On March 23rd2020 the United Kingdom went into lockdown. Everyone was affected, young and old. The health of the nation unknown, livelihoods put into jeopardy and a new way of life took hold.
As well as fear, there was optimism and positivity. People pulled together, supporting one another and appreciating our National Health Service like never before.
Every industry in the country had to adapt and find new ways to carry on. The funeral industry was no exception and had a huge task on its hands.
Celebrants had to adapt and fast! The normal procedure for arranging a funeral begins with a celebrant visiting a family at home or in a place of their choosing. This was no longer an option so we had to find new ways of connecting. The phone was the obvious means of communication, but the family don’t get to see your face and connect on a physical level. They also miss out on the chance to show you where their loved one lived, enabling the celebrant to get a feel for that person’s life and their surroundings. Sometimes people struggle with hearing, which can be very frustrating if lip reading isn’t possible.
Early on, I felt it was important to offer video meetings. It was a chance for people to be safe, comfortable and connected. I wasn’t sure if people would be comfortable with this format, but families were already using video calls to keep in touch with their family, as well as for work purposes, so it was certainly worth a try.
People soon picked up the baton and it became easy to arrange a meeting at short notice. It also meant that there were no travel issues. It is not uncommon for me to travel up to 50 miles to see people, sometimes driving up to an hour, then allowing up to 2 hours for a meeting and the return journey home. I love meeting people and of course this is a pivotal part of the planning. You want families to feel comfortable and they need to trust you, safe in the knowledge that you will give their loved one the very best service possible – individual, bespoke and heartfelt. After all, no two people are ever the same.
Now, consider the family. Inviting someone into your home does come without pressure. I am aware that some people have gone to considerable effort to make sure that everything is spick and span. People are generally very kind-hearted, I have often been offered tea, coffee, wine, food and even a slap-up lunch! I travel at all times of the day to suit people’s hours, but I never want to invade their space. I don’t expect anything, I just want to give them my time and make sure I have gathered as much information as possible.
Zoom and video platforms have removed a lot of that pressure. No one has had to worry about what they’re wearing, how the house looks or how to stop the dog from barking in the other room. It has also allowed people to share relevant memorabilia, photos and personal items electronically.
Similarly, in these last 12 months I have spoken to people from all corners of the world who have been able to participate in family meetings they would otherwise have missed. Everyone gets a voice and can feel included in the arrangements.
There have been huge restrictions on numbers attending services. The restrictions of the first lockdown meant many families chose not to even attempt a service. To avoid the embarrassment of having to pick out their favourite relatives and friends they opted for a direct cremation instead.
The option of the webcast changed things dramatically. Suddenly 200 people could be present, watching and supporting families in a remote way,
Despite the small numbers of actual attendees, there has been an intimacy which many families have greatly appreciated and has taken away the pressure of speaking to friends and fellow mourners at a time when many cannot face it. There are a lot of people who find it incredibly awkward to be seen openly grieving.
These smaller, more intimate funerals have meant those closest have been able to unite in grief and be at one with their feelings during this important time. On a personal level, I have been so pleased to receive messages from mourners viewing via the webcast, who felt included and present at the service.
No wakes have been possible during the pandemic so the choice of having a celebration at a future date might bring comfort.
The media systems in crematoria provide more than just the music and a webcast. Picture tributes have become increasingly popular and I often encourage families to consider audio tributes, especially from family members living abroad. This option is not only for people overseas, it can help those who have a fear of public speaking but want their tribute to be heard. Personal tributes can be recorded on a phone and easily sent as a file.
The creativity from families and those working in the funeral industry has progressed hugely. Orders of service – in all shapes and sizes – can be sent online to friends and family for them to follow the service on the day. Gift bags too have really caught on. I officiated at a service for a loving couple, who died within two days of one another. The family gave everyone a gift bag as they left. Inside was their father’s favourite beer, with his face on the bottle. Also in the bag was a small pot of jam, again with a picture of the mother’s face alongside fresh scones and clotted cream. There were also some seeds to plant in their memory. Later on, they toasted their parents and reminisced via zoom. These little touches can make a huge difference.
To date the death rate is close to 126,000 but at last the rate is falling. These have been incredibly testing times and utterly heart breaking for so many people.
Technology might not be everybody’s friend, but the possibilities on offer have enhanced many funerals and will continue to do so, even when this pandemic is over.