Love writ large.
That’s something I heard a passer-by say quietly as they walked along Albert Embankment this week. They were walking along the National Covid Memorial Wall, with tears running down their cheeks. Thousands and thousands of others have walked the 500m length of the wall of 150,000 painted hearts, often stunned into silence at the immensity of this piece of art, created by ordinary, bereaved people and sympathetic volunteers helping us.
I’ve been there all day, nearly every day, for almost two weeks, immersed in an experience that has lifted my soul and my spirits and made me feel alive again amongst strangers. After the long, long, icy isolation of grieving in lockdown, grieving in a pandemic, what these last two weeks have given me is precious beyond words.
On Monday March 29th I took an early train into London and walked along the South Bank towards Lambeth Bridge. The previous week, I had seen a post asking for volunteers to take part in a commemorative art installation that was being planned by the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice – a group I’d joined after Steve died after struggling alone in hospital for twelve days battling the virus. At the time, I didn’t know what I was signing up for, but as I have all the time in the world now, I thought I might as well offer a few hours to a good cause.
On Friday 26th we had been invited to a confidential Zoom briefing where the details were outlined to us. We were to be part of the creation of the National Covid Memorial Wall, painting a single heart for every single person who has died in the UK with Covid-19 on their death certificates since the pandemic began, along the wall on the South Bank opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The artistic impression was breath-taking, and the power of the messaging, the positioning of this stunning reminder of our immense collective loss was instantly understood. Right in the heart of London, visible to those who are making the decisions about us, decisions that have led directly or indirectly to so many thousands of deaths and the heartbreak of loss.
The legal briefing was sobering – we didn’t have permission to do this, and technically, by painting on a wall as planned, there was a possibility of arrest, particularly on the first day – we could be at risk of being prosecuted for criminal damage, with fines of thousands of pounds and a potential prison sentence. The legal advice that had been received was that this would be an unlikely outcome, given the poor PR that would result from arresting bereaved people creating a commemorative memorial to their dead family members, but still…
I actually remember feeling even more compelled to be involved at this point, there’s a rebellious side to my nature where I see injustice or a cause that I believe in, so, along with everyone else at the meeting, I was undeterred. I committed to doing a shift of three hours on the first, most risky day.
Over the weekend, I let my children know what I was doing and what the outcome could possibly be, and also remembered to tell Jane and Isabel, my fellow executive directors at the GFG – I thought it might not be a good look for the CEO to be arrested without them having prior warning of the possibility, even though I was doing this in my personal capacity and not representing the Good Funeral Guide at all. Everyone was amazingly supportive, although my daughters were obviously a bit concerned.
So, there I was, half an hour early, sitting on a bench looking at the Houses of Parliament waiting for the 08.00 meeting at the assignation point. Gradually people drifted together, a group of perhaps twenty of us gathered by a coffee van, the small number of organisers laying out tabards and branded face masks and handing out paint pens and hand sanitiser – and with a brief instruction of how to get best use of the pens and the size guidelines for the hearts and the importance of social distancing at all times, we were put into small groups, donned our tabards and set off back towards Westminster Bridge to begin painting on the wall.
Each group had a section of perhaps 20 metres length of the pale sandstone wall. It’s about 2 metres high. The hearts we had been asked to draw were about 10cm in height. We had 150,000 to do, each one painted for one person, one family. It was important to do each one with reverence and mindfulness of what we were representing.
As I painted the first heart, I felt a brush of air and a strong sense that Steve was close to me at that moment. It was very strange, but it felt like I was doing something really important. For him, for me. I was placing his memory where his name would stay to be seen by thousands of people. I think I cried as I painted. It was very, very emotional.
Then, with Steve safely named on the first heart that I drew, I set to work. For others. Alongside me, at a distance, the other volunteers worked quietly. Gradually a scattering of hearts began to gleam on the wall. Quiet conversations began as we worked, the occasional offer of coffee, passers by stopping to ask what we were doing. The organisers had everything set up beautifully, replacement pens were ready when we ran out of paint, boards went up proclaiming this to be the National Covid Memorial Wall, the recently appointed Campaign Manager for the group, Nathan and his lovely Campaign Assistant Clara who was starting her first day in her new job were amazingly supportive and effective, and we worked and worked. As the morning went by, camera crews began to arrive – the pre-event PR had been extraordinarily good, and word was out that something important was happening.
We painted and painted, and gradually talked and talked, to each other, to passers-by, to journalists and presenters and camera crews, to anyone who wanted to know what we were doing and why. I told Steve’s story over and over and saw the shock and sadness in strangers’ eyes when they heard he had become ill the day after we married and died just three weeks after our wedding. And because I was able to speak to cameras about it, Clara asked if it was ok to bring news crews to interview me, and I said of course, and the day began to be filled with journalists from international news stations and newspapers, all asking me about Steve. Politicians came too – first Florence Eshalomi MP, who I was introduced to, then Sir Keir Starmer arrived and met some of the volunteers, voicing his support. Councillor Jack Hopkins, leader of Lambeth Council came on that first day and committed to trying to help make the wall permanent.
My three-hour shift had turned into a whole day, and I was so captivated by the immensity of what we were doing, I promised to go back the next day to help again. And the next, and the next – I cancelled everything I had planned that week and just went back to the wall every day, to help make it happen. It cost me a fortune in rail travel (is there still such a thing as a rush hour? Tickets for the early trains cost 50% more than the ones running after 10am, why on earth is that, during a lockdown?) The later trains were no good, I’d lose three hours painting time. I was on the 06.26 train each day to get me there for 8.
We were desperate for more volunteers, each heart was taking around a minute or so to paint, and at one point one morning there were just three of us, me, Richie and Sophie. But the media coverage was growing. The support from Opposition MPs was growing. The wall was capturing people’s hearts as we painted, and members of the public began offering to help.
As days went by, the wall was news across the world. We had coverage from international news organisation Reuters, articles in US newspapers The New York Times, The Washington Post, French radio (France Inter, France Info and France Culture), Ireland’s RTE, Australian ABC TV – Japanese, German, Czech news teams and so many others too all found their way to talk to me and many of the other volunteers
Here in the UK, The Guardian picked it up on the first day, as did ITV and BBC London news channels early last week, and as time went by we had more and more coverage on our national media. LBC Radio covered it, Sky News covered it, Emily Thornberry MP tweeted a lovely video of her visit which has been viewed almost 40,000 times. On Good Friday we had an early morning live to air piece on BBC Breakfast which I was asked to do, and they showed photos of Steve as I talked. The numbers of volunteers soared after that, and the wall kept growing and growing and the camera crews kept coming, and the politicians came too.
I took the weekend off to do Easter with the family, although it felt strange not to be in London after five days of such intensity. Then on Monday, I went back again and was astounded at the amount of hearts that had appeared over the weekend. I spent the day on the desk, handing out pens and tabards to the steady stream of volunteers who had signed up to help, then planned on having two days off to catch up with work.
It had been exhilarating and extraordinary, and not a little exhausting. We had painted in all weathers, rain, wind, sun and snow, and the days had been long and emotionally draining, even though I had loved being there all the time. But then I had a call on Tuesday afternoon, asking me to come in to do a piece for Newsnight with Emily Maitlis, so I had to quickly change into something suitable for the wind chill along the river and get back to the South Bank.
On top of all the many media channels we’ve had interest from, the extraordinary coverage we received from the BBC in the two pieces that were aired on national TV means that millions of people now know about the wall, and both Charlie Stayt on Breakfast and Emily on Newsnight were so very supportive and kind – generous with time and so gentle in their questions.
The target of 150,000 hearts was reached on Wednesday evening, then the ONS released the latest figures on Thursday morning, so the organisers scrambled to add another several hundred more hearts, to bring the wall up to date before the official ‘Come and Walk the Wall’ ceremony at 12.00.
Having inadvertently become the featured spokesperson for the project, I was asked to talk to the assembled press, and then paint the final three hearts. I can’t remember exactly what I said into the microphone, for the first time speaking to cameras, I felt the emotion welling up and overcoming me at the immensity of what we had done for the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who are unseen in their grief. It was overwhelming, and I had to choke back the tears and turn away from the lenses to paint the last hearts.
For the rest of the day on Thursday, I walked along the wall, reading the inscriptions, taking in the huge, huge toll we have paid, tears close to the surface all the time. The messages that had been added to some of the hearts, the names – so, so many names – the heartbreak that had been given a home, a place of honour – to have been part of helping create this was completely humbling.
I was so proud, and so, so sad. Everything that I had said into countless cameras over the previous ten days was absolutely true. We need to see the scale of the horror of what has happened, we need a place where the grief and the loss and the anger can be channelled into a powerful visual rage at our loss. A statement that cannot be ignored by the people in power, across the river in the Palace of Westminster.
On one of the walks, I was accompanying Dawn Butler MP, and halfway along we met London Mayor Sadiq Khan. They were both impacted as much as everyone who has seen the wall, the length of it and the horror of what it represents. Nobody could fail to be moved.
Dawn Butler MP and London Mayor Sadiq Khan visit the wall
The media coverage of the completed wall on Thursday went across the world, thanks to a piece from the Press Association by Caitlin Doherty – it has been picked up by many, many news outlets, in places as far away as Barbados. It’s a source of tremendous private pleasure to me that Steve has been publicly proclaimed as ‘my husband’, far and wide, to millions and millions of people. Our three weeks of married life were the worst they could possibly be as he succumbed to Covid, apart from me for almost all of the time, but he is forever now my husband. (Just Google ‘Steve Mead news’!). But he is needlessly dead, he shouldn’t have died when he did, in the way that he did.
More than one hundred and fifty thousand people have gone. Vanished. Dead. Before they needed to be. They died, mostly, alone. These hearts that we have painted represent the beating hearts that have stopped. That have been stilled. Every single one a life. A person.
And their bereft families have been grieving alone. I have met some of them during my time at the wall, and we recognise our own pain in each other’s eyes. We know this unique loss, this guilt, this common feeling of being the nation’s guilty secret, the thing everyone needs to move on from, the weight that is stopping everything from really going back to normal, the fleeting thoughts that perhaps we should have done things differently, never called for an ambulance, never let our darling person go to hospital, never had to break a promise to be with someone we loved until the absolute end. We know the raw jolt of pain at hearing the deaths of our beloved fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, our flesh and blood, our kin – described as numbers, statistics by which government action or inaction is judged. We know what it is to grieve for a life lost to a pandemic, to be completely alone, unhinged, unhugged, uncomforted.
A community has grown through our commitment to do this thing – I have met the most wonderful, wounded souls who have a fierce determination that our dead people WILL NOT be brushed away from our nation’s memory. My own grief has been reflected back to me with love and kindness and generosity by people who understand. And we have a determination to work together, to channel this grief we share into a collective good.
I cannot thank enough the two people whose idea this was – Matt and Jo, both bereaved by Covid, the founders of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group. And the extraordinary team who helped make it happen – Ollie, James, Nathan, Clara, Veronica, Alex, Dom, Jack and others whose names I am sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Thanks also to London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his support in our quest to keep the wall as a permanent memorial, and to Dawn Butler MP for offering to ask a question in the House of Commons about the government’s support for this aim.
After the long, long, brutal isolation of the winter, it has been a balm to be back among people again. I’ve met so many lovely people over the last two weeks. Wonderful fellow volunteers – particularly Becky and Richie and Sioux who were there so much. Catherine and Sophie and Leena and Karen. I’ve cried as I’ve heard the anguish, the sorrow of the stories I’ve been told. Strangers who stopped to talk, kind passers by offering us money and gratitude and hot chocolate and food. People who travelled from all over the country to come and be at the wall for their dead family member, for themselves, for their grief. Old people, young people, children, dogs. I have been surrounded by people for the first time since Steve’s funeral, and I feel alive again. I’ve spoken so much, to so many people, and I have been privileged to be asked to be the voice and the spokesperson on behalf of all of us who have had someone die from Covid-19.
It has been a profoundly important thing for me to have been involved with, and a healing and cathartic experience that I will always remember. I hope that Steve would forgive me for committing criminal damage – I think he would approve, after rolling his eyes and sighing at my unruly behaviour. He believed in justice, and this wall, this beautiful harrowing wall, is a call for justice. It’s a profound piece of art. It’s soaked in grief and pain and tears. It’s a place of loss, and reflection and community. It’s a living, people’s memorial.
I’m so proud to have been part of it.
Cartoon credit – The Guardian
NB – To date, no government minister or Tory MP has visited the National Covid Memorial Wall.
Every MP received an invitation to do so, at the start of the first week. Perhaps, when they all come back from their Easter recess, they will all have the decency to walk across Westminster Bridge and turn right to walk along the wall.
I think I understand now why the sea is so often used as a metaphor when talking or writing about emotions.
When I’m trying to understand how I’m feeling, the descriptive words in my mind are almost always found in analogies to do with the oceans – the waves, the storms, the undercurrents, the sense of going under, of staying afloat, of drifting, of floating, of swimming against the tide, of sinking, of drowning, of being unmoored, of being ‘all at sea’. All of these words richly describe those invisible emotional states in such a simple, comprehensible way, painting pictures of feelings.
Just thinking about the sea, the endless oceans, the emptiness, the richness, the depths, the mythology – it fits exactly with the moods and emotions and feelings that are part of living with grief, allowing me to describe my state of mind to myself, in a way that makes sense.
The sea represents the enormity of everything – the huge, unknowable expanse of waters that stretch away to the horizon, the power and the mystery of the sea – all this correlates exactly for me with the vastness of the unexplored feelings that surround and subsume me.
I can explain myself to myself by thinking of my life in the context of water, water representing the depths of emotions that I have experienced, am experiencing.
Perhaps if I write it then it will make more sense. It might be helpful, both reading it back myself, and also for others to have a glimpse into how it is being me, being grieving, right now.
You will have to come with me in my imagination as I explain it.
This is what it’s like. Here is my sea analogy of my life.
Imagine a beach. A beautiful, sunny, sandy beach. It’s as if, for years, for my life, along with everyone else around me, I have been wandering along this beach, through the shallow waters, wandering the edges of the beach where the wavelets splash and sparkle in the sun, the waters rhythmically coming and going, trickling pleasantly over my feet. Around me, everyone else is doing the same. Wandering in the shallows. Laughing and playing, smiling as we pass each other. Living life in the sun.
Occasionally a bigger wave might come, surprising me and unbalancing me a little, perhaps un-footing me as the sand beneath my feet suddenly felt less stable, but then a few more steps and the gentle lapping of the water resumed. On I went. This was how life was.
When I fell in love with Steve, he joined me on my metaphorical beach. We wandered along together, hand in hand, feeling the waves of life gently sloshing over our feet, steadying each other if there was a rogue push or pull or splash from the water, from troubles or problems. We did this for years, easy together, happy together, strong and steady together, loving each other, laughing, enjoying being alive. Wandering in the shallows.
And then one day, things changed. He was diagnosed with cancer. We were suddenly wading through deeper water together, much deeper. We’d somehow left the shallows, those sparkling splashy carefree wavelets, without noticing. We were suddenly waist deep. This was suddenly different. Still holding hands, still walking together, still supporting each other, still catching each other when we stumbled – but there was a new sense of separateness from others, from the rest of the world still splashing happily, back in the safety of being on the beach. We were apart from everyone now. Everything had changed.
Suddenly we were a little further away from land than everyone else, sensing colder undercurrents brushing past us, beneath the surface. We were still at the beach with everyone else, but we were not quite with them now. The waters around us had a different feeling, more urgent, swirling more strongly, pulling a little. I held tighter to his hand as we got used to being further out to sea as we walked on. Steady, together, but no longer so carefree.
You do get used to it, being deeper in the sea. The darker emotions of fear. You get used to the chill, your stride lengthens a little to compensate, your feet find solid footing under the water. You keep going, walking through your life. Wading through the water. You allow yourself to notice where you are and note that you’re not still paddling in the sparkling froth on the sand, you’re in a quieter place, a lesser-known place, a little unnerving in its strangeness. And if you lift your eyes and look around you, you remember the immensity of the ocean stretching beyond. How deep it is. How unknown it is. You don’t want to think about that, it’s too huge, too incomprehensible. So you carry on being in your new depths.
But then suddenly everything starts to change. Waves arise in the distance and bear down on you, the currents around your legs strengthen and grasp you and drag you, and you feel a sense of panic beginning to grow as you suddenly realise that you’re in danger, you’re both in danger. And you hold on for dear life to the hand of the person you’re with, the warmth and tightness of your grip giving each other strength and hope, even as the waters pull you further away from everyone else oblivious on the shore. Further and further out you go together, helpless as you’re pulled, clutching each other tight, heading to the unknown, to certain death, as they say.
And then it happens. Quicker than you can comprehend. An enormous wave thunders relentlessly towards you and crashes over you and tears your hands apart and tosses you under the surface and steals him away instantly, dragging him into the depths, never to be seen again.
That’s what it feels like, looking back now to when Steve caught Covid and suddenly became so ill and then died. It was as if a tsunami came roaring in to my life and swallowed everything that I knew, ripping everything apart, tossing and turning and hurling me upside down and around and around and churning me out into a different landscape.
The sheer feeling of horror, of fear, of desperate searching and casting around and surfacing empty handed and alone and bereft is palpable and real. This is what haunts my dreams and wakes me with my heart racing. This memory is visceral, the dreams are allegorical and vivid and full of deep, deep loss and helplessness and despair.
And now it feels as if I am standing alone, in the sea, deep, up to my neck. Buffeted below the surface by powerful forces that pull and push and drag. Great waves of grief come and go. Sometimes the waters recede a little and I feel freed and lighter, and then they rise again, and I am back, trying to keep upright and stop myself from drowning. Occasionally I get pulled under, down, down, down into smothering depths of emotions that threaten to overwhelm me. Mostly I am just balancing, on tiptoe, trying to withstand.
Back on the shore, far in the distance, the sounds of laughter are carried on the breeze. The people there don’t know that one day they too will be where I am. Pulled out to sea, gone as far as I could go with Steve, before he was gone forever. I don’t know how to get back. I don’t know if I want to go back. I don’t think I can go back. I have to stay here, feeling the force of the sea of emotions. As far as I could go with him – this is where my new place is.
I have to learn to get used to it, to being smacked around the head by loss, to having mouthfuls of salty sorrow forced on me, to being pulled under the water by despair, to coming up spluttering and gasping for breath every time I go under, to defiantly keep living in these new deep waters of emotions I never wanted to discover. I’m furious and terrified and dreading the time ahead of me swirling with the currents that surround me.
If I look around me, there are others. Alone. Deep out to sea, standing in their grief, their depths, their quiet. Pummelled and pounded invisibly under the surface. Standing brave and strong and resistant and silent. Getting used to where they are now. The lonely survivors.
We have been asked to write about a new book, ‘We all know how this ends’ by end of life doula Anna Lyons and progressive funeral director Louise Winter. It was published yesterday by Bloomsbury and celebrated with virtual tea and cake in a moving, inspiring Zoom session last night.
Buy it. Today.
This beautiful book should be on every bookshelf in every home in the country. It should be in every library, in every hospice, in every doctors’ surgery, in every workplace. It should be handed out to anyone when they are given a terminal diagnosis, offered to everyone facing life changing illness, shared and shared and shared again.
Once you have read it, you will want to buy it for your friends too, and for anyone you know whose life is touched by the knowledge that we are all going to die.
Everyone who reads it will find something empowering, comforting and wise within the pages, something that will help change the way you think about dying and death and funerals and bereavement. It’s a treasure trove of nuggets of beauty, woven together by expert hands who want to share what they have learned with us all.
We know Anna and Louise well and admire their work at Life. Death. Whatever. tremendously. They are dear friends and strong advocates of the Good Funeral Guide, and their wise, gentle voices take you through the book, weaving stories and thoughts and insight that they have collected from the many, many people they have worked with.
This book is a collective call for change, a sharing of experience, of heartbreak and tears and humour and wit and wisdom. It’s inspirational and informative, written by real people who want you to know what they’ve learned.
Buy it now. You need to read it.
Following the blog post about the online direct cremation providers published on the blog on February 1st, we have had some responses from two of our patrons, Carolyn Harris MP, and Ken West MBE, both challenging some of the points made.
This is warmly welcomed – the Good Funeral Guide has always welcomed debate, and alternative viewpoints such as these make a valuable contribution. We are particularly glad to have patrons who are so engaged and interested in the work we do, and who take their roles as patrons so seriously – they’re definitely not patrons in name only!
Here are their thoughts – the first, from Carolyn, in the form of an article by Gabriel Pogrund that first appeared in The Times in January:
‘A Labour MP whose father has died has spoken about the “strangely intimate and liberating” experience of grieving during the pandemic.
Carolyn Harris, the deputy leader of Welsh Labour and Keir Starmer’s parliamentary private secretary, lost her father Don over the festive period.
A funeral for the retired bus driver, who died after getting a chest infection aged 89, took place in Swansea on Monday, with just nine people permitted to attend.
Harris, 60, whose son Martin died aged five, has campaigned on funeral poverty and secured a government fund for parents unable to afford to bury their children in 2019.
However, the former barmaid and dinner lady said that having a no-frills funeral was surprisingly satisfying because it meant that she could tell the truth about her father.
According to a transcript of her eulogy, she said: “You all knew him well and there’s no point in me painting the picture of a saint or a paragon of virtue.
“He was a man whose working life was loved behind the wheel of a bus. A man of few words, and ‘this round is on me’ was not one of them.”
Harris told relatives that, despite his flaws, he was a “good man”: “I was the entire focus of both my parents’ worlds. They indulged my passion for ballroom dancing and they also encouraged my weird obsession with politics when I was eight years old.
“Although he never told me, I know he was proud of me and was always asking his neighbours if they had seen me on the telly,” she added.
Harris said that the funeral was refreshing because “I didn’t feel I had to create a personality to please an audience”.
“I didn’t want to say my father was the kindest, most generous man ever, because people in the room would know that he wasn’t. The times I’ve gone to a funeral and people are saying, ‘He’d give you his last,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no he wouldn’t.’
“We’re the ones who lost him and I was really glad not to share it with everyone. Saying what I wanted to say helped me grieve.”
Nor was she distracted by “who did or didn’t turn up”, “whether so and so sent flowers” or “keeping up with the Joneses”, she added.
The funeral was a direct cremation, which involves either a basic service or none at all, and is attended by only a few people. The option is usually reserved for those facing funeral poverty or the dead who have no next of kin.* Editor’s note – this is actually factually incorrect. A direct cremation is an unattended cremation that takes place with no ceremony of any kind, and can be chosen by anyone, not just people facing funeral poverty or without relatives. Carolyn’s father had a simple cremation.
However, they are naturally more Covid-compliant and have become common during the pandemic.
Harris said the event cost her £1,300, which, according to the Money Advice Service, is less than the average cost of a cremation (£3,250) or burial (£4,321). She said: “It’s phenomenally cheap. People are paying £4,000 – £5,000 for funerals but are they paying that because it’s what they want or it’s what other people expect them to do?”
Despite declining to put a notice of her father’s death in local newspapers, Harris spoke out about her experience of grieving to take away the stigma of certain types of funerals today.
“I still haven’t put it in the paper about my dad. I didn’t want to tell people and then they would be asking, ‘When’s the funeral?’ I wanted to tell them in a month or two, ‘It’s happened and it’s all over’. I don’t want to make anyone else feel guilty or think about what to send or say. I wanted it to be about us and ultimately him”.’
Ken West had some further observations about direct cremation, which he was happy for us to share:
“Although I dislike the concept, I feel that personal animosity must not be allowed to intrude. Did I imagine it or did the CMA appear opposed to the idea by stating that the market for Direct funerals would not become significant? Stating this, they seemed to be reflecting the universal objection of funeral directing to the idea. None of us should say that because there can be no objection whatsoever to a family disposing of the body and then holding a memorial service subsequently. When Nicholas Albery from the NDC died, his funeral took this route. His natural burial was private and we all attended a subsequent service in a church in Piccadilly. The adverse criticism I hear about direct cremation, all apocryphal, suggests that the problem arises when people book direct cremation but don’t understand what they are buying. They then expect a service to take place which they can attend. All these stories are clearly intended to demean the concept and I hear little that supports the idea.
The promotion of Direct Cremation as ‘simple’ or ‘no frills’ also rather annoys me. In the 1990’s, when I managed funerals at Carlisle, we did many ‘Family Arranged’ funerals. The bereaved arranged these with one of my staff, all of whom became adept at organising a funeral. In truth, some funerals of the elderly, with few family or people involved, were arranged in little more than 30 minutes. The claim by the NAFD that 80 hours input goes into each funeral is absurd. The cremation application was quickly filled in. The family had to subsequently deliver the registration certificate and doctors forms to our office. We had a supply of coffins to buy and they could deliver the coffined body to the crem, where it was put into the fridge. They had to supply any flowers or order an obituary. If they could not collect the body themselves, we had a number of funeral directors who would pick up a coffin, collect the body and deliver it to the crem for around £100.
With the coffined body in the fridge, it was little or no work to slide it through to the chapel just prior to the service. A celebrant or vicar took the service in the usual way. At no time would we deny them a service, neither would we dictate that they used inconvenient times, like 9 am. The clergy and celebrants knew we offered this service and they were not surprised if a member of the family, rather than a funeral director, rang them up to arrange a service. I see a Community Service offering this option. It does not require a funeral director or a hearse and limousines, which dramatically reduces costs. It puts power back into the community, not least because the clergy and celebrants appreciate their revised role and are freed from all funeral director influence and control.”
He goes on:
‘Overall, I disagree with the disruptors post. I come from 1950’s council house poverty in rural Shropshire. What this post suggests is that a person in poverty goes cap in hand to a local funeral director to ask for special treatment. That is demeaning, especially when we know that so many local funeral directors are part of a larger group. This approach might have worked in the 1950’s when a local funeral director understood and cared for his community. He knew the address and school of the deceased and could, if he so wished, reduce charges almost to a cost base. He would deftly handle the family without highlighting their poverty. I accept that there are funeral directors who still operate this way, but they both rare and difficult to find. Overall, the industry has failed. Most funeral directors are now employees and, even if sympathetic, don’t have the ability to reduce prices.
The value of Direct Cremation, whether we like it or not, is that the family don’t have to disclose their financial situation, and they stay in control. In many cases, what they are doing is what the bereaved asked them to do on their deathbed, that is, to avoid funeral debt. Holding a ceremony at a later stage over the ashes is not fundamentally wrong, just a new way of doing funerals.
These disruptors have identified opportunities created by a failed funeral market. Their offering is promoted on price alone, which is a big risk. A further risk is that the CMA Report cast doubt on whether the Direct Funeral would increase at all. The disruptors are doing this because the funeral industry has clearly ripped people off and one of the internet’s roles is to shake up failed services. How the body is handled, how it is stored, who does this and where is it kept, these are not valid considerations in respect of these funerals. They are typical subjective issues which have always been used by funeral directing to justify high prices, even though they often failed. When I recall local funeral directors, I knew of cases where bodies were dropped down stairs, or where the widow was excluded from the bedroom when the partner’s body was collected. Small bodies were routinely put in big coffins and rattled about inside. Bodies were (are) transported miles to funeral hubs. People are entitled to ignore these issues, even to see the body as an item of waste.
It is also misleading to suggest that local funeral directors are all of a kind, that is, sympathetic to the disadvantaged. I worked with hundreds of small funeral directors over my work period. Some served rural areas or council estates, had no airs or graces and used old vehicles. Others, with the new shiny hearse and matching limo’s, saw themselves as above such standards, that they were up-market. I know that many of these did not offer lower prices and simply did not want working class funerals. They must still exist and would, I believe, maintain their prices through arranging loan or credit facilities. They would base this on promoting the traditional funeral and demeaning all alternatives, such as Direct Cremation. They are not, and would not operate, as a social service.
My comments are not an endorsement of what these disruptors are offering. Indeed, it begs the question as to whether any crisis purchase should be allowed through the internet, which is altogether another question. Transparency is essential though, no matter who does the funeral. However, I would not take a firm view until consumer surveys gives us reliable evidence of their impact on the market.’
It was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the launch of a new initiative in funeralworld this week – the Environmental Stewardship Group ( ESG) was launched on Monday, with a virtual online event attended by many well-known names and organisations. The recording of the launch event and the slides presented can be found here.
The ESG is a voluntary collaboration between the public and the private sector, with four organisations* coming together in late 2020 with a goal of helping to shape the bereavement sector’s response to the Climate Emergency – their aim, as stated on the home page of their new website, is ‘to lead the bereavement sector to sustainability’.
This is not a small task – as outlined in the opening remarks by David Richardson, the sector is valued at over £3 billion per annum, and is comprised of over 300 public and private sector owner/operators, more than 5,000 funeral directors and thousands of other supporting businesses, a huge and disparate number of stakeholders who will all need to be persuaded – or regulated – into changing their ways.
The four founding organisations have agreed that the first step towards a sustainable bereavement sector in the UK is to raise awareness within the sector, which they have identified must involve all key sectors being engaged and motivated to take collaborative and positive action.
The stated objectives of the ESG are to:
- Protect the environment – to take a series of measures to reduce existing and negative impacts by 2025
- Promote continuous improvement – to establish an industry wide approach to driving positive change and innovation
- Shape regulatory requirements – to influence legislation, guidance and advice that reflects the industry as a whole
- Communicate commitment – to embed within the sector proactive and positive commitment to promoting the sector’s actions and efforts
The Deputy Chair of the Environment Agency, Richard MacDonald and the Environment Agency’s Director of Regulated Industry Lee Rawlinson both contributed to the launch event, with some sobering statistics and information. Professor Hilary Grainger OBE from the Cremation Society outlined the aims and background of the ESG and Martin Birch from the ICCM explained the establishment of this year as ‘Year Zero’ and the activity that is planned – meeting with representatives and interested parties in the public and private sectors in all of the groups represented, with a series of virtual round table events scheduled between March and September 2021.
The findings from the round tables will be collated and used to generate a report in mid October, the final version of which will be published just ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in early November.
Details of the round tables can be found here and places are available to the first 80 individuals or representatives from organisations from each sector (Government, Owner Operators, Funeral Directors and Suppliers).
To reserve a place, email the ESG at email@example.com
The GFG is going to be attending and is offering our support and encouragement to the ESG as it embarks on this challenging task of hauling the bereavement sector towards the UK’s goal of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – having tried our own GFG version of encouraging funeral directors to assess their environmental impact in 2019, when we were met with a resounding silence, we think the ESG will need as much support as possible, so we encourage anyone involved with funerals who has any sense of responsibility for our impact on the planet to get involved.
*The founding organisations of the ESG are the ICCM (the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) theFBCA (the Federation of Burial and Crematorium Authorities), The Cremation Society and The CDS Group (Cemetery Development and Environmental Solutions)
Years ago, in 2008, I was crew on the Spirit of Fairbridge for the Tall Ships race. Spirit was a beautiful 92’ schooner dedicated to giving disadvantaged young people new opportunities in life and being part of her crew was a huge privilege – and an unforgettable experience. I was lucky enough to spend several trips on board, and the Tall Ships race was something I was really looking forward to. Meeting new people and sharing such a memorable trip would be exciting and exhilarating, the privations of sharing an eight-berth cabin and sleep deprivation in 4-hour watches came as part of the whole package and just added to the whole thing.
And it was memorable. After a night of the volunteers and permanent crew and the young people all getting to know each other in the bars of the marina, we set off from Liverpool to sail more than 800 nautical miles to Bergen in Norway. When I’d been on Spirit before, on a trip from Southampton to Bristol, we’d gone round the Lizard peninsula in a Force 9 gale, a particularly terrifying experience of unimaginably huge waves relentlessly throwing the boat from side to side – so I was expecting similar buffeting and pitching and rolling as we headed up towards Norway across the notorious North Sea.
Instead, a few days out of Liverpool, we were completely becalmed. There was no wind. The ship stopped. For days, we just bobbed about, going nowhere. Any chance of winning the race ebbed away as we sat, waiting, not able to do anything other than just accept that we were helpless, at the whim of Nature. We played cards and read books and fished for mackerel and cleaned below decks and sunbathed and shared life stories and smoked endless cigarettes – and just waited. It was a strange, strange, prolonged period of enforced nothingness, when we’d all been expecting adrenaline and excitement and rope pulling and exhaustion and the sheer exhilaration of sailing a tall ship across the waves. It was weird and unnerving.
Eventually, of course, the wind came, and the sails trembled and flickered and filled and the rhythm of the ship stirred and awoke again, and we finally made it to Bergen for several days of partying, which is a whole other story. But those still, stagnant days, that feeling of being in the doldrums, of waiting for something to change, the awareness of being small and human and impotent and at the mercy of ancient endless powers – I remember that far more clearly than the boat parties and celebrations that followed.
Four months into Steve being dead and I recognise that same feeling. It is permeating my every day, sometimes a faint trace, an ever-present sense of ennui underlying my thoughts and colouring everything with a tinge of grey – other days it’s an overwhelming feeling of nothingness. Of absence. Of waiting for something.
I’m going nowhere at the moment. There’s no feeling of movement, no sense of going forward. The days just come and go. Every day I get up, pull on dog walking clothes, walk for an hour or two, then come home and get on with whatever I feel I can manage. There’s a framework of a kind to the days, vaguely cleaning and tidying the house, working at the computer, occasional trips to the supermarket, looking after Leo, Albert and Amelia, walking again, trying to sleep. But this framework is just a superficial construct, something that I’ve adopted to just keep getting through one day after another, marking them off in my head as another day done.
I appreciate how lucky I am not to have to go to work at a job where I am expected to perform. I can choose when I work, which is a bonus, but I have to make myself choose to work, which is a challenge. Self-motivation has never been my strongest characteristic, I had become used to Steve being my conscience, nagging me to get on with things I was avoiding. He was particularly good at knowing when I was deliberately side-stepping boring tasks or necessary admin, I couldn’t get away with not doing stuff because he just knew, he’d look at me in a way that somehow made me laugh and give in all at once.
That just knowing everything about me is irreplaceable. It is the fabric, the weft and weave of our relationship, knowing each other inside out, sharing everything, from the mundane to the mysterious, from the tedium and humdrum stuff of daily life to the precious, precious moments of total connection and completion. Among all of the million and one things that are missing from my life now, it’s the shared existence that we had together that is the loudest in its absence.
It’s what I’m waiting for, the feeling of completeness, of the wind gradually returning, softly stirring and stroking the sails, the ship quivering into life in response, lifting her bow and beginning to move forwards in a joyful recognition of the return of her lover giving her energy and strength, taking her onwards. Without the elemental, elusive presence of the wind, the ship just drifts with the waves.
I don’t know what to do without him. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
A new kind of ‘disruptor’ has arrived in the world of funerals.
The Good Funeral Guide has long championed those who could be described as ‘disruptors’ – small, ethical, progressive companies who are trying to change the rigid funeral sector for the better.
Many of these have started up in unconventional ways, sharing facilities with established companies and hiring vehicles instead of having their own (expensive) fleet of cars.
With the companies on our Recommended list, this creative approach is always transparent, and the people involved are happy to explain and stand by their ways of working. We have absolutely no problem with this, in fact we welcome ways for intelligent, empathetic, emotionally mature people to find a route into what has traditionally been a very closed world of funerals.
What we are not so happy with is a new phenomenon that appears to be spreading rapidly in the UK – just like a virus.
These new ‘disruptors’ are something very different. They’re offering a quick fix to the problem of someone dying; a click of the mouse and a credit card transaction and ‘ta da’ – it’s all sorted for you, and in a few weeks’ time you’ll receive a neatly packaged ‘hand delivery of your loved one’s ashes’.
Rapidly growing, tech-based companies are targeting bereaved people, with online funeral arrangements cutting thousands of pounds off of the cost of a funeral, often by providing a direct cremation service where no funeral ceremony is involved. Huge amounts of money are being spent each month on Google advertisements, positioning digital businesses as local providers throughout the UK, promising ‘meaningful, beautiful send-offs at affordable prices’.
Many of these companies are opaquely anonymous, the names of the people involved, when you find them, are unknown in the funeral world. They are tech specialists, algorithm writers, engineers, brand experts. They are people who sense an opening in a sector ripe for ‘disruption’. People who sit at computers and deal with phone calls. Probably few, if any, have lifted the weight of a dead body. Or cared for a broken-hearted family. Or kept vigil in a chapel of rest over a coffin of a child that they have promised won’t be left alone. These people are not the kind of people who are called to work with the bereaved. They are not funeral providers. They are middlemen, white labellers of funeral products.
These companies dispense with the age-old customs of keeping our dead nearby, historically at home, or more recently in the care of a local funeral director. They dispense with the relationships between those who have chosen to work in the funeral sector and the bereaved people they serve. They dispense with the rituals and comforts involved in coming together for a funeral ceremony, and present bereaved people with a simplified, low-cost package, where all of the emotional labour has been sanitised and taken care of.
Understandably, a low-cost funeral is attractive to many people, but at The Good Funeral Guide, we view this new development of online funeral providers with deep concern.
(As do the existing main players in the funeral world, all of which have launched their own, online, direct cremation services in an attempt to stave off loss of marketshare to the new online start ups – you may not be aware but Simplicity Cremations are owned by Dignity PLC, Budget Funeral is owned by Funeral Partners Ltd, crematorium operator Memoria operate their own Low Cost Funeral by Memoria service, and Co-op Funeralcare also operate a direct cremation service.)
For many of the new online companies, there is no funeral home or mortuary, no place where they care for the dead. The collection and care of those who have died is outsourced to anonymous subcontractors or existing funeral companies who are willing to carry out the practical aspects of a funeral for a few hundred pounds.
With the online companies advertising their low-cost funerals for around £1,000, there is little room for manoeuvre if they are to make a profit – we have heard of some small companies being asked to provide an entire direct cremation service for one of the online companies for £700 (including the doctors’ fees of £164 and the crematorium fee). As ever, big business profits from the work of small companies, who have to cut corners in order to make a living – ultimately, the quality and calibre of the care involved has to suffer.
We regret so much that these online companies exist. If the funeral sector were functioning properly, there would be no space for them. But as they are here and rapidly advancing, with millions of pounds to promote themselves, and with many thousands of families unable to afford to pay the high prices asked by many existing funeral providers, we would like to suggest a few questions that you could ask them, if you are thinking about using one of them.
- Who are you? Who owns this company?
- Who will collect my relative?
- When will this happen?
- Where will they be taken?
- Will they stay there? For how long?
- How will they be looked after while they are in your care? Will you wash them? Will you dress them in their own clothes if we provide them? Who will do this?
- Will you place any items with them if we provide them?
- May we spend some time with them in their coffin before the funeral?
- What about any personal possessions? How do we get these back?
- Where will the cremation / burial take place?
- When? What time? Do I have any choice? How much extra would this cost?
- How will my person get taken to the place of cremation / burial?
- Can people be there to see the coffin arrive?
- Will there be a funeral director?
- Will there be anyone to say words of committal? Or a prayer?
- What if I want a ceremony? Can you arrange this? How much extra would this cost?
To make these enquiries is, we know, an additional stress and strain on people who have been bereaved. You shouldn’t need to be asking these questions of someone who is offering to help you, to minimise your difficulties, to make things easier for you. This information should be available on the shiny websites. But it’s mostly not. Instead, the focus is on how cheaply your dead person can be disposed of. And how you can move on with your life free of the awkward issues involved with a funeral.
Unsurprisingly, at the Good Funeral Guide, we think you deserve better than this.
A funeral is a hugely important life event, a public full stop to a life that was lived, even if that life only lasted for just a few seconds.
Even during the restricted times of the pandemic, with limited numbers permitted to attend, a funeral is a marker, a moment of proclamation that this person lived, a ceremony where the body that they lived in is honoured and bid farewell. It is a time of comfort for those left behind, an opportunity to say a public goodbye, to be supported by the love and respect that others had for the person who has died.
A funeral matters.
Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living; we need to have a way to make sense of death, and funeral ceremonies help to provide this. To dispense with funerals in favour of a direct cremation, to let this become the norm is to diminish us, individually and collectively.
Without a funeral, we are left with a simple disposal of the flesh and bones that were the physical embodiment of the person we loved. A disposal that takes place out of sight, at a time unknown, in a place unknown.
How have we come to this? How have we become susceptible to the clean lines and glossy allure of attractive websites with clever marketing and branding, offering to take all of the problems of organising a funeral away from us? How have we come to accept a distant disposal, an unknown incineration somewhere, unattended and un-honoured, as an appropriate ending of a life of a person we love?
Much of the reason for the success of the new online companies is the failure of the funeral sector to put the needs of bereaved people first. Despite the protestations of the main players, serving bereaved families has, for many years, come a poor second to serving the bottom line, to making the profits required to expand, to make good money for shareholders and owners alike.
Small, honest, decent funeral directors have always provided a good, value for money service to their communities, but the sector has gradually become tarnished by the greed of those who sought to take advantage of bereaved people. The general public’s perception is now that funerals are exorbitantly expensive, and this viewpoint is supported by annual ‘Cost of Dying’ reports that inflate the costs of funerals to five figure sums.
The recent Competition and Markets Authority Market Investigation has confirmed that the funeral sector is not operating properly and is implementing remedies this year – remedies that will apply to existing funeral providers, but which may not have the required scope to cover the online providers that are now entering the market.
Fenix Funerals, Farewill, Pure Cremations and Beyond are all private equity funded companies who are fast making inroads into the traditional funeral market, while assorted other smaller providers are also springing up around the country. Just do an online search for low cost funerals in your area and see what comes up.
Meanwhile, investment news shows investment banks and private equity firms pumping millions of pounds into the handful of new companies who are challenging the existing funeral sector; Farewill, possibly the most ambitious of the ‘disruptors’, has £30 million of investment behind it, and has used information gained from their will writing service to tailor their recently launched cremation service.
Matt Morgan, Farewill’s General Manager of Funerals wrote on Linked In, ‘As a will-writing company, we have a unique insight into peoples’ funeral wishes – what they want to happen to them after they die. We have seen that 90% of people don’t want a traditional, religious funeral, and 40% opt for a direct cremation, once they know of the service.’
He went on to say, ‘We are at a turning point in the industry. The brand, team and technology that Farewill has built put us in a unique position to take advantage of this opportunity.’
Eliot Kaye, investment director at Puma Investments and now a director of Pure Cremation after a £7.5 million investment into “a very disruptive business model within a very established market” was also quoted as saying “there are going to be more established American-based providers who may very well be interested in expanding into the UK and could therefore joint venture or acquire these guys in due course if they get it right.”
This is not the future we want for our society. Our dead need to be part of our lives, they need to be recognised and remembered and honoured. They don’t deserve to be treated like a logistics problem, transported and packaged and dispensed with.
Ultimately, we wish that everyone could have a meaningful funeral ceremony. Even those whose lives have ended without family to mourn them. No life should end anonymously, unattended, disposed of without ceremony – we are better than that, our society is better than that.
If you need to arrange a funeral and you don’t have the money to pay for it and are tempted to choose an online funeral provider because of their low prices, we urge you to contact a small local funeral director first.
Some of the best people in the world are funeral directors – you might find that you have one on your doorstep who will help you to find a way of honouring a life without it costing you the earth.
26th January 2021
Today it is 100 days since Steve died. And four months exactly since our wedding day.
At the weekend, it was the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. It was a rapid dying, from glioblastoma multiforme. In January 2011, I spent my 50th birthday sitting by her bedside, where she drifted in and out of sleep. I knew it would be the last birthday I would have with a parent alive. She died nine days later.
January 2011 was not a good month for me. But I had unwavering support and love and strength that carried me through it. Steve was a huge part of that, despite the disconnect between my mother and him.
He was unfailingly present and prescient in his knowing what I needed, despite – or perhaps because of – having lost both his parents, less than 12 months before. Grieving when you have someone to lean on is so much easier than grieving alone. And, notwithstanding the unfailing love and concern and efforts of my wonderful children and collective of friends and acquaintances, this time, I am grieving alone.
January 2021 is not a good month for me either. A second significant birthday has come and gone; spent in a way I could never have anticipated. This one involved sitting in the pouring rain by Steve’s grave before returning to a subdued but lovely lockdown birthday afternoon at home. A birthday during lockdown is hardly a birthday. A birthday without the person you love so much is hardly a birthday. We’d had such plans to celebrate it properly, with a big family gathering making special memories. That was obviously before Covid changed everything we knew as normal in the world, snatching Steve away in the process.
January’s short, gloomy days and long dark nights are always difficult, but this time, this year, in these circumstances – they are almost unbearable. And then for me, these dates, these anniversaries have loomed, and then arrived.
This January is grindingly, relentlessly hard. It’s hard for everyone, this numbing existence of living under ‘lockdown’, all normal life in masked, socially distanced, restricted, isolated, suspended animation. Layer on top the exhaustion of hauling yourself through each lonely day trying to function like you used to, when everything you were used to has imploded, and life is bleak.
The one person I want to share my thoughts with isn’t here to listen. The one person I need to lean on has disappeared. I have no partner to help me get through these days, no harbour to shelter in, no safety net, no one to catch me and hold me. I have to do this on my own. The thought of time stretching ahead for me alone is too much to contemplate, it makes me recoil and shudder if I let myself look more than a day or two ahead. Just getting through one day at a time is enough of a task.
And it’s bloody hard. It’s hard to get out of bed each morning and pull on clothes and boots and get out into the cold early darkness to walk the dog. Often, I find myself a mile or so from home, walking on autopilot, stumbling in the darkness over the fairways and hills of the golf course as the skies lighten into dawn, not aware of how I’ve got there, not thinking, just walking.
It’s hard to go through the routine of showering and making myself look decent and half-heartedly cleaning and tidying the house. It’s hard to make myself focus on working again, sitting at the computer, writing emails and reports and sorting out endless admin. It’s hard to be a good ‘Nana’ to the children who I’m looking after regularly now to help Grace while she works. It’s hard – really hard – to go to the supermarket. I had no idea how much walking around Sainsbury’s would devastate me, the sharp pains of recollection, all of the memories and associations of seeing food and wines we used to buy when we were together.
And it’s hard to cook proper meals. I can’t smell or taste food since I had Covid, my palate now is determined by the texture of what I eat, and whether it’s sweet or salty or sour or spicy– beyond that, there’s nothing. There’s no point of going to the effort of trying new recipes, no point in spending time in the kitchen unless I’m cooking for the kids. It’s hard to force myself to eat anything, with little appetite and no enjoyment. Am not sure how much of that is Covid and how much is just the ‘can’t be bothered’ of being bereaved. I’m fortunate enough to have close eyes on me, making sure I don’t just exist on coffee and biscuits, including the children who ask me every day ‘What have you had to eat today Nana?’
Even something as simple and beautiful as the weekend fall of snow brought unexpected, jarring, painful memories, the cold crisp air and crunch under my feet immediately flashing me back to the many winter weeks we spent in Scotland over the years, lovely luxury weeks at Steve’s timeshare at The Carrick, just the two of us relaxing together. Memories of long walks in the mountains, tramping through the snow, his warm hand steadying me, his warm breath against my cheek when he kissed me, memories of building a snow bear outside the lodge, of evenings walking back from Cameron House in the icy chill and silence of the banks of Loch Lomond. Those memories are hard to bear now.
Everything about this new normal, this January, is unremittingly hard.
I’m sure that for anyone whose partner has died, this time – 100 days after a death – this period of grieving must be equally difficult, even without the complications and stresses and anxiety of living through a pandemic, in a country which has handled it so utterly appallingly.
These are horrendously difficult times. The constant dreadful news, the media drip feed of death rates and infection rates, the politicians pronouncing orders, the changing restrictions, the horrors endured by the NHS staff battling to keep people alive as their lungs stiffen and their organs fail, the prospect of this going on and on with no end in sight – all of this existential nightmare just echoes and magnifies the inner dread and distress.
Even under normal circumstances, three months on from a death, other people’s lives have moved on. The regular phone calls and messages slow down. People are busy and have their own lives and complications and families and work demanding their attention. It’s normal that the focus has shifted away from me and my experience, my existence. But that natural ebbing of constant checking-in means that I have to call on my own resources to keep going forwards. And my resources are elusive and eroded by what has happened. My usual resilience has taken a body blow with this, the latest traumatic event in my life. I’m older, and less buoyant, more battered. The two years of living in constant vigilance with the worry and knowledge of the insidious, inevitable advance of Steve’s cancer has taken its toll. I’m running on empty.
And there’s no manual, or guidance. This is a long, gruelling, weary journey of self-discovery which I didn’t choose and don’t want to be doing. I’m trying every which way to make it easier, doubling back on some of my choices when they turn out not to be the best ones. I found that the grim nights of loneliness and crying at the beginning were eased by pouring a hefty slug of whisky when I went to bed, but I’ve realised that wasn’t the smartest thing to be relying on, so I have stopped buying bottles of single malt and substituted the oblivion of alcohol with restless, relentless insomnia.
I’m doing my best to use the knowledge I have and apply it to myself, but it’s proving hard to put into practice. I have playlists on Spotify, meditation apps on my phone and a growing pile of books that I have bought, and half read before discarding. I make warm milky drinks with turmeric and manuka honey, I have a journal by my bed in case I need to write stuff down, lavender oil on my pillow in the hope that the essential properties will work even though I can’t detect them through smell – and yet still I am awake at 4am, writing this, having not slept at all. There’s no point in trying to sleep now, so this will be another sleepless night. And so, the exhaustion accumulates. Which makes everything that’s already hard a hundred times harder.
I’m trying though. I’m doing weekly group Zoom sessions with other people whose partners died from Covid. I’m practising Ho’oponopono, I’m using EFT. I’m eating sufficiently and taking vitamin supplements and drinking loads of water and trying to tire myself physically in my permitted exercise each day. I visit Steve’s grave. I talk to him all the time. I spend as much of the day outside as I can, appreciating birdsong and the quiet of nature in winter. I lean against big, old trees, pressing my face into the bark and try to feel the ancient strength of these witnesses to the changing years and the turmoil of human life.
I’m still doing my daily early morning walks before dawn. I’m writing. I’m working. I play with the children. When I need to talk, I call one of my trusted friends. When I need to call up comforting memories I look back at photos. I now have an album of wedding photos and an album of funeral photos – both equally beautiful. And I’ve just had a book created by Zapptales of our WhatsApp messages and I leaf through it to reconnect with the vibrant, alive love that we shared. That love glows from the pages in our conversations about all kinds of mundane things – telling each other how much we missed each other when we were apart, letting each other know where we were and what we were doing, what time we’d be home, hundreds of photos, hundreds of ‘miss you’, ‘love you’, ‘love you more’, ‘xxxx’ messages, stretching back to 2010, and ending with my last message sent at 06.22 on the day the hospital would call me in because he was dying.
I try to avoid obvious triggers, like programmes showing the reality of what’s happening inside our hospitals as Covid patients overwhelm the NHS – it’s too raw, too painful, too recent. But I’m keeping going, as I promised Steve I would.
And I remind myself that if he had survived, Steve would still have been slowly dying from cancer, and hard as this is for me now, to still have him here in increasing pain and suffering, while living in these dreadful restricted circumstances in these dark winter days would have been utterly unbearable.
I note with horror the huge numbers of people in hospital with Covid now and am so very glad that when Steve was admitted the numbers were so much lower – 2,705 people were in hospital in England with Covid on the day he was admitted. On Sunday, there were 32,907 Covid patients in English hospital, according to NHS Statistics – more than twelve times as many people being cared for, by the same exhausted nurses and doctors. Harrowing as it was for Steve to be in hospital in October, gradually succumbing to the virus, how much worse would it be now?
And this week, as the number of British people dead from Covid is certain to reach 100,000 – ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND!!!!!!!! – I remind myself that I am just one of many thousands and thousands and thousands of people going through this right now, grieving the loss of our lovers, all of us on our own.
I’m 100 days into this new life. I don’t like it. I’d do anything not to be here, right now, in this reality. I wish so much I could be back in our old life, pre cancer, pre Covid. Just living our life together. I don’t think I ever truly appreciated just how happy I was, how utterly secure and safe I felt. Now that’s all gone, I look back in wonder at just how lucky we were. And I look forward to what lays ahead with such sadness at being left on my own.
But this is it for me now. Now I have to make my own way. What has sustained me through these last 100 days – and will sustain me through the next however many hundreds or thousands left to me – is the certain knowledge that Steve loved me, to the absolute, utmost of his ability.
This wonderful, magnetic, hugely popular, universally loved man, this chameleon, this complex, complicated, fallible, fabulous human being fell in love with me. He chose (at huge cost) to be with me – and he chose to stay with me. He committed to me. As his life began to draw to a close, he chose to marry me, to have our long relationship legally recognised, to pledge himself to me, fully and completely and publicly. He chose to let me accompany him through all the twists and turns of his illness, all the way to his death. He held my hand in his as he took his last breath. He loved me, he loved me as much as I love him.
A few days before he died, he spoke about a conversation that he had had with his father, shortly before he, in turn had died, in 2010. It had been a difficult conversation, one where Steve had had to tell his parents that he was leaving his marriage to be with me. Labouring with his breathing, on a video call from the hospital, Steve said, ‘My Dad was right’. When I asked him what he meant, he told me the conversation that he was referring to, and said, ‘Dad just said, ‘It’s her. You’ve found her. You’ve met your soul mate’.’ He had never told me this before. For him to share this with me, when he knew his death was fast approaching was, I know, confirmation that he too believed this to be true.
And so, no matter how deeply despairing I feel, no matter the maelstrom of feelings I am having to contend with, no matter what has occurred, I know, without doubt, that Steve and I shared an extraordinary love. I will always love him. He is, and always will be, the love of my life. And I know with absolute clarity that he felt the same, and he wanted me to be certain of that.
I need to hold on to that certainty. That knowledge is what will get me through the days that lie ahead. And I’ve got work to do, we at the Good Funeral Guide have got work to do. Vital work. In these traumatised times, as never before, there is such a need for trustworthy, impartial information about the importance of a good funeral. We have to make sure that people can find it when they need it. And we have to make sure it is as good as it possibly can be.
And also, I now have unwanted – but invaluable – first-hand experience of profound grief, at a time when the country and the world are reeling in shock at the impact of the pandemic and the deaths of millions of our brothers and sisters across the world. I have to turn this around and find something positive. I want to use what I’ve learned to help other people, to articulate and shine a light on the impact of love interrupted by unexpected, traumatic death. There are so many of us. Our stories need to be heard.
This Marianne Faithfull track has just played on my playlist, and the lyrics really resonate with me as I finish this piece. I love it, I love her raw, powerful voice, and her words make sense to me where I am at the moment – apart from the ‘no one to blame’ line – for the 98,531 British people whose lives have been taken by Covid, including Steve, there is so much blame. This did not need to happen.
We have the highest death rate in the world from this virus. It is outrageous. It is devastating. And it is unforgivable. These deaths did not need to happen when they did, the way they did. Steve and the 98,530 other people who are dead because of Covid died because of the government’s negligence, arrogance, exceptionalism and refusal to take the measures that would have kept the virus to a minimum.
There has to be culpability. This carnage, this catastrophe could have been avoided if the warnings had been heeded and our government had truly wanted to protect us. I knew about the virus in January 2020 from following social media, and I alerted members of the Good Funeral Guild on January 27th – if I knew, you can be certain the government knew long beforehand and in far greater detail about the threat that the virus in Wuhan posed to us all. But nothing was done to protect us. And almost a hundred thousand of us are now dead.
This is why I am fiercely proud to support Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK in their campaign for a public inquiry into the government handling of the pandemic. Along with everything else that I have ahead of me, I will do what I can to help call for justice for all those who have been so murderously let down.
I’ll end this long post now. Here are those Marianne Faithfull lyrics. Do listen to it.
Born to Live
“Born to live and born to die
Aren’t they just the same?
We’re always breaking someone’s heart
Especially our own
Life goes on its joyful way
As usual nothing’s as it seems
But to die a good death is my dream
And I wish it for all, for all I know and love
Deep down below and high above
We’re born to die, no one to blame
We’re born to love, we’re all the same
Blues stay away, stay away from me
I hate to lose old friends
Blues are my enemy, but love gets me through
Born to live and die
Forever loving you
Don’t make me cry, know what I must do
Pray for a good death, one for me, one for you
And I wish it for all, for all I know and love
Deep down below and high above
We’re born to die, no one to blame
We’re born to love, we’re all the same”
26th September 2020
There is much discussion in funeral world about whether funeral directors should be prioritised for vaccination as ‘frontline workers’. Indeed, we have heard that some celebrants are also enquiring as to whether they too should be considered a priority to be vaccinated against the virus which has ravaged our lives for the last year.
For background, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has a very clear list of priorities for vaccination in phase 1, which is currently underway :
- residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
- all those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
- all those 75 years of age and over
- all those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
- all those 65 years of age and over
- all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
- all those 60 years of age and over
- all those 55 years of age and over
- all those 50 years of age and over
JCVI does not advise further prioritisation by occupation during the first phase of the programme, noting that, “This prioritisation captures almost all preventable deaths from COVID-19, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection.”
This week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that ministers will consider whether key workers such as police, teachers and essential shop staff should be prioritised once the most vulnerable have received the coronavirus vaccine, and Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick has said she is ‘baffled by the government’s decision not to prioritise police offers and is in ongoing discussion with government to try and change their position.
Understandably, people working within the funeral sector are anxious. A petition has been created to ‘Prioritise funeral workers for COVID vaccine’. It’s not specific as to whereabouts funeral workers should come on the list, asking that ‘parliament ‘recognise that we are frontline workers and we are at risk every time we go to work and put us as a priority to have the vaccine ASAP’.
This has attracted some interest from the media, and one of our Recommended Funeral Directors was contacted this week for comment. We invited her to share her thoughts about vaccine priority on the blog in a guest post. Your comments or thoughts are very welcome.
Guest blog post from Lucy Coulbert, owner of The Individual Funeral Company
“Should funeral directors be prioritised for a Covid vaccine?”
This wasn’t even a question I was asked by a BBC researcher. What they actually asked was “What are your thoughts on the petition to government to have funeral directors vaccinated as key workers.”
I’ll be honest; I really don’t understand why the traditional funeral associations were pushing for funeral directors to be given priority for vaccinations.
Are we at risk? Only to a very small extent. When we go to a hospital mortuary, we follow the government guidance to the letter concerning PPE. The risk to us is extremely low.
This is because the hospital would have tested people for Covid-19 and if they were positive at the time of their death, they are placed in a body bag before we collect them.
We aren’t allowed to enter our local hospital without a mask at all. Before I even get out of my vehicle, my mask is on and so are my gloves.
When we go to a care home or someone’s own home, I completely disregard the government guidance on wearing a “fluid resistant face mask” in favour of an FFP3 mask which is the best grade of mask money can buy.
We wear a full white paper suit which also covers our hair, shoe covers, a long sleeve plastic apron, gloves, FFP3 mask and a face shield. This is above and beyond what the government recommend.
We do this because we treat ourselves as if we have Coronavirus and we want to protect the staff in the care homes & residents along with a person’s family if they died at home.
When we go into these settings, including into care homes which have had a Covid outbreak, the exposure we have to Coronavirus is low because we are there for less than 30 minutes unlike doctors and nurses who are exposed for hours on end even with the best masks.
So why should funeral directors essentially be allowed to queue-jump when our risk is low? Honestly, I have absolutely no idea other than it being some kind of vanity or there is some kind of perceived “prestige” in being labelled a key worker.
Neither of those things should mean we get to jump the queue.
Because this is the reality. If we are jumping up the queue to be vaccinated, then other people have to move down.
This isn’t us being vaccinated along side of those who should be. It is us being vaccinated instead of someone else.
At 38 years old and in relatively good health, am I more important to vaccinate than my 90 year old grandmother? Am I more important to vaccinate than a care home staff member or a social worker? Am I more important than a hospital chaplain or my asthmatic next door neighbour? Am I more important than a supermarket worker or hospital porter?
The answer is no. I should be far down the list of people who should be vaccinated.
My GP sent me a text to say if you are a healthcare worker to please call them. I did. I explained I am a funeral director but I also told them I didn’t feel I was in any way a priority.
There have been instances whereby vaccines would go to waste because someone took them out of the freezer too early. I told them if that happened and they didn’t want it to be wasted, to call and I would go but that would be the only way I would attend an appointment without it being my turn.
In March 2020 a week before the government decided to finally introduce a national lockdown, I asked my assistant to work from home. Within 24 hours, she had a brand new laptop delivered to her door.
My other members of staff were given instruction on how to don and doff PPE safely including how to make sure their masks should fit correctly.
They were all asked again if they had any medical conditions I needed to know about and they were all given the option of not working at all.
This was a really frightening time because we really didn’t know enough about what we were being asked to face. I had to ask my staff if they wanted to continue with their duties because given we were facing the unknown, I didn’t want them to feel as though they had to face it with me.
They were all in agreement to keep working and so I set up an A Team and B Team. This was simply so that should any member of the A Team test positive for Coronavirus, I still had a full team of people who could continue on with their duties without there being even the slightest hint of disruption to our clients.
They were all instructed that if they felt ill, even if they didn’t think it could be related to Coronavirus, then they had to tell me immediately and book a test.
While I had an A Team and B Team, I also spoke with other professional work colleagues and made agreements with them that should anything happen to both of my teams of people, would they be prepared to help.
With them on board, that meant I had a core staff of 5 people and then three back-up plans.
So with all of the PPE, teams of staff and two emergency back-up plans, I felt we were ready for anything we had to face.
Nine months on, those plans are still in place and I have gone even further. Only one staff member that I work with regularly is allowed inside my office and only when required.
Our bearers aren’t allowed in my office at all and haven’t been allowed for quite some time.
Since this new lockdown came into force, I was in touch with all of the staff and reminded them that although it feels different this time (much less strict than the first lockdown if the cars and people passing my office are any indication) I need them to remember we are still in the midst of a pandemic and unless they are shopping for food or seeking medical attention, they really need to stay at home.
Now, given I am a small and bespoke company, I don’t really understand why I can put all of these measures in place, prepare my staff and have the best PPE available and other companies can’t.
The only way people contract Coronavirus is by not washing their hands, not wearing a face covering and not social distancing.
There is no other way of contracting it.
Where there are outbreaks of Covid in funeral directors, I have to ask myself how that happened.
Why are their client’s services being interrupted when it is easily avoidable?
The week before I split up my staff last year, we were attending a service at the crematorium. All of my staff, including me, were wearing FFP3 masks and black disposable gloves.
Looked terrible but I had a long conversation with my clients at the time and explained why it was important that we do.
They completely understood and actually thanked us for keeping them in mind and for doing what we could to keep them safe.
While we were waiting for a last family member to arrive, I looked across the car park and there was a funeral director sat in his van filming us. I assume it was so he could show everyone back at the company he worked for what we were doing and how stupid we all were.
Now the crematorium has said no one can enter the chapel without a mask or gloves.
So my point is, if I can have all of this in place and pre-empt what will be required of us next, enough so that it is already second nature already, why can’t everyone else?
With this vaccination queue-jump, it almost feels like companies want the government to solve a problem they created by not putting proper steps in place, possibly not the correct PPE and certainly no emergency planning if their clients are affected.
No person is any more important than the next simply because of the job we do.
I’m afraid the people who decided they would campaign to get funeral directors vaccinated early have really missed the point and I believe they have done it for reasons I can’t fathom.
Any funeral director willing to be vaccinated early rather than wait their turn should ask themselves “Who had to wait so I could have this?”
In the end, this vaccine needs to be getting to the very most vulnerable people in our society. For what it is worth, I would gladly give up my space in that queue for anyone who needs it more than I do rather than playing Funeral Director Hunger Games for a jab.
We couldn’t have children at Steve’s funeral ceremony.
Covid restrictions on numbers meant that we had to be ruthless in paring down the people allowed to be present, and there were so many whose connections with Steve went back years, we made the judgement call that they had to take precedent over my grandchildren. This was a tough decision for me, as I feel strongly that children should be involved and present at funerals if they want to be, particularly of someone who has been such a strong influence and is loved as much as Steve was by my daughter’s children, but given the number of expletives involved in Steve’s funeral ceremony, it was probably the responsible one to take…
I have six grandchildren, and the three who belong to Grace, my younger daughter, have always been incredibly close to Steve. He has been in their lives since they were born, and to them he is Grandpa Steve. They live just around the corner from here and treat ‘Nana’s house’ just like their own, so they were particularly pleased when Steve and I moved back here full time just before the lockdown was announced. Once ‘bubbles’ were permitted, as a single mum, Grace and the children linked up with us, and normal relations were resumed, with Leo, Albert and Amelia spending as much time here as they could.
Late in the summer, when it was apparent that Steve’s cancer was accelerating, Grace and I took the children for a long walk and told them that Grandpa Steve was going to die because the doctors couldn’t make him better. Aged eight, six and almost three, they processed this information differently, asking a whole load of questions and trying to understand what we were telling them.
Luckily, in 2019, Grace’s beloved family dog Kizzie had died, and the boys in particular had very clear memories of saying goodbye to her on the morning that she had to be taken to the vets, and of then coming here to the house after school where we had laid her body on her bed and surrounded it with flowers from the garden. They had helped to dig the little grave for her and helped us wrap her body and then lower it into the grave, helping us fill it in and then plant a camellia on top of it.
Saying goodbye to Kizzie 2019
This experience was absolutely invaluable in helping them process what we were telling them, because they had a complete understanding of the difference between Kizzie alive and Kizzie dead. This gave them the reference they needed to understand what we were telling them would be happening to Steve – although it took a while for Albert to be persuaded that we wouldn’t be able to bury Steve in the garden with Kizzie, it was only when we talked about how much bigger a grave would be needed that he accepted it might be better if we let the gravediggers at the burial ground sort that out.
It was a really hard day, the day that we told them. It felt that we were deliberately taking something precious away from them, like telling them that there was no Father Christmas or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. Their trusting innocence in the safe world they inhabit was suddenly in jeopardy, one of the hugely important adults that they all love was going to be leaving them, he didn’t want to, but he had no choice, and there was nothing they could do about it. But it was the right time to tell them, and it meant that there were no secrets being hidden from them as the days went by. When we got home that day, I told Steve in front of them that we had been talking about him dying and he told them all that they could ask him anything they wanted to about it. They were more interested in what was for dinner than in having a conversation about his approaching death, but the offer was there and remained there from then on.
This new, strange knowledge was difficult for them to handle at times – when Steve and I told them that we were getting married, Albert was confused. “Why are you marrying Grandpa Steve when he’s going to die?” he asked. And seeing Steve having bad days when he was in pain and realising that he was losing his strength was hard for them. They wanted him to come on long dog walks and rough and tumble play with them like he used to and were sad that he couldn’t. But we all patiently explained over and again about how the cancer was affecting him and he really wanted to play but just couldn’t anymore the way he used to. I think that they were adapting really well to him gradually becoming less physically robust and were processing their understanding that he was going to die absolutely brilliantly. But then everything accelerated with frightening speed when he contracted Covid and we all had to isolate. They didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him, something we would, in an ideal world, have made sure had happened. Instead, Grace encouraged them to write letters and draw pictures for him.
When Steve was taken to hospital, I knew he wouldn’t be coming home. I didn’t think any of us would ever see him again, but when I was called to the hospital the first time, I was able to take the letters and drawings with me and give them to him. He had rallied a little from the point earlier in the day when the nursing staff thought that the end was approaching, and by the evening he was feeling strong enough to look at them. That meant a lot to Leo and Albert and Amelia, that he saw their drawings and words and handprints. I think it will mean a lot to them as they grow up too, to know that Grandpa Steve knew how much they loved him.
Amelia’s portrait, a letter from Leo and a handprint from Albert
‘We love you Grandpa Steve. Get better soon’.
When Steve died just after midnight on the Sunday morning, the rest of the night was sleepless. Grace collected me from the hospital, I had been awake since 5am on Friday morning and was almost delirious with tiredness and grief. We sat with my son John until the sun came up, talking and crying and drinking tea, and then she went home to try and get a couple of hours of sleep before the children woke up. When they did, she brought them here, so we were all together. They came in with anxious faces and everyone cried, but then they needed breakfast and attention and cuddles – and the day unfolded with chattering and playing and arguing – in the midst of the exhaustion and sadness, it was exactly what we needed.
The tears came frequently that surreal day, for all of us, but kids do the ‘puddle jumping’ thing of dipping in and out of the big serious stuff, and then wanting to go out on their scooters. The consensus at the end of the day was that, now he didn’t need his body anymore, Grandpa Steve was everywhere, he was actually probably on the moon. When someone noticed that, on the side of the plastic flask with the built-in straw that Steve had at the hospital because it made drinking easier, there were the words ‘Future Astronaut’, that clinched it. Grandpa Steve was on the moon. They were all content with that understanding.
There’s no way of knowing whether preparing the children in the way we did has made a difference to how they have handled his death, but I feel we gave them as much help as we could before we all were plunged into the sadness and shock that consumed us.
We continued to include them and involve them as the days went by after he died. They were here every day, seeing me and Grace coping with the waves of sadness and tears that kept coming, we didn’t hide anything from them. Amelia taught us how her ‘invisibility cloak’ worked – if she wants to do or say something secretly, she puts her hand up over her face so she can’t see anyone, which, to a three-year-old mind, means obviously nobody can see her either. It became the custom that as my tears welled up, her darling little face would look concerned and she’d come over to me and say, ‘Do this Nana’ and put her hand in front of her face to show me how to be invisible until I had composed myself again.
Working out how to explain to children about the funeral and what it was for and why it was happening was interesting. Bearing in mind that Grandpa Steve was on the moon as far as they were all concerned, the palaver involved with the funeral seemed to them to be quite unnecessary. We now had to try and get them to understand the difference between Grandpa Steve’s body, which required something to happen to it, and Grandpa Steve who was everywhere and also on the moon.
That was a challenging car journey as we drove them to the woods where his body was going to be buried to show them the exact spot that we’d chosen. They had a lot of questions. Somehow, we navigated the explanations to a satisfactory level, although the ‘Why can’t we see his body?’ question ended up being answered by ‘Because of coronavirus’ – although true, that was probably not really enough of a reason to satisfy the curiosity of a six-year-old.
We talked them through what was going to happen, and showed them where, and reassured them again that Grandpa Steve’s body couldn’t feel anything anymore, so being buried was absolutely fine, it wouldn’t hurt him and was actually a really good thing because his body would become part of nature. And that his eyes couldn’t see anything, and he didn’t need to breathe anymore, and he wasn’t in his body now and all of those other logical things that if not talked about might just confuse and frighten little minds.
They seemed to get it and were accepting that they’d be at school while all the mechanics of the funeral happened but that they’d be picked up early and brought up to the woods to see the grave once Grandpa Steve’s body had been buried there.
And that’s exactly what happened. Grace and John left once the coffin had been lowered into the grave, and they collected the children and Juno, and brought them back to the burial ground. Everyone had gone, and the gravediggers were filling in the grave, so we had a little while to fill in before we could take them there.
We took them to the labyrinth, the one I’d help to create all those years ago, and I explained how the way the labyrinth works is that you take all your sad thoughts and pick up a stone and walk the labyrinth carrying it until you reach the centre, and then you leave the stone and all your sad thoughts right there, and walk back out the way you walked in.
They absolutely loved it, and, accompanied by Isabel and Rachel the photographer and a bottle of champagne, Leo, Albert and Amelia walked the labyrinth with me and their mum and their aunt and uncle, all of us carrying our stones and thinking our sad thoughts about the man we all loved who was no longer with us. And then we all went back through the woods to find Steve’s grave, and the children blew bubbles and sat on his bench and laughed and played.
The next day we all sat together and watched the film of the funeral so they could see what had happened while they were at school and nursery the previous day. They thought the swearing was very amusing and loved seeing the motorbikes and the coffin and the fact that ‘Big Andy’, Steve’s friend, managed to be facing the wrong way when he lifted the coffin at the end of the ceremony and had to do a scramble as the other bearers started walking out of the front of the building while he was facing the back. By watching me help lower the coffin into the grave they could relate completely to the memory of Kizzie’s body being placed in her little grave. It was just what they needed to complete their thought processes I think.
We’ve made it a weekly event, going to the woods together. They’re learning that they need to calm down and walk nicely instead of shrieking and shouting and climbing trees because there may be people visiting other graves who are feeling sad. They’re watching the turning of the seasons and understanding that all of life is a cycle of being born and living and dying. I’m so proud of them all. They’re learning that love doesn’t end with death, it just changes, and that’s such an important lesson to have learnt so young. They’re learning that you can have really, really sad feelings but that they don’t last forever, and most importantly of all they’re learning that by talking to each other when we’re feeling sad, we don’t have to cope on our own. I’m so lucky to have these little people by my side helping me get through these days.