Curtailments, postponements, and omissions: the effects of the pandemic on funerals and associated events

Curtailments, postponements, and omissions: the effects of the pandemic on funerals and associated events
2021-05-25

Abi Pattenden reflects on the shifting reasons and possibilities for ‘doing something later’

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was significant uncertainty around the extent to which funerals would be able to continue at all. Pandemic planning had mostly focused on practicalities of body disposal rather than funeral services, neglecting the possibility of asymptomatic illness where gatherings (such as funerals) could lead to inadvertent spread of disease. As a result there had been relatively little focus on how funerals and associated commemorative events might be affected by a need to social distance and curb activities where people meet.

At the start of the pandemic, when attendance at funerals was basically restricted to immediate family members, I was encouraging people to have funeral services as soon as was feasible. Some who wanted a larger funeral had an understandable impulse to wait and see what might happen in a few weeks’ time but there was a possibility of the system being overwhelmed, and attended funerals being impossible to arrange. Indeed, there were periods of time in some parts of the country where attended funerals did not take place.

Curtailing funerals can lead to emotional difficulties for bereaved people, and for a variety of reasons, depending on the nature of the restriction and people’s particular needs and expectations. Restrictions on the numbers of people who can gather, their proximity to each other, and the activities that can be undertaken, could all contribute to people experiencing a lack of social support. The impact of such a lack can be exacerbated when restrictions also preclude preferred practices involving care of, and exposure to, the body of the person who died. Ritual washing and dressing, open casket funerals, and visits to the Chapel of Rest were significantly restricted in the pandemic’s early stages when it was not known the extent to which the body itself could pose a risk to others.

Many bereaved people told me that they intended to have a Memorial Service at a later date- perhaps in connection with an interment of ashes. This was especially true for people who would normally have held their service in a Place of Worship, all of which were shut at the start of the pandemic. There is no regulation which specifies that ashes have to be disposed of within any length of time following a cremation and some people retain them permanently. At my company (based in England), we let anyone who wished to, defer the collection of the ashes, and we kept a record of people who had suggested that they may have an interest in a Memorial Service, in the hope of being able to help them arrange this when restrictions eased. We assumed at first that this would be in Summer 2020, but although most places of worship re-opened in mid-June 2020, attendance rules for funerals and ‘associated commemorative events’[1] in stayed more-or-less the same until May 2021.

The possibility/suitability of deferring different types of event varies with their nature. Rites associated with the preparation and viewing of a body cannot be deferred for long, and a funeral cannot be postponed forever. Actions that are tied to the specific time at which someone dies or bounded by a fixed period after it (such as Sitting Shivah) are also difficult to defer. There seems to be more flexibility around the timing of Memorial Services, but even these seem to have a time-limited relevance: it increasingly seems that some feel like the opportunity has been lost as the time when it would be useful for bereaved family members or otherwise appropriate has passed. In many cases, the usual rites and customs just never happened during the pandemic, leaving some people for whom they are an essential aspect of a funeral to feel they did not ‘do right’ by their deceased family member or friend.

Post-funeral receptions, whilst not seen as essential in the same kind of way as the washing or dressing of the person who has died or collective prayers or a service in a Place of Worship, are nevertheless important aspects of the overall funeral proceedings for many people. As with social events for other purposes, they have been significantly disrupted – just about any restriction to hospitality, whether local or national, had a significant bearing on people’s ability to gather together after a funeral. While there have been limited periods of time when slightly larger gatherings were allowed (especially outdoors), receptions were not exempt from the ‘rule of six or two households’ for indoor hospitality settings. So for many, there has been no social event in the usual proximity to the funeral itself. Many people have told me of their intention to ‘raise a glass’ together at the next opportunity, whenever that may be, but these social events seem to have a changing and less formal focus. Conversations that I have had indicate that remembering the person who has died will form only a part of a ‘postponed’ post-lockdown get-together, instead of being the primary reason for having one. This may be a pragmatic response to the knowledge that there is now so much time passed that an event will become an all-purpose ‘catch up’ by default- the purpose of a post-funeral gathering to acknowledge the death communally and elicit social support may be less relevant once the early and most acute stage of grief has passed. The ability to reconnect with people is perhaps the main commonly-acknowledged feature of funeral receptions that remains relevant.

Many people have told me of their intention to ‘raise a glass’ together at the next opportunity, whenever that may be, but these social events seem to have a changing and less formal focus. Conversations that I have had indicate that remembering the person who has died will form only a part of a ‘postponed’ post-lockdown get-together, instead of being the primary reason for having one. This may be a pragmatic response to the knowledge that there is now so much time passed that an event will become an all-purpose ‘catch up’ by default- the purpose of a post-funeral gathering to acknowledge the death communally and elicit social support may be less relevant once the early and most acute stage of grief has passed. The ability to reconnect with people is perhaps the main commonly-acknowledged feature of funeral receptions that remains relevant.

Undoubtedly, some people will delay a commemorative event until they are able to have it exactly as they wanted, however long it might take. For those who died in the earliest days of the pandemic, whose funerals were the most restricted, the anniversary of their death and funeral has also passed in lockdown, with a very limited ability to have a larger gathering, whether commemorative or social (or both). Certainly, these anniversaries would have been recognised as logical times for such events, and they were definitely mooted as possible dates in discussions I heard. The way the desired for such deferred events was expressed to me meant I saw them as representing a form of delayed catharsis, mitigating the effects of not being able to have the preferred funeral at the time of the death. My concern is that those subject to the highest restrictions are also those whose experiences are now furthest in the past. As time elapses and the perceived necessity for such an event continues to fade, I do feel we should all consider the implications for that group of people both unable to have the funeral they wanted and who increasingly feel the time to commemorate the death has passed.

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[1] The UK Government’s term, referring to directly connected events such as an ashes interment, stone setting, or Memorial Service. It does not include post-funeral receptions, which were classified separately under rules around hospitality.

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Published by Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen

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