Saying goodbye in COVID. A UK undertaker's guide to creating a beautiful funeral during the pandemic
Updated: Jan 14
Writing this in the second week of January 2021, we are experiencing a steady and sobering rise in the daily death rate of the virus which has been affecting all our lives for nearly a year. Today, in fact, we recorded one of the highest death rates in a single day. Although the vaccine-shaped light at the end of the tunnel is shining brightly, we are clearly not out of the woods yet, and the next few weeks will see a horrifyingly high number of unnecessary & premature deaths.
There are still many ways to make a beautiful, unique and special farewell
Sadly, as with every aspect of society, funeral ceremonies during the pandemic are experiencing major and often upsetting disruption, whether or not COVID itself has played a part in the death. However, despite limits on numbers, social distancing & mask wearing, there are still many ways to make a beautiful, unique and special farewell. Here is my guide to creating a beautiful funeral during the pandemic.
Firstly, and very importantly, find a funeral director you can trust who has your interests at the heart of what they do! This may sound self-explanatory, but there are still thousands and thousands of funerals every year conducted by large & faceless organisations who treat everybody exactly the same way, and have little or no care for the individual needs or desires of each family they serve. Look around, examine websites, ask for quotes, read testimonials, ask for a family member or friend to recommend someone they trust, and - if possible - use an independent and family-run firm as they will almost always provide a better and more personal service, often at a substantially lower price than the 'big names'.
Secondly, be fearless in utilising technology. It is still the case that the government restrictions on funerals limit attendance to a maximum of 30 people (including the minister or celebrant), but this does not mean that other people cannot participate remotely. Almost all crematoria chapels now have the ability to record and/or live stream the funeral service. However, if you are organising a funeral which is not happening entirely in a crematorium chapel, there are lots of other options available as well. The pandemic has seen a sharp rise in the number of professional videographers and photographers, offering a great many options for both recording and broadcasting the funeral proceedings. This can involve streaming parts of the service including graveside services, church services and cortege processions - as well as any other part.
In addition to bringing the funeral ceremonies to people unable to attend, technology is also making it possible to bring tributes and contributions to the funeral itself. There has been a big take up in the use of photo slideshows and video tributes at crematorium services, and people are also often recording tributes or eulogies from those unable to attend and having them played during the services. There is also a noticeable rise in some funeral directors (including us, I am proud to say) installing professional level streaming equipment into their chapels of rest in the funeral home or funeral parlour. This has enabled absent families to be involved in some of the far more intimate parts of the process in the run up to the funeral itself. We have had families remotely partake in the ceremonial washing and dressing of the deceased; we have also had families witness the final sealing of the coffin from other countries, unable to fly in due to the pandemic. The fact that the technology allows '2-way' participation has also meant that those participating remotely in these intimate events in our chapel are able to be heard by those physically present, making for a much more interactive experience for something so important and solemn. As ever in the 21st century, technology is making far more possible than many of us had imagined even only a few years ago.
Thirdly, take comfort in the 'majesty of music'. It is perhaps no surprise, as a music graduate myself, that I am very keen to promote the enormous benefit of music within every aspect of the funeral proceedings. Music is so often an afterthought; something used to 'cover' the awkward silences that crop up in public services, perhaps to cover the time taken for people to find their seats, and indeed as they leave. More often than not, the only meaningful inclusion of music is to have a moving and/or significant piece played at the committal (or other poignant moment), or to have the deceased's favourite hymn sung (or, sadly these days, only played with no singing) at some point during the service. However, music can be so much more. Music is so personal. Music is so meaningful. Allow music to provide some of the comfort which we most desperately need at a time like the funeral of our closest loved ones.
Although communal/congregational singing is currently prohibited during the pandemic, this does not mean that live music is not an option. It is still possible to have some beautiful live music played at the funeral service, by an instrumentalist and/or a singer. We have arranged for significant songs to be sung by professional singers during the funeral. We have arranged for someone's favourite music to be played on a saxophone a few metres away from the burial space. We can organise trumpeters, flautists, bag-pipers, singers, guitarists, organists, string players and any kind of live musician you would like, to make the service that bit more personal and vibrant. 'No communal singing' does not mean we have to rely solely on recorded music.
Equally, though, there is a wealth of recorded music at our fingertips. We can arrange for almost anything to be played at a funeral service. If it has been commercially recorded, it can be played! You do not need to be limited to the funeral 'favourites' that everybody thinks of when they imagine funeral music (from Elgar's Nimrod to Sinatra's My Way, to name only a couple). Think outside the box. Think of what you would like to hear and feel at this most special time. What would your loved one have wanted played? This is the perfect opportunity to add a little of your loved one's personality to the ceremony, so do not be afraid to go with your gut and choose what you really want, not what you think you 'should' have. Also, don't be afraid to have a little fun. Music can be a great way of expressing someone's sense of humour. I can remember one gentleman whose coffin was lowered (at his request) to the Countdown theme tune, as it was his favourite show. We have also had the theme tunes to both The Chase and Dad's Army within the past few months. Always look on the bright side of life is another favourite amongst those with a wry sense of irony (particularly when their name is Brian).
But in addition to moments of levity and humour, music can also be a powerful and moving emotional trigger, taking us right back to the heart of a situation, without any words at all. From people's first dance songs at their weddings, sometimes decades earlier, to the songs people danced to with their friends or partners in their youth, choosing the right piece to capture a memory can transform a funeral service. Only last week at a funeral for a dearly loved family man, we played a recording of the deceased himself playing the piano. Such an intimate and immediate memory meant so much to the loved ones gathered to say farewell. This is not limited only to music. At my mother's funeral back in January 2006, we played a recording she had made the previous year of her reading her favourite bible reading; and at my aunt's funeral in January 2005, a recording was played of her singing a song she had herself written. On both of these occasions, the opportunity for those gathered to hear (perhaps for the last ever time) the actual voice of the person they were saying farewell to was a poignant and emotive moment, which few will ever forget.
Finally, my last of these four main ways to create a beautiful and unique funeral even in the face of the pandemic restrictions, don't be afraid to do what you want. Whilst this may sound odd, it is really important that you remember that the funeral is such an important part of your grieving journey, and getting it right for you (the close family and/or friends) is probably even more important than getting it right for the person who has died. Some families do not want dark suits and black vehicles. Some families do not want pomp and ceremony or top-hat-wearing Victorian-garbed funeral conductors processing vehicles down the High Street. Equally, though, some families do want these things. Some families do not want a generic and ritualistic semi-religious crematorium service straight out of a prayer book presided over by a priest they have never met, and yet some families derive great comfort and peace from the tradition that these types of services bring. Some families do not want a traditional wooden coffin. Some families do not want to see their loved one, and others do. Some don't want to carry the coffin themselves, and others do. Some want to the loved one to be brought back home, others do not want this. Some people want to conduct the funeral ceremony themselves, and others want to hire a professional celebrant to lead the service. Some want light-hearted jollity and fun, while others want respectful tradition and sobriety.
Ultimately, though, all that matters is what you want. When it comes to saying the final farewell to your loved one, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Think about it carefully and discern what is the right way for you. Once you know what you want, tell your funeral director (yes, tell, not ask!) and, provided you have heeded the advice I gave in my first point above about finding an independent funeral director you can trust to put your needs first, they will work tirelessly to ensure that you are empowered to create the service you want; the service that you need. This is the only opportunity you will have to hold the funeral for this person, this special person; so do not take 'no' for an answer. If you are being prevented from holding the funeral service which is right for you, then you need to find another funeral director. A progressive and caring funeral director will always put your needs at the heart of the service they provide, because we know that the funeral is so important in your processes of healing and grief, and it is something we can only do once.
So do not be disheartened by the times we live in if you find yourself having to arrange a funeral, as there will already be so much for you to be disheartened about. Instead be assured in the knowledge that the funeral can still be a beautiful and truly unique expression of the personality of the person you have lost, and you can still most certainly create a wonderful farewell for them.