‘You’re a funeral director, you must be raking it in!’
Well, like many other businesses, surprisingly, we are struggling during the current Covid -19 crisis. The simple fact is that funerals are a very different beast these days, often comparable in price to a small wedding. Consumer capitalism has had an effect on this end of life rite, just as it has everywhere, and often Funeral Directors are just as much salesmen as undertakers. From expensive coffins to memorial jewellery there are endless choices to be made by a grieving family, and all outside goods and services that are bought in can have substantial mark ups.
Suddenly everything has changed. With only five to ten people allowed at the crematorium, no touching of the coffin and the curtains have to be closed, there is huge sense of deflation and what has been a chance for a celebration of life is now a quiet event somehow happening in the shadows, introverted and unwitnessed.The social distancing has inevitably meant that there is a feeling that a wedge has been driven between the mourners themselves and between the professionals with a strange subdued atmosphere of quiet. People are awkward and don’t really know what to do as normal social conventions have to be consciously defied and It’s not really ideal, but there are still some lovely moments in the sharing at the end of life. A sense of peace and an acute awareness of the fragility of life has put the mourner and the deceased in closer proximity. Far from feeling that this is something that won’t happen to us, suddenly death is close as a heartbeat. The uncertainty of the world means we are ALL in a liminal place…questioning the meaning of things and just what life is all about. Intimacy has slowly crept in….a gentleness and informality now the rigid formality of the big show is no longer possible. The Celebrant has the chance to talk to family directly and we can now improvise more freely, inviting them to sing or speak and the feeling that the service is no longer a ‘show’ has meant the pressure is off. Rites have become simple and heartfelt expressions of love.
Most crematoria are offering streaming and recording of the service so that people can take part in their own homes. We can invite them to take a quiet space in their home, light a candle and also email them a full script so they can follow. They may want to have a photo in a special place and some people are sending me text messages during the service to be read out live. We also deliver services from our chapel which we video and send out live even if no-one is there, and have done one via zoom. One sad loss is the wake, that chance for people to share stories, a drink and a bite, but even here we have witnessed a family having a wake with Houseparty.
With a huge increase in Direct Cremations from people who feel they just don’t want to face a service that cannot be what they want, we also offer a drive by on our way to the crematorium and a video of a short committal so there is some visual marking of the transition for people to witness. Many people are suggesting they will have a memorial service later in the year, but to be honest, I doubt that will happen. Once the immediacy of the grief is passed, people will not want to go back, and it may just be too painful. Life will have moved on and so will they, and everything will be changed.
There is no doubt that C19 has riven through all parts of our lives and made us all more creative. Traditions we thought would never change have been seriously challenged and people are adapting quickly. What is clear now are the things that are really important, the core of our ceremonial rites however they are practised, and we are finding ways to keep those intact. In the end its not about the ‘stuff’ - the flowers, the hearse, the black morning suits, the type of coffin, the dove release or the clothes, it’s about people, being heard in our grief, comfort from others and a moment out of our busy lives to say that someone mattered - they made a difference and we care.
I hope we remember this when our old ‘normal’ comes back. I hope we can keep the sense that funerals do not need to be show, they do not need to be ‘perfect’ and we do not need to articulate our grief with yet more consumption.
In the end it is the love that matters….long after the life is over.