Finding a way through

Fran Hall

Our opinion piece last Friday ignited a debate that has continued throughout the week.

It was picked up by Sky News on Friday evening, then over the weekend, articles appeared in The Telegraph, Newsweek, The Express, The Church Times, and Sputnik News all referencing our blog post, and it was referred to in a letter to The Yorkshire Post.

An article in The Guardian on Saturday by Good Funeral Guild member Rebecca Lee-Wale detailed how difficult the situation is for celebrants, another member of the Guild, funeral director Jenny Uzzell, discussed funerals under the current restrictions on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday morning (around 35 minutes in) and a third Guild member, Lucy Coulbert, spoke on Talk Radio on Monday afternoon about our blog post and her thoughts about it as a funeral director facing this crisis head on.

We have spoken to a number of journalists since last week and been interviewed live on LBC and Radio 5 Live, while in online forums many people have voiced their opinions, both in support of – and strongly against – our suggestion that funerals as they are now are neither safe nor adequate. 

The Jewish Chronicle revealed last weekend that Britain’s Liberal and Reform Jewish Movements had announced no mourners would be permitted at burials- see here, while a number of crematoria around the country have now moved to only accepting bookings for unattended cremations. Bradford, Aberdeen, Yeovil and Leeds have all already suspended ceremonies with mourners attending, while others are set to follow in the coming weeks.

The discussion continues, as more and more people experience just how difficult a socially distanced ceremony actually is. We have heard from numerous people who have found their own personal situation almost impossible to bear, and others who argued compellingly that an unwitnessed burial or cremation would have been even worse for them. There is no easy answer to any of these messages. There is no good solution to what we are facing.

But in response to our request for ideas for how to find ways of commemorating the lives of those who have died without risking the lives and wellbeing of those who survive, we had a message from a celebrant, Helen Wearmouth, who had a ‘somewhat left-field idea’ (her own words).

We invited her to write a guest blog for us. Here it is.

 

Funerals During COVID-19 – A Crazy Idea.

In her latest article Fran Hall extended an open invite for solutions to a problem; a problem which concerns more than just our industry. A problem which concerns our entire society:

How do we continue commemorating lives without placing mourners in jeopardy?

My idea is further down. It’s far from conventional, but these are desperate, unconventional times:

  • If you see a problem with my solution, please share it.
  • If you think of a better idea, please share it.

In the article below, I’ve tried to describe:

  • The problems posed by the current situation.
  • The problems other solutions cannot address.
  • My proposed solution.

Why can’t funerals continue as they are?

Before even considering the problem, it’s important to have a grasp on what the problems are. In this case, recent government safeguards implemented to protect us all from coronavirus present problems of their own. Any solution must solve these problems in addition to those caused by the virus.

The problems are:

  • Risk of infection between mourners.
  • Only ‘immediate family’ may attend.

This is vague and open to interpretation. Do unmarried partners count? How about step-siblings and foster children? Who gets to decide?

  • People showing symptoms are excluded.
  • Entire households of those showing symptoms can’t attend.
  • Over 70s will be less able to attend.
  • Those concerned about contracting the virus won’t attend.
  • With good reason, travel (whether essential or otherwise) is discouraged.

Other factors we need to consider.

Religious beliefs:

Here in the UK, land is a valuable commodity. Burials are more expensive than cremations and the remains take up more space. For several years now, this situation has been approaching a crisis point even without this strain of coronavirus as a catalyst.

For followers of the Muslim faith or Judaism, cremation is not an option, and people of these faiths represent a sizeable proportion of our population.

The problems with solutions I’ve heard so far.

So far, I’ve heard two main contenders for a solution to these problems. Both options only offer a partial remedy to each problem, and each creates its own problems:

Solution 1: Memorials at a later date

With this solution, the deceased would be cremated/buried immediately, allowing their service to be held at a later date.

Problem 1: When?

Will the end of this pandemic be easy to define? Pandemics often return in waves.

Problem 2: How many services could there be?

Once the pandemic is over, could we expect an explosion in the number of such services? How many services will people be able to attend?

Problem 3: Why are memorials not our ‘go to’ ceremony already?

Memorials have a great deal going for them. They’re cheaper, you have more time to organise; and can be held anywhere, and at any time.

The big difference between a funeral and a memorial is the presence of the body. Being able to say goodbye to someone you cared about when their body is present means more to many.

Problem 4: Will families be able to afford them?

After what is likely months of financial strain, will families be able to afford a memorial service?

Problem 5: What about prepaid funerals?

Will prepaid funeral contracts cover the change from a funeral to a memorial? If not, will this shake public faith in these investments?      

Solution 2: Internet streaming

 There’s been a great deal of discussion about web-streamed services.

The pros:
  • Allows unlimited virtual-attendees.
  • No-one needs to leave their home.
  • Independent of distance.
Problem:

If the crematorium even has this facility, there are so many ways this could go wrong. This solution relies on the sound working order of:

  • The crematorium internet connection.
  • The webcam(s), sound equipment.
  • Staff with sufficient technical knowledge to ensure the service is streamed.
  • Virtual-attendees having access to a computer.

Here in the UK, 12% of us still don’t.

  • Virtual-attendees having a fast enough connection to stream a service.

The minimum upload speed is about 1.5 mbps.

  • Virtual-attendees having the technical knowledge to ‘tune in’ to the service.

 

My Solution.

The vast majority of mourners arrive by vehicle. My idea is they simply remain in these vehicles. Much like American ‘Drive-In’ movie theatres, we apply the same idea to funerals.

Benefits of this idea.
  • Everyone assembles in the usual location.
  • No obstructions to reverting back to usual services once the pandemic is over.
  • All currently excluded groups (over 70s, non-immediate family and friends, estranged relatives, those showing symptoms); could still attend.
  • The body is present for people to say their goodbyes to.
  • No risk of contamination between cars.
  • Elderly and/or disabled mourners don’t need to walk anywhere.
  • Service could be held regardless of weather.
  • Whole households could attend together.
  • Allows those in the same vehicle the possibility of physical comfort (from members of the same household).
  • It requires little change.

Everything would continue to work in much the conventional way, except mourners would remain in their vehicles throughout the ceremony.

How it could work?
  • The service could be conducted in the crematorium car park.
  • Sound can be delivered via an amp, Bluetooth to mobile phones, or we could use a short-range FM transmitter to transmit to nearby car stereos tuned to a given frequency (the latest method used by drive-in theatres).
 
A request?

I believe this idea, crazy as it may be, offers the potential to address most of the problems we face.

Should you agree or disagree, I ask that you let us know. This problem will soon affect everyone in the UK, and only with our combined knowledge and experience can we can find a solution.

 

Helen Wearmouth

www.helencelebrantne.com

 

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Joyce Robinson
Joyce Robinson
2 months ago

I think that is a great idea that is if the funeral home doesn’t mess it up. Someone I know died on the 9th April I must add not through Covid-19. And it has been very upsetting to some of the close family. First the cremation was going to be on the 2nd June which was long enough then one of her sons got a letter saying for some obscure reason that it cant take place until the 12th June, no thought was put into the families feelings. I cant go owing to shielding so here eldest son cant be… Read more »

Helen Wearmouth
4 months ago

Looks like a funeral parlour in Texas had the same idea, and implemented it!
Well done Mission Park! Love the ‘3 honks’ for comfort, love and support as everyone leaves.

https://www.missionparks.com/mission-park-coronavirus-funeral-update/

Jonathan Taylor
Jonathan Taylor
4 months ago

An innovative suggestion from a funeral director, to address the present obstacles to attending a funeral. But if it’s your latent bereavement, you don’t have to work in funerals to come up with your own, idiosyncratic ideas, which you may need to resort to in practice. Just think about (and, crucially, talk about), for instance; WHY will our person’s body still be so important for a while once it’s dead? And how can we come together to find subtler ways to be close with the person while physically distant from her coffin and each other, as we wish her farewell… Read more »

Lyn Fegan
Lyn Fegan
4 months ago

A good idea but we are being told not to travel unnecessarily. Surely this would be a problem?

Helen Wearmouth
4 months ago
Reply to  Lyn Fegan

Hi Lyn, That’s a valid concern. From what I’ve gleaned to date, the government regard funerals as important. Not only from a ‘management of the deceased’ viewpoint, but also morale and emotional/spiritual well being. It’s not only staff at crematoria/gravediggers who’re classified as key workers, but also clergy, ministers and celebrants. The governments current stance on what constitutes a necessary journey includes trips to off-licences and takeaways. It would be a bad sign if you could go out for a bag of chips and a bottle of prosecco, but not a ceremony marking the end of a parent’s life. But,… Read more »