Funerals are a universal after-death ritual that can vary widely in form and function. They have the collective goal of “saying farewell” to someone. They give a place where participants can express grief and share sorrow, remember the person who has died and their life, mark the transition from living to dead, and act as a starting point for recovery*.
When Covid-19 was at it’s height, these rituals were severely compromised. With what outcomes?
Rituals are inherent in life, encompassing the traditional rites of passage such as christenings, marriages and funerals. The funeral ritual has been present for millennia across countries, cultures and religions, most often preceded by family presence during the dying period, followed by gathering together to say goodbye.
In modern times many people see funerals more as a “celebration of a life lived” or the ‘ultimate in final stories’. This is reflected in ceremonies and rituals that might include photos and videos of the deceased, the music they preferred, or personalised messages, items or even coffin decoration.
These rituals can play an important part in the whole grieving journey or process and can assist in restoring feelings of control.
The impact of COVID-19
In late 2019 and onwards, when the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic restricted lives, movement and gatherings so much, the process of dying and ritual after events was dramatically changed for everyone.
Care facilities and hospital visitor restrictions meant there was often isolation during dying, with many people dying alone.
Communications were often difficult or non existent, with family members left in relative silence about what was happening.
In some cultures where families traditionally help to prepare the body for burial this was not allowed or physically possible.
Where death occurred quickly, travel restrictions meant those left behind were often unable to say goodbye to their loved ones in time or at all.
These changes were further compounded by a reduction in the numbers of those able to be present at the funeral, a traditional time of social support and comfort giving, of remembrance and closure.
The way in which funerals were conducted prior to COVID-19 were largely through choice – of venue, who is notified/invited and proceedings, what happens etc. choices that can help to mitigate grief responses. Much of that changed with the advent of COVID-19 in ways that could not have been envisaged, from the number of those allowed to attend, travel restrictions for those who may have been allowed, quarantine measures preventing attendance and the inability to be physically close with physical distancing measures preventing close contact.
Funeral directors adapted to the new circumstances by using videoconferencing or livestreaming technology in many instances. The ritual of viewing the body at a funeral home or home was sometimes substituted with the coffin taken around the streets for people to acknowledge the death. With funerals seen as a way of providing comfort to the bereaved often manifested through physical touch such as hugging, to be denied these supports may be detrimental to ongoing mental health in bereavement. Research by Carr and colleagues (2020) describe the lack of face-to-face mourning rituals in conjunction with other losses such as social isolation as compounding bereavement.
In week 1, the content focused on how today’s society engages with death through the language we use, humour, public mourning and funerals. The study investigated participants’ responses reflecting on funerals and memorials during the time of COVID-19.
The study (and The Forever Loved team) believe that COVID-19 has demonstrated many examples of “benefit-finding’ in death. This is an adaptive coping response where we look for positive aspects of challenging crisis situations, and it has been seen in other studies related to COVID-19.
Whilst we experienced the loss of familiar rituals, new and very meaningful rituals were created instead. There were also innovations such as television screens outside churches, livestreaming for those who are absent, and physically distanced guards of honour lining streets.
The Forever Loved is we hope one of those innovations that will become “normal” in the future.
A personal note
Some studies (eg Eisma and colleagues (2021)) found that those experiencing a loss during COVID-19 exhibited higher grief levels. Certainly for my family, locked down and separated from our family scattered across the world, it was the hardest and loneliest of times.
We hope that our memorial site will add to the toolkit we all have to deal with grief, and to find our social support and community in times of real need, whatever the prevailing environment.
Because coming together and celebrating life is always a positive step forward.