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Funerals and the Coronavirus

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Funerals and the Coronavirus

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the procedures relating to funerals and funeral ceremonies are inevitably changing. Over the next few months many people will be unable to attend the funerals of loved ones due to restrictions on mass gatherings and travel, and as this sadly coincides with an increased mortality rate, it can feel like a very bleak situation. But in this blog we hope to reassure you that if you do lose someone close to you, it is still possible to say goodbye in a way that offers closure and that honours and celebrates their life.

The situation regarding coronavirus changes daily, so please note that this information is accurate at the time of last edit – 24th March 2020.

How many people can attend a funeral?

On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced strict new measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus, meaning that people are now only permitted to leave their homes for a few very specific reasons. He stressed that social events are not currently permitted, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but with the exception of funerals.

This exception leaves funeral professionals in a rather strange position – having been permitted to continue holding funeral services, but all the while having to comply with government orders regarding social distancing. As a result, decisions regarding the number of mourners allowed to attend a funeral is currently down to the discretion of each crematorium or burial site. At the time of writing, some crematoria have introduced ‘direct funerals’ only (where the body is cremated or buried in the days immediately following the death without a funeral service beforehand), whereas others are allowing funerals to continue for now, while taking into account all of the guidelines for minimising the risk of transmission. Places of worship have been ordered to close their doors for the time being. There has also been no clear guidance on the issue of individual mourners leaving their homes in order to attend a funeral, and how this is to be monitored. At the time of writing industry professionals are in contact with government officials to seek further clarity on these issues, and have asked for specific funeral guidelines to be put in place during this time.

For now, those who cannot attend a funeral may be able to join via webcasting, with many (but sadly not all) sites having the facilities in place to accommodate this. It is also worth noting that an alternative to crematoria is natural burials grounds, of which there are more than 270 across the UK. A natural burial is a very personal choice and the ecological requirements may not suit everyone, but they can be the perfect solution for those looking for somewhere natural, peaceful and beautiful to say goodbye and celebrate a life. Ceremonies can take place by the graveside and are usually not subject to the rigid time restrictions associated with crematoria. However, it is again down to the discretion of each individual burial ground how and if they operate during this period of social distancing.

Natural burial ground with chapel in background

How else will funerals change?

If the UK experiences ‘excess deaths’ then the process of arranging funerals could be fast-tracked, but the UK Government’s coronavirus action plan aims to “ensure the deceased are treated with the utmost respect and dignity.” According to recent government guidance, “if the scientific advice indicates that the number of people who might die from COVID-19 is likely to significantly exceed the capacity locally to manage the deceased and other contingency measures have been deployed, local government will have the ability to take control of components of the death management process in their area.” This could include an increase in the operating times of crematoria or directing others not directly involved in the funeral sector to provide necessary support. The Government says it is committed to protecting public health and the dignity of the deceased, and that personal choice will be respected as far as possible (Department of Health & Social Care).

This may all seem like a drastic contrast to the ‘choice revolution’ we’ve been seeing in the funeral industry recently, but the key thing to keep in mind is that the ‘committal’ (disposal of the body) is only part of the overall process. The only legal requirement for UK funerals is that the death must be certified and registered, and the body must be disposed of by burial, cremation or any other means (Natural Death Centre). You are not even obliged to employ a funeral director, although many people find it helpful to do so. Arguably the most important part is the ceremony itself – your chance to remember your loved one and celebrate their life with others. And a ceremony like this – known as a ‘memorial service’ or ‘celebration of life ceremony’ – can be entirely separate to the committal, and can easily be held at a later date when social distancing measures have been relaxed.

Planning a memorial service

Having held a small service (if permitted) at the crematorium or natural burial site, you many want to start planning a separate memorial ceremony to be held in a few weeks or months at a venue of your choice. This will allow you to share memories, read eulogies, perhaps plant a tree, and celebrate the person’s life in a way that feels right for you without any time or content restrictions. Or if you don’t feel comfortable waiting and would like to hold a ceremony sooner rather than later, you may want to think about using an online platform so that you can gather together virtually with friends and family of the deceased.

Photos of loved ones on chairs at a memorial service

Of course nobody knows when the current restrictions will be relaxed, so you may need to be flexible with the date of your ceremony. If you choose a venue to hold the ceremony, speak to them about their postponement procedures. Or you may wish to hold the ceremony in an open space such as the garden of a friend or family member, in which case you can be far more flexible.

Funeral celebrants

It can be extremely helpful to work with a self-employed funeral celebrant to plan the funeral itself and/or the celebration of life ceremony. Celebrants will work closely with you to find out the key elements of the person’s life you would like to remember and celebrate at the ceremony. They will also be able to guide you through the process and provide you with ideas wherever needed for eulogies, readings and music. Celebrants can conduct funerals at crematoria or celebration of life ceremonies at any venue you choose, and will usually be happy to include both secular and religious elements.

Celebrant conducting an outdoor ceremony

Here at Outdoor Ceremonies we list a large number of celebrants across the country; take a look at our directory of qualified celebrants to find the right person for you, or read our Guide to Celebrants for more information about how they will work with you to plan the ceremony.

During this period of ‘lockdown’, a meeting with a celebrant would of course need to take place virtually rather than in person. Alternatively you may wish to meet with them in person at a later date, if you feel comfortable delaying the memorial ceremony by a few weeks or months.

Coping with your grief

Losing a loved one is already a very difficult thing to cope with, but having to say goodbye at a time of social distancing can be especially upsetting. It can also be difficult to feel a sense of ‘closure’ if you’ve been unable to attend a funeral in person or even see the deceased prior to the committal. If you’re struggling, you may find it helpful to contact a bereavement counselling service such as GriefChat – a safe space for grieving or bereaved people to share their story, explore their feelings and be supported by a qualified bereavement counsellor. This service is free of charge and open Monday-Friday, 9am-9pm.

For further guidance and if you feel that an outdoor ceremony would be right for you, you may also find the following articles helpful:

Guide to Outdoor Funerals
Woodland Burials: the natural way forward?

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