embalmers who talk to the people whose bodies they are caring for and crematorium staff who stand in respectful silence each day after tidying up the fragments of ash that remain even after most have been placed carefully in the appropriate urn. These examples often go unnoticed and are not, as far as we are aware, among the advertised features of respectful, caring and compassionate funeral service provision. They do, however, express important value commitments on the part of those who engage in them and warrant careful reflection.

I am looking forward to learning and sharing more from our more systematic research activities as well as from our future team conversations. I also hope the richness of our ‘food for thought’ prompted discussions will ripple out through the knowledge exchange events that we will use to help share and develop the practical value of our findings towards the end of the project.

If you are interested in being interviewed, providing feedback or commentary from a particular perspective on ethics case examples, or hearing more about the knowledge exchange events, please get in touch with us at careinfunerals@abdn.ac.uk.

To return to the Care In Funerals project page, click here.

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Published by Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen

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