As the global death toll continues to rise Professor Avril Maddrell, Dr. Yasminah Beebeejaun and Dr. Katie McClymont discuss some sobering realities and challenges faced by grieving families, funeral homes, and crematoriums during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current pandemic is shocking in its rapid spread and threat to life, especially for those with underlying health conditions. It is particularly shocking for those of us who live in affluent countries in Europe, with the privilege of a welfare state and healthcare provision, and hence have presumed a reasonable expectation of a long life for ourselves, and for those we care about. Internationally, where the epidemic is peaking, significant numbers of additional deaths due to the virus are already putting cemeteries, crematoria and funeral providers under pressure. At the time of writing, a COVID19 cluster in Spain has been linked to mourners attending a funeral, and in Northern Italy, cemeteries and funeral services are struggling to keep up with burials, and restrictions mean direct burials are taking place without family or clergy present.
Sudden or unanticipated deaths are particularly difficult to deal with for the bereaved. In the context of COVD19, the inability to attend a loved one’s funeral will further add to the trauma of sudden bereavement. Weblinks via Skype, Facebook etc. are now a necessity for funeral services during the outbreak, given the requirements for social distancing, self-isolation or ‘lockdown’. Cemeteries and crematoria may have digital systems, but even where full IT systems are not available, mourners can be linked to the funeral via smartphones or laptops if necessary.
In our previous research on diversity issues in Cemeteries and Crematoria in England and Wales, we recommended increasing weblinks to funerals in order to facilitate maximum participation for international family networks, as well as others unable to attend in person, whether those housebound or those unable to get a visa to travel. The benefits of digital links made a clear difference to families: “She didn’t get a visa to attend her father’s funeral [in person], but she actually said a poem on the telephone and she was watching on Skype. She was actually live! And somebody made a speech as well from Pakistan …” (Christian British-Bangladeshi woman, Focus group Newport)
In those areas where the spread of the virus is yet to peak, service providers are planning for the expected sad increase in cemetery and crematoria needs. The funeral sector are working hard – often at personal risk – to do as much as possible to undertake funerals and make them as humane and accessible as possible within the constraints of public health measures.
In Ireland, funerals will take place under controlled conditions (https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/coronavirus-funerals-to-be-held-under-controlled-conditions-1.4202127). In another example of planning ahead of the virus ‘curve’, municipal crematorium providers in the Isle of Man have increased the number of trained crematorium operators from 4 to 29, in order to address potential increased demand and staff sick leave (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-51861337). In the UK, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Managers (ICCM ) are asking members to work through a prepared pandemic checklist (https://www.iccm-uk.com/iccm/pandemicplanning/), and the National Association of Funeral Directors has set up COVID 19-specific advice on their website for both those needing to arrange a funeral, and for funeral providers, including staffing, funeral health and safety measures, and other issues (https://nafd.org.uk/pandemic-planning/).
But there is another key issue, and that is ensuring appropriate cemetery and crematoria preparations and funeral rites are made to meet the needs of diverse local communities. It may seem indulgent to insist on what might be perceived as ‘niceties’ at a time of global crisis, but our research as shown that lack of appropriate graves, rites etc. can cause fear for the wellbeing of the deceased and create even more grief for the bereaved. Even in the most challenging times it is important to maintain respect for and the dignity of the deceased and bereaved – and for many this includes appropriate funerary rites.
Cemetery and crematoria managers and funeral providers will do a great service to the diverse communities that make up our localities and nations, through ensuring:
- Weblinks to the cremator are provided for Hindus and Sikhs who need to witness the charging of the cremator if it is not possible to be present
- Libraries of recorded liturgies, prayers, sacred and secular music to be used in funeral services reflect local communities’ requirements
- Communication with key minority as well as majority local religious communities to discuss needs, suitable recorded prayers etc.
- Liaison with community groups such as local churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and community lunch groups etc. to identify volunteers who can assist with funerals (if necessary, remotely)
- Appropriate graves are pre-prepared in Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i and mixed or secular areas of cemeteries
- Local rivers are designated for the dispersal of Hindu and Sikh cremated remains
Getting these things ‘right’ can make a real difference and bring comfort and solace to the bereaved, as this Hindu woman describes: “When we arrived at the crematorium that day, I hadn’t even thought about anything. But they had a CD playing with the Aum Nama Shiva, and this was done by an orchestra. It was a really nice arrangement. They had …. the Hindu Ohm at the front. And one of the big things, they have got a Shiva murti, the god statue, which is all in place there.” (Hindu woman, Northampton) (Maddrell et al 2018, Diversity-Ready Cemeteries and Crematoria in England and Wales, see: www.deathscapesanddiversity.org.uk )
It is important in these challenging times, that we do not lose sight of the fact that people of different faiths and those of no faith have varying requirements for death and funeral rites. Doing our best to respect these can be crucial to the peace of mind of both the dying and the bereaved in these difficult times. There will be challenges and compromises faced by all in such times, but we must make sure that the discussion about these are informed by the needs and wishes of all, not just assumptions about majority practices and needs.