Funerals & Covid-19: “People are in shock – there’s not enough room for grief and reflection”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

Covid-19 is having a huge impact on people’s ability to grieve. Poppy Mardall, founder and director of Poppy’s Funerals in south London, tells us about the increasingly creative ways people are coming up with to say goodbye, as well her concerns over the legacy this pandemic will leave behind.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Poppy has witnessed the pain of families having to decide who gets to attend their relatives’ funeral, but she’s also seen exceptional displays of creativity. At a recent funeral where the deceased didn’t have close family, 10 friends turned up who’d never met before. Because of the social distancing rule, they decided to each have five minutes alone in the chapel, rather than stand two metres apart, together. “I thought it was really wonderful” Poppy says.

With flower markets closed, children have taken to drawing pictures of flowers to go inside or on top of coffins. People unable to attend funerals have written notes to be read out, replacing their physical presence. “We had one funeral where all the names of the people who wanted to be there were read out, which I found very moving” she says. They’re also talking about giving people at burials a length of ribbon to hold while forming a circle around a grave, so they can maintain social distancing while having a sense of closeness.

It’s heartening to hear that this is still possible to achieve. Poppy’s colleague, the funeral home’s Head of Operations Isabel Potter, had been planning her mother’s funeral for almost three years; when she died just before the pandemic erupted it became clear the 200-strong list of attendees would have to be scrapped. “It certainly wasn’t the funeral that we had planned, but we felt like the centre of the world for a moment or two and we had the privacy and peace to really be ourselves.” Isabel wrote in an Evening Standard article about the event. “What we did together that day has a real importance, simplicity and power, which soothes us in our pain and for which we are so grateful.”

Others are less willing to miss the chance to say goodbye. “I saw a funeral the other day where there were 10 people around the grave, but about 20 or 30 other people had gathered outside, with their noses pressed up against the fence” Poppy explains. “They were socially distancing, but got as close as they could to the ceremony.”

The virus has also thrown up difficulties for faiths that have traditions like washing the body before a burial, but there are ways to circumvent this. “If it’s custom to wash the person who’s died people could watch the funeral directors do it, or they could be on Skype or Zoom as it’s happening. It’s really important for people to speak to their funeral directors to find out what’s possible rather than assuming that things aren’t.”

There is also the possibility of livestreaming funerals, something that was already happening – albeit on a much smaller scale – for people who live in different parts of the world. “Some families have a small gathering at the crematorium and then later hold an online ceremony, usually led by a celebrant, completely separate to the cremation. They choose the day and time to gather together on a platform like Zoom, and the celebrant organises the order of service. That’s sent round ahead of time and people have their readings or poems. Some things are a bit more difficult like singing because of the slight delay, but it’s absolutely possible if you can be a bit relaxed and give people time to catch up between verses.”

However she stresses that this won’t ever completely replace the need to gather together after someone has died. “There’s something primal about being together physically, talking and hugging, so I don’t think funerals are going to happen on Zoom in the future. But I think crematoria and cemeteries will be more open to thinking about how they can include people who can’t physically be there. I think more clients will think about asking for that and we’ll be better at giving them options.”

There is undoubtedly a huge amount of fear at the moment, a lot of which is caused by uncertainty. “We’ve seen on the news these extra mortuary hubs being built, and there’s something about this that inspires so much fear in people. The death management process is so often kept behind the scenes when so much of what we’re trying to do is bring it all into the light” Poppy says.

During a recent visit to a mortuary her team was asked to stick tape over their phones so they couldn’t take pictures. “It felt slightly overzealous, and it felt like fearmongering even if that wasn’t the intention. But if you go to collect someone who’s died and someone tapes up your phone, your first thought is, ‘what’s going on?'”

She still isn’t sure what the reason for this was, as her team were hardly likely to start taking photos. “Maybe there are things they don’t want to show because people are so afraid right now. But it’s this kind of approach that causes the problem in the first place.”

“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress, and we’re doing what we can to alleviate that, and bring people into our care and treat them well. I think there’s a lot of pride and good feeling in our work, even though at times it’s obviously scary.”

One of the most challenging issues has been around sourcing PPE, because of the knock-on effect his has on the families they work with. “There was a week when we had to say to people who were calling, ‘we can’t collect your mum until next Monday, because that’s when our PPE arrives.’ You really understand the impact of that when you call those people back and they burst into tears. This is really stressful for people, and it’s why I’m so worried about the long term impact.”

“Right now people are feeling the stress of getting things done, and the shock, and just having to cope, and it seems to me like that doesn’t leave much room for grief or reflection. I think there will be a legacy to this.”

“I’m a trustee of Bereavement Care, and I think about the support people are going to need because this is so traumatic. I’ve had so many emails from people saying they can’t hug their mum right now. It’s awful for people having to grieve on their own, at home. I think about my colleague Isabel. Her mum just died, she didn’t have the funeral that she expected, and I wonder what life will be like six months down the line when we’re looking back and maybe feeling the effects more thoroughly.”

For more information visit Poppy’s Funerals

Dying Matters Awareness Week runs until May 17

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