As I stood outside the cemetery chapel, waiting for the bearers to begin the journey inside, I felt more than a little invested. The woman whose funeral I was about to lead was almost the same age as me. I knew, from talking to her family on Zoom in the days beforehand, that her life had touched many people over the years. Friends, neighbours and colleagues should have been gathered there to show respect and support others grieving. Stories and memories should have been told, hugs and handshakes given. Instead, about 25 people gathered inside the church. The March snow showers began to fall outside. This was another funeral in the year of Covid-19.
From 17 May, the ban in England on more than 30 people attending a funeral will be lifted. The number of mourners will be limited by the capacity of individual buildings, and social distancing measures will remain in place. Some 700,000 funerals have taken place across the United Kingdom since restrictions were put in place at the end of March of last year. Yet research conducted by the Church of England in January found that seven in 10 people had missed out on a funeral they would have attended in the past year had it not been for Covid-19. Since March 2020, four out of 10 people surveyed had experienced the death of someone close to them. Attending a funeral is an important part in the journey of grief, and the emotional cost of restricting this has been high.
That small funeral in March was still a memorable event. Many family members and friends watched it livestreamed on their screens across the globe. Instead of a eulogy, the family read some of the lovely messages they had received from those unable to be there in person. And as we laid her to rest in a grave, with the timeless words used in Christian burials for centuries, there was space for tears. But after the funeral, rather than staying to talk, remember and console, we all walked away.
Yet there are positive aspects to small funerals. Many of my clergy colleagues talk of the intimate spaces they create to express raw emotions and sadness. I’ve heard stories of old traditions revived, of neighbours congregating on the streets to mark the route from the church to the graveyard for a much-loved resident whose funeral would at other times have filled a church. Our lives reach beyond our immediate family members and make an impact on people we know through work, leisure, friendships and faith. At my own father’s funeral I was touched when a former schoolfriend turned up to say she remembered him giving us lifts when we were teenagers. Despite their intimacy, smaller funerals held during the pandemic have given little space for that kind of support.
The same research from the Church of England showed that around four in 10 funerals were livestreamed during the pandemic. Of the people who watched one, more than two-thirds said they felt live streams were a good idea. Long after Covid-19, this technology may continue to help people join in when they can’t be there in person. It could enable care home friends and staff to say their goodbyes when a fellow resident dies, or allow distant family members to take part in a funeral. Recordings can be kept to allow people to remember in the months and years ahead.
Remembering is important for anyone who has experienced bereavement. During the pandemic, there have been many stories of churches creating spaces for such reflections, such as those that invited people to tie coloured ribbons to their railings, marking people who had suffered or died from Covid-19, or the parish churchyard where people have left “remembering stones” that have slowly built a cairn.
It’s a great privilege to take a funeral, especially as a Church of England vicar. I am there for people, whether they attend church or not. Whether a funeral is held in a packed church or livestreamed over video link, the responsibility is the same: to create a moment of personal reflection, give thanks for a unique life, and speak of hope. It will be good to laugh and weep together once again at funeral services and wakes. My hope is that new technologies may work together with old familiar rituals to create more spaces for grieving long into the future.