One of the most difficult of consequences arising from the coronavirus pandemic is that funerals have had to change. To quote from the advice sent out to Baptist ministers:
- Funerals should take place in crematoria chapels or at the graveside only.
- Mourners should be restricted to the immediate family. Those who are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus should not attend. This includes those over 70 and those who have an underlying health condition.
- No bereaved person may attend a funeral if they themselves are unwell. Likewise, if the cause of death is Covid-19, any of the bereaved who were in contact with the deceased, either before or after death, in the seven days prior to their funeral, should not attend.
- Ministers should conduct funeral visits by phone or video link wherever possible.
- General guidelines about hygiene and social distancing also apply at funerals.
I have just come off the phone from talking to a member of my Rotary club. He has developed symptoms of the coronavirus and is having to self-isolate – and as a result his father and his sister who are in the same house with him are also self-isolating. His mother died last week and the funeral is this week – but nobody will be able to attend the funeral. Instead the funeral service will be live-streamed from the crematorium.
Funerals have had to change. This change is seen in the way in which deaths are announced in the newspapers: “Due to the current circumstances there will be no funeral to attend, but a memorial will be announced in a future when possible”; “Small private cremation and then when events allow a large celebration of his life”; “Private funeral, with memorial service celebrating her life to follow at a later date”; “Private burial – a memorial service will be held later in the year”.
But after a lapse of perhaps six months, will these memorial services be of the type we have known? Will we in the autumn (or whenever) be celebrating the lives of friends and loved ones in the way in which we have traditionally celebrated the lives of the recently departed? I spoke to a widow whose husband’s funeral took place just before the complete lockdown. She would like to have some event to which a wider circle of family and friends could come, but not a service as such. “Things have moved on”, she said to me. What will be true of her will be true of many. The initial sense of numbness and shock will have disappeared; so too the feelings of anger, depression, and perhaps guilt. The tears will have stopped flowing and healing will have begun. Many of the bereaved will be in a very different place.
Perhaps for ‘the great and the good’ formal memorial services at which their achievements are celebrated, will be right. But what I think many will want is an opportunity to gather with family and friends and tell stories of their loved one. Such a sharing of memories could take place in church – but for many a home setting would be far preferable. Yes, people may want the minister to be present too – to join in the sharing of memories, and perhaps conclude with an appropriate Scripture reading. Instead of a day-time service in the middle of the week, I envisage a low-key party on a Saturday or a Sunday.
But along with these informal and events focussed around individual loved ones, I think there is a place for one truly large-scale church event to which everybody who has lost a loved one is invited where there is an opportunity to thank God together for those who have been special to them. Here I have in mind a mega All Saints Day celebration which this year falls on Sunday 1 November. This could be publicised as ‘Thank God for loved ones: an All Saints Day celebration of life and hope’. Within the context of the main Sunday service I envisage not just the names of each loved one being read out, but their photos being beamed up on a screen. People would be encouraged to come forward and light candles in memory of those who have passed from death to life. In this regard let me assure my more Evangelical brothers and sisters, that this is not a form of praying for the dead – but an opportunity to affirm our faith that our loved ones are in God’s safekeeping. Yes, there will be a place for a short sermon on the difference that Jesus can make to living and to dying, but first and foremost on this occasion ministers need to be ‘creative liturgists’.
The Coronavirus Pandemic will mean that we will need to develop new ways of remembering loved ones.