A personal story of grief
There is a beautiful little book by Baptist minister Richard Littledale, called Postcards from the Land of Grief which my friend Clare mentioned to me a few weeks after Steve died.
I recognise that description, with a jolt of familiarity – ‘the land of grief’. This is where I find myself, a new arrival in an unfamiliar place, where the language, the sounds and the sights and the scenery are all unknown. (Probably the scents and the flavours and tastes are all new too, but thanks to Covid, I can’t yet detect them.)
And in this new landscape, this new land, I am on my own. Despite the constant envelopment and surrounding of my family and friends, despite all the love and support and kindness I am having poured over me and into me, somehow, on a very elemental level, I am elsewhere. Alone.
The person I love – my partner, my soulmate, my lover, my best friend, my husband – the man who walked through life alongside me, isn’t here. He’s gone somewhere else completely, without me, and he’s not coming back.
His going is what catapulted me here into this new land. And this is where I now have to make my home forever. This thought is too huge to allow myself to think for more than a second or two. I feel unanchored and unsafe, and unsure of who I am or how I am, or how I will be. I’m adrift in a strange sea, without any idea where I am, or where I’m going.
And yet, instinctively, I know that to settle here and to find myself, to find the person I will become, I need to articulate my experience. I need to write. I need to share this with other people, because there may be something, just one small thing that I describe, that resonates with someone else, someone who is also wandering, lost and alone, through an unknown landscape of bereavement.
With the blessing of my fellow directors of the GFG, I am going to start a series of personal blog posts, which will appear here on the GFG Blog. I’m going to write about my journey in this alien new world, chronicling my thoughts and experiences as I work out who I now am.
I’m going to write, not just for my own benefit, but in the hope that I might maybe help others catch something to hold onto.
I’m going to write because that’s all I can do, describe and articulate being in this strange new world. Perhaps, in doing so, I can help others who will find themselves here one day. Perhaps something in my writing might be a way-marker that hints that another has passed this way ahead.
The series will be called ‘Absolute Beginner’, because that is exactly what I am. Despite all my knowledge of the theory of grief and bereavement, this is the start of my own personal journey, my learning of grieving though living it. I am an absolute beginner at this.
And the subtitle will be ‘A personal story of grief’, because that is exactly what it will be. This is my story, my personal experience, and I am hugely grateful to be able to share it on this platform.
I hope that when the words come, they will be good ones.
Time. Time and space and dates and days.
Right now, I am finding these measures all bent out of shape. My perception is warped by profound events that I have experienced since the last post I wrote for the blog, in September.
But I can see a thread that binds the dates and days, and stretches through time, bringing the past into sharp focus, and blurring recent days into an age ago.
November 3rd, 2010
I was the manager of the largest woodland burial ground in the UK. A beautiful place that I had been part of since before planning permission was granted. I loved it there. We had created an ofrenda, an altar, for Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – in the stunning Woodland Hall.
On the altar on November 3rd that year, the day after the Day of the Dead, were many photos and offerings to those who had died. Among the photos were pictures of my partner Steve’s parents, who had both died earlier that year. He had brought the photos there and placed them himself, among the colourful gifts and food and offerings.
The ofrenda, before the photos and offerings were placed.
November 3rd, 2012
I was asleep in our flat. I heard Steve’s voice calling my name. It was pitch black. The flat was on fire, and Steve had woken to the sound of the smoke alarm. He had seen the living room ablaze, and tried to put the fire out, before stumbling to the front door to get a breath of air through the acrid black smoke. The door slammed shut behind him. Somehow, he broke down the door and felt his way along the walls towards the bedroom, shouting my name. He kept calling until I woke into the thick choking smoke and fumbled my way towards his voice. I can hear him now, calling urgently ‘Just come to my voice, keep coming’. His lungs were burned with the amount of smoke he inhaled, calling and calling me. He was in hospital for five days. He saved my life.
We kept the clock from the living room that had melted in the heat to remind us always of how lucky we were to be alive. And from then on, we celebrated November 3rd as our joint birthday. The day we should have died.
November 3rd, 2020
I sit in the Woodland Hall. The same beautiful building that I had watched being created and lovingly built by Graham Brown and his team, all those years before.
This year, on November 3rd, the day after the Day of the Dead, there was no ofrenda in the Woodland Hall. Instead, before me was the coffin, draped in the flag of the Metropolitan Police, containing the body of my darling man.
He had died from Covid-19 on October 18th. The day before his birthday. Three weeks after our wedding day. He had been living with cancer for two years and had been told it was terminal earlier in the summer. Immediately after his divorce was finalised, we had booked a wedding, at the first possible opportunity. It was the happiest of days. And the last day he was well. Three days later he tested positive for Covid.
Time shifts and stretches and contracts. The past crashes back and imposes itself on the present. The man I love, the man who had spent so many sunlit days in that woodland with me, the man who has been the centre of my world for so long, is dead. Everything has changed.
I have much to write about the extraordinary experience I have been through.
About being given a terminal diagnosis. About facing mortality full on, fearlessly and bravely. About the complexity of anticipatory grief. About pain and suffering and sadness and worry. About the unbelievable gift of planning a funeral together, before illness sweeps you up into a blur of anxiety and worry about pain relief and equipment and aids. About death during a pandemic. About knowing that when you made the phone call for help, you would be setting in motion an unbearable parting. About having to isolate when you have tested positive and being alone and going almost mad with despair at being apart from the one person you need to be with. About the relief of being allowed to visit him but despair at the knowledge that the reason for this was because he was going to die. About sitting vigil with your soulmate as they journey through their last hours. About the similarity of being at a deathbed with being in a labour ward, as the moment of death / birth approaches. About watching death steal across the face of the man who is part of my soul. About the extraordinary transformational power of a good funeral. About navigating social distancing when you’ve been bereaved and when all you want is to be comforted in the arms of your friends.
There is so much to write. But I need to let time give me the perspective. Right now, it’s too new. It’s just three weeks since he died. It feels like a lifetime.
I just wanted to let readers of the blog know the reason for the GFG’s recent silence, at such a profound time for our society. And to tell you that it is possible to have the most perfect, perfect funeral – even when it seems everything is against it.
I will forever be grateful to Lucy Coulbert, of The Individual Funeral Company, who cared for Steve and for me as if we were her own. And to Isabel Russo, who wove together the most beautiful authentic ceremony, navigating sensitive family dynamics and an extraordinary number of swear words. And to Colin Liddell, Louise Winter, Shaun Foulds, Rachel Wallace, Suzie Wight, Ian Franklin, Alex Meaden, the Blue Knights – and everyone else who helped make Steve’s presence so vivid, and his funeral so extraordinary.
The film of the entire funeral can be watched here – and just a reminder, there is a not-insignificant amount of profanity involved, just as Steve wanted.
Stone carver Fergus Wessel and his wife Hannah from Stoneletters have just published a beautiful new book called Headstones – Advice and Inspiration.
The book is being sold to raise money for Maggie’s Centre, Oxford, and, in our opinion, it should be on the bookshelves of every funeral director in the country to lend to their clients. Choosing a headstone can be a difficult prospect, so hearing reassuring advice from experts written in plain English and being able to leaf through photographs for inspiration is something that many bereaved families will hugely appreciate.
Priced at just £12.99, or available as a downloadable PDF for £5.99, the book is full of images of different styles and inscriptions. The various materials used for headstones are described, and advice and guidance is clearly explained.
There are also helpful suggestions for epitaphs and personal stories from Stoneletters’ clients about their experience of deciding on a headstone. These personal comments are both touching and profound – here’s an example from Victoria Bennett’s words about her mother Maureen’s headstone; ‘Long after we have gone, long after the lichen has made the stone its own, I want a person passing to look and see some small letter, a faint echo of a flower and think, “There is a beautiful stone,” and feel uplifted.‘
The idea for the book came about after Hannah’s mother died from cancer two years ago. Fergus and Hannah wanted to write a book to sell in order to raise funds for Maggie’s. As Hannah explains:
“The process of choosing a headstone is often overlooked by the Funeral industry although we believe it can be an incredibly important part of the grieving journey.
Most of us find ourselves in the position of having to choose a headstone at some point in our lives. It can feel overwhelmingly daunting, but far from being stressful, creating a lasting memorial can be a healing process, leading to a deep sense of peace.
In this comprehensive guide, Fergus takes you on a step by step journey to commemorate your loved one, offering advice on all aspects of crafting a headstone, from finding the perfect words to selecting the best material. With over 150 photographs, epitaphs, and client stories, it is also a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Maggie’s and we hope to raise £12,000.
Visit stoneletters.com/book to purchase a copy and help us reach this target.”
Built in the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals, Maggie’s centres are uplifting places with professional staff on hand to offer the support people suffering from cancer need: practical advice about the benefits of eating well; emotional support from qualified experts; a friendly place to meet other people; a calming space to simply sit and have a cup of tea. For more information visit: maggies.org
The Competition and Markets Authority has today published their Provisional Decision Report in the latest stage of their Funerals Market Investigation.
It’s a long read – 472 pages in fact, with appendices being published next week, but you can read the short summary version here.
In essence, the CMA has provisionally found that the markets for funeral director services and crematoria services are not functioning well, and a number of remedies are proposed (delightfully described in the report as ‘sunlight remedies, shining a light on the pricing and back of house practices of the sector’).
Here they are:
‘We are proposing that a number of such measures would be implemented by the CMA as soon as possible after publication of our final report. Under these proposals:
(a) The CMA would actively monitor firms’ revenues and sales volumes in the funerals sector, in order to identify, and where possible, address, any harmful behaviour. The CMA would also publish an annual review of its monitoring activity. To support these activities, we would require certain funeral directors and all crematoria operators to provide specific financial information to the CMA.
(b) We would require funeral directors and crematorium operators to publish price information to support customers in accessing and assessing the price of funeral services. In addition, we would require funeral directors to disclose to customers, information relating to the ownership of the business, any business or financial interests in a price comparison website for the sector and payments or donations to hospitals, care homes and any other similar institutions.
(c) We would prohibit certain arrangements, payments and inducements made by funeral directors with/to third parties such as care homes as well as the solicitation of business through coroner and police contracts, in order to protect vulnerable customers from being channelled towards a given funeral director that may not fully meet their needs.
We propose to make a recommendation to the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales relating to the regulation of the quality provided by funeral directors. This would involve, in the first instance, the establishment of an independent inspection regime and registration of all funeral directors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.’
Price control is not included at this time due to the impact of Covid-19 on both the sector and the CMA’s ability to collect data. Importantly, the possibility of price control is still on the table though, with the CMA proposing to come back to the subject of funeral prices with a potential supplementary market investigation to resolve pricing issues identified once the impact of the pandemic has resolved to a steady state.
It seems that investors in shares in Dignity PLC might not have noticed this caveat, as Dignity’s share price inexplicably soared today – presumably in giddy relief that the dreaded price cap was not on the list of CMA remedies. Dignity’s Non-Exec Chairman, Clive Whiley and Finance Director Steve Whittern will be chuffed with this upward movement, having purchased 82,000 shares between them in the last few months while the share price was sub £2.90 – it closed today at £6.34, so their combined shares are now worth £1,661,168.76 rather than the £867,266 they were worth on Monday this week…..
Anyway, newly enriched Dignity directors aside, Dignity shareholders would do well to sit down and plough through the entire Report, as it does not make comfortable reading with regard to the ‘Big 3’ (Dignity, Co-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Partners). There are many polite rebuttals of arguments put forward by Big 3 representatives on various aspects of the investigation. It seems that the CMA team were unconvinced by the claims that higher prices reflect higher standards, or indeed that higher prices had any justification at all.
The full report will take a lot of reading and digesting, but in essence the findings validate everything that the GFG has been calling for for years. Transparency of pricing. Transparency of commercial activities. Prohibition of ‘backhanders’ or other ‘arrangements’ with third parties. Full disclosure of involvement with price comparison websites or donations to care homes, hospices or hospitals. An inspector of funerals. And a funeral directors register.
We are delighted that the CMA has been so forthright and comprehensive in their investigations and their findings. It’s clear that the team saw past the protestations of powerful players with the money to pay for expensive reports and fancy presentations, and found for the bereaved people of this country. And we are so, so proud that the Good Funeral Guide and many of our supporters and recommended funeral directors have helped play a part in this hugely important moment of change in the funeral world.
Everyone who wrote to the CMA with their observations or personal accounts, everyone who invited the Investigation team to visit them and find out about their work, everyone who participated in our ‘progressive funeral directors round table discussion’ with CMA Project Director Stephanie Canet and her colleagues last year – all of you have played such an important part in helping to change the landscape of funerals for the better.
The latest in our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic is from Jo Williamson, founder of Albany Funerals in Kent (top right in the Zoom image below).
“As the government continues to lift the Coronavirus lockdown restrictions this week, now allowing up to 30 people to attend funerals and the reopening of churches for funeral services, it is again time for us funeral directors to reconsider our ways of working, and to readapt once more. Something that we have been doing constantly since mid March. There is still a lot of fear, tiredness, frustration and anxiety in the air, but we are evolving, and reaching acceptance that this constant state of flux will possibly be the ‘new normal’ at least for the near future. It has been a strange time.
Because of our close ties with other progressive funeral directors and the discussions we have regularly on the Good Funeral Guild forum, we had some insight into what was coming back in March.
Like others, we began to make serious preparations weeks before the government put us into lockdown. We purchased PPE before the prices went insane and while you could still order full coverings, respirator masks, long gloves etc, and we split the team to work as separately as possible, such an alien concept to us.
In spite of our relative preparedness, I still see the first two months as dark and frightening times that I will never forget. The fear of driving through a ghost town to go into people’s homes where someone has just died, weighing up the desire for our own protection and theirs with that of not wanting to alienate grieving families with our CSI or even sci-fi like appearance. A tricky balance – I just remember constantly apologising. Funny how now we would not hesitate to wear full PPE even at times of minimum risk, it has become the norm, we all adapt.
Then there was the grappling with what we should and shouldn’t be doing – how far should we be going to help the bereaved say goodbye to their loved ones on their own terms? We had sleepless nights feeling that we were never doing enough, or maybe too much? The support from other Guild funeral directors was so valuable, we texted, Zoomed and Skyped, sent each other hand creams and encouragements, exchanged ideas.
Although the Coronavirus Bill contained welcome changes in legislation updating the archaic legal and administrative processes for funerals, general government guidelines pertaining to care of the deceased and funerals were confused, unclear and offered little support.
Could we trust them when the advice was downgraded? Were we putting people and ourselves at unnecessary risk? Things were constantly changing, we juggled with all of this as the situation evolved, it was obvious that this was a moving target. It was important that nobody on the team felt pushed into taking risks with their own health to satisfy the requests of those grieving, but on the other hand families were in even more acute pain than usual. The distress was palpable – the loss was sudden, the goodbyes had not been said in the usual way, grief-stricken families were separated, we couldn’t see them face to face. How can you provide a healthy balance?
Nevertheless, we did adapt, and so did the families that we worked with, often in the most dire of circumstances. We have been able to have good and real funerals, in spite of the restrictions. Some people even admitted they loved having something intimate that only close family could attend in a first instance, and not the annoying neighbour or the overbearing aunt.
From the start we were determined to reassure our clients that, contrary to the common belief, you don’t only get one chance to have a ‘funeral’, and that showing up to a crematorium following the death isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ of saying goodbye to someone. This could be done anywhere, anyhow, and doesn’t take anything away from the love and care you have for that person.
This was definitely a struggle for the majority, mostly due to the fear of what others would think, because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ and the need to have something tangibly familiar at a time of great crisis and upheaval. Some could and others could not adapt to this concept, and it was almost exciting to see people who would normally simply go through the motions of a funeral on automatic pilot now thinking completely outside of the box and finding real comfort in that. I really do feel now that there has been a shift, a deeper understanding and perhaps a desire to update our funeral rites – which I welcome wholeheartedly and hope to encourage further.
An unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the media focus on funerals. As many of us know, funeral directors are usually the forgotten, the unspoken link to death, operating in the dark, behind the scenes, in secret, slipping into care homes in the middle of the night whilst doors are hurriedly shut, or adorned in Victorian outfits – mostly only alluded to in articles about the rise in funeral costs.
This was a new angle, we became……… interesting! People were not able to have the funerals they were accustomed to, they wanted information, they wanted our opinion. I gave interviews to the Telegraph, the Independent, the Kent Messenger and featured on an NBC global hangout forum with Michael Jackson’s Rabbi friend and a chap who had arranged a Zoom funeral for his brother who had died of Covid.
It was sometimes surreal being in the middle of a media storm with everything else going on, but refreshing to talk about our work and passion to a newly engaged audience. It can only be positive to talk about death and funerals more freely and I hope that this will be a start of a new awareness and shift in our antiquated rites of passage.”
In our new series of posts collecting the thoughts and experiences of funeral directors who have worked through the Covid-19 pandemic, today we hear from James Showers, of Family Tree Funerals in Stroud.
The photo is described by James as ‘Funerals now outdoors. Still beautiful!‘
“Thank you for inviting us to share our experience of recent months.
Family Tree Funerals ran in all directions at once to prepare for the imagined tidal wave of corpses. Staff immediately switched to home-working, leaving just myself in the office. We paid £20+ each for masks that were promised as virus-protection and – arriving a month later – were floppy and ill-fitting. We ransacked every cupboard and drawer for body bags and bought every one we could find. One person was full time sourcing aprons (and got ones that would do well in an abattoir), dust suits from Screwfix, ‘Type 5/6’ body suits, cheaply-made visors, more masks, and boxes of gloves (powdered were all we could find at the time). We bulk-ordered a total of 24 coffins, housed in a domestic garage. We bought a refrigerated trailer and were generously offered space in Michael Gamble’s unit to store it. We imagined double-bagging everything, with gloves in triplicate – and scaring the care home residents by pushing our trolley along the corridors dressed like Ghostbusters.
When we finally stopped our headlong rush and looked around, all was pretty quiet. And while we were still busy arranging funerals, Covid hardly featured in these early weeks.
So very early on, and to try out ‘the look’, I put on every piece of hazard equipment (including air-defenders and blue plastic shoe covers) and rang the bell of a good friend in Clifton, Bristol, who came out onto her balcony for – eventually – a laugh, but not before frightening the neighbours who thought she was infected. In hindsight, a prank in rather poor taste.
When we began getting ‘Suspected Covid’ cases, we faced a decision about the appropriate – and responsible – levels of protection for ourselves and families. We took a decision to allow visits to the person in their coffin at a two-metre distance and five days after death. We closed off the deceased person’s airways and dressed them in their own clothes while wearing PPE.
We have been conscious of the greatly reduced risk from working with a person who has stopped breathing – and that several days ago – compared to the nurses and doctors bending over a living, breathing person who actually has the virus.
If visiting care homes, we decided we would wear our normal clothes with a mask, visor and double gloves until inside the person’s room when we would put aprons over a hazard suit, block the airways, cover the person’s mouth with a disinfected cloth, and transfer them in a sheet to our stretcher or trolley with a cover as normal – and not in a plastic bag. Back at the parlour we would double-disinfect everything, put the person into their clothes and coffin after five days, then allow visitors @2m.
So far so good. Have we been cavalier? I don’t think so. We have been careful, though it could be argued that we took a slightly greater degree of risk than many funeral directors and observers; we chose this quite consciously after considering the way the virus transfers itself.
We expect another wave. We expect coronavirus to feature for a decade – or until a vaccine has been found to work. But we live in Stroud – a rural town which is not densely populated and has plenty of green space – and it seems we have been very lucky to date.
We have flinched at comments such as ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, and ‘you must be doing well out of this’, as this is simply not the case. We believe our work to be a ‘community service’, and this is true now more than ever.”
The GFG Blog has been unnaturally quiet during the last months. The unfolding catastrophe of the UK’s experience of Covid-19 has rendered us almost completely silent. Whether it is 44,220 as today’s official figures show, or many, many more – over 65,000 as suggested by the Financial Times analysis – the magnitude of the numbers of dead and bereaved is beyond comprehension. Our thoughts and observations will add nothing to the awfulness of our collective experience.
But there are those who do have something to contribute. And we think it is imperative that their words are collected, recorded and shared here as a record of the experiences of those who work with the dead and the bereaved during the global pandemic that we are all living through.
We have invited all of our Recommended Funeral Directors to use this platform to reflect on their work and how they have coped with the abrupt changes to funerals since March.
We hope that many of them will do so. We have committed to making this Blog available to them to share their thoughts whenever they feel ready to do so. Some may not wish to. Others may need time to gather together the right words to express the enormity of the experience. Today, we are proud and humbled to present the first account that has been sent to us.
It is written by David Holmes, of Holmes and Family Funeral Directors, based in the South East of England.
The photo is of Alex and Josh – ‘trying to dress appropriately on day 1’.
“I don’t recall anyone calling it lockdown in the beginning, although it was obvious something was coming. On that first Monday morning, I set off from home as normal, although it didn’t feel anything like normal.
The ferry I normally use from my home in the Isle of Wight had stopped running, the service was withdrawn. For the first time in 23 years of commuting, I needed to make my own arrangements. Thankfully, I have a 21 ft RIB, an inflatable boat, capable of making the crossing even on rough days, and so I used it. Over that weekend, I heard that the harbours on both sides of the Solent had gone into lockdown too, boat owners were legally prevented from accessing their boat, using it or mooring it elsewhere. This news greatly stressed me; how could I sit at home idle at a time like this, I emailed the harbour masters, explaining my predicament, ‘I am a key worker; level 2, I need to be at work’ was my plea. Both Lymington and Yarmouth harbour masters responded quickly, they were wonderfully understanding, in Lymington, they even allocated me their number one mooring space!
The night before that first day at work I barely slept, wondering how we would manage, fearing the unknown. I knew we had an obligation to the people who had already booked a funeral. I feared for my staff, the brilliant caring people who are Holmes and Family, would they just resign and run away? I feared for my eldest daughter, who following an illness, had a lung removed. I worried about my disabled Mum, who fairly recently suffered a stroke. Would I get Covid19 and pass it on to them both? I am almost 60, by far the oldest person at work, I’m a little overweight too, which seems to put me in the at-greater-risk group.
Driving up to work, it was eerily quiet, I have never seen anything like it. The M3 motorway was virtually empty, except for supermarket lorries. It only took an hour, and when I arrived, I could tell everyone was feeling as I did, nervous, anxious and fearful for what was to come. I think we all assumed we’d get it quickly, and then what? How would we complete the already booked funerals, who would replace each of us as we fell like dominos?
A team talk seemed essential, we gathered in the kitchen and I told everyone that the merry-go-round of life had stopped, and as funeral directors, we were among the chosen few. Our duty was to the people who had placed the dead in our care, and to those yet to do so. We had all freely chosen this path, and now we should fulfil our duty, just as those in the NHS and other essential services would do. I reminded them that what we do is a privilege, to be entrusted with someone’s funeral arrangements is a great privilege. They responded brilliantly, as I knew they would. We thought about the practicalities, how we would do our jobs while protecting ourselves and our own families. Like me, everyone has someone they need to shield, and we’re still doing so, this is nowhere near done yet, nor will it be for some time.
We ordered coffins, we bought and begged as much PPE as we could find and practiced using it. We agreed between us that we were only as strong as our weakest link, and so we all washed, cleaned, sanitised and created new routines and still stick to them rigidly. I have never been prouder of those who work with me, not for me, with me, after all, what use is a one-man undertaker? It’s a team effort, without the team, I’m no use to anyone.
Our families, well they’ve been brilliant too, we’ve arranged funerals in a completely new way, we’ve talked, we’ve emailed, skyped and worked closely together but apart to make sure we do the best we can.
There have been tears, some of the families’ situations have really touched us. The end of a life must be marked in a meaningful way, and in recent months, that’s not always felt possible. I choked-up when I drove the hearse to the house of parents who had lost their beautiful adult daughter. There would be just 6 people present, including her partner, parents and brother, not even flowers allowed, which seemed particularly cruel. On arrival, we turned into the road and saw family, friends and neighbours lining the street, heads bowed, silently paying tribute and supporting the incredibly dignified parents. As we crept along the road, these people threw dozens of flowers in our path, something I hadn’t witnessed since Princess Diana’s funeral procession. It really moved me, and it’s happened since, moving me again.
Many humans have great inner strength, a way of adapting to impossible situations and just dealing with things. Most of us have found a way to cope and have responded wonderfully well to this dreadful virus but our fight continues.”
An official government digital ‘Bereavement Leaflet’ document has just appeared, purporting to provide ‘Information for the Bereaved’ for people in England during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It can be found here.
It’s not a great document to be honest. It doesn’t give very much useful information, but what it does state very clearly is “A first step will be to choose a funeral director. You can find an industry-inspected local funeral director via the following websites:
The National Association of Funeral Directors: funeral-directory.co.uk
The National Society of Allied and independent Funeral Directors: SAIF.org.uk/members-search’
It seems that the government are steering anyone who has been bereaved during the current disastrous situation straight to a member of one of the two trade associations. If a company is not a member of either NAFD or SAIF then according to this document they’re probably not worth contacting.
It seems that notwithstanding the market investigation by the CMA into the funeral industry that has so far been less than complimentary about large corporate companies who all belong to a trade association, the government are now suggesting bereaved people choose a funeral director who is a member of a funeral director trade association. On the premise that they are ‘industry-inspected’.
Just for the record, we think this is wrong.
Some of the best funeral directors feel that neither trade association represents them sufficiently well. Many of these are companies recommended by the Good Funeral Guide who have been through our accreditation process.
You can read a series of guest posts from some superb funeral directors outlining why they choose not to belong to either trade association here.
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.
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.
- Allows unlimited virtual-attendees.
- No-one needs to leave their home.
- Independent of distance.
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.
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).
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.
Someone needs to say it.
With the heaviest of hearts, today we are going against everything that the Good Funeral Guide has become known for over the years, and calling for funerals to be stopped completely.
Now. Today. Just stop.
The decision to exempt funerals from the current ban on social gatherings was undoubtedly made for compassionate reasons, but the current lack of clear instruction and direction is leading to anguish and suffering beyond imagination.
By allowing funeral ceremonies to continue in some form or other, bereaved people – and all those supporting them – are genuinely risking their health and even their lives by gathering together to try and have a funeral like the ones we are used to, yet in most cases, grieving people are ending up with a funeral that has been pared down to something almost unrecognisable. Almost everything we are familiar with in a funeral ceremony has been stripped away by the attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19. What we are left with is worse than nothing.
This cannot continue. It’s breaking people’s hearts, hurting family members and friends. It’s confusing everyone. It’s putting lives at risk. It’s making everything impossible for people who are already reeling from shock and grief. Heart-breaking decisions are being asked of people – decisions which are too much to bear. The current situation is not compassionate or kind, it’s devastating and destructive.
We will probably never know the damage that is being done daily to people’s hearts and souls, their emotional and mental wellbeing, their ability to grieve and survive in a newly empty, frightening world. Confusion and uncertainty casts a heavy weight that is doing untold damage to individual people everywhere. Families are being made to choose who can attend and who must stay away. Friends and lifelong companions are being excluded from being present for a ceremony through multiple individual interpretations of the phrase ‘immediate family’. If numbers are drastically limited, someone has to decide who has the most right to be there. It’s unbearable.
Funeral venues and funeral companies are interpreting the new rules in different ways, meaning that, depending on whereabouts you are, you may only be allowed to have 25 – or 20 or 10 or 6 or 4 – people attending a ceremony. Crematorium staff in some places are being required to monitor the numbers of people arriving and restrict entry – one crematorium has stated that the chapel doors will be locked and the police called if more than a certain number of people gather for a funeral. Yet in other crematoria, no restrictions have been imposed. Everywhere is doing things differently.
You may have travelled in a limousine, or the cars you wanted may have been cancelled. You may be asked stay two metres apart outside the chapel while you wait. Or maybe nobody is willing to step in and tell you to stay away from other people gathering there. You may be asked to sit separately inside, or the seating might have been re-arranged to make sure you don’t come into contact with anyone. The coffin may be wheeled into the chapel, not carried. The curtains may have to close around the coffin to prevent anyone from touching the surface. Hymn singing may be discouraged – hymnbooks have been removed from many crematoria. Video-links may or may not work, leaving excluded mourners at home without a connection to those who are attending, unable to see or hear what is happening even remotely. There are licensing issues with music choices being broadcast, even where video links are available. It’s impossible for everyone who is trying to make things work right now.
Funeral ceremonies are where our deepest humanity is called for, to steady and support the faltering broken hearts of people whose worlds have been shattered by the death of a person they love. We show up to be silently present, to demonstrate our love by being there for the final time in the presence of the physical body of the person whose life has ended.
We come together to grieve as a family, a community, a society who stands together to bear witness to the loss of one of our own. We reach out our hands and our arms to comfort and hold each other, we lean on each other for support and safety. We weep together, we rest our heads against familiar loving shoulders and feel the warmth of strong arms holding us upright.
This is what a funeral is.
Now, none of this is possible.
The current confused and confusing situation is dangerous. It’s frightening. It’s unfair on everyone. It has to stop.
If a clear directive came from government that funeral ceremonies must stop now, we are certain that the incredible people who dedicate themselves to supporting bereaved and grieving communities will quickly find new ways of creating ritual and meaning in a safe way. Over the coming weeks we will share thoughts and ideas and ways of commemorating the lives of those who have died without risking the lives and wellbeing of those who survive. We welcome guest posts from anyone who would like us to share their ideas.
But for now, for today, for the foreseeable future, for your sake, for our sake, for the sake of all of us, please, please think the unthinkable.
Unattended burial or cremations are the safest, kindest, simplest way to deal with our dead right now.
Funerals, as we know them, cannot go on.