With social distancing continuing to impact bereavement rituals, Abi discusses funeral receptions in particular
Freeman Brothers has been based in West Sussex since 1855 and, as a long-established firm of funeral directors, prides itself on its professional yet sensitive approach to the time of bereavement. Our colleagues based across the company’s four branches in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint are continuing to help people arrange and carry out funerals even in this most difficult of times as COVID-19 changes the way funeral services are forced to operate.
Today, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, looks at an issue which has been particularly difficult for bereaved people during the pandemic – the inability for most of that period to have a funeral reception – and considers why some of the families we have helped have found this so upsetting.
At Freeman Brothers, we have been very lucky that the people who we have had to arrange funerals for during the COVID-19 pandemic have been very understanding of the restrictions which have been placed on them. These have varied considerably. At some points, the congregation was limited to a handful or mourners, burials were only taking place by the graveside, and places of worship were closed, so families with a religious belief were having to make compromises about where the service would take place as well as on who could attend.
At the time of writing, the quantity of people allowed to attend a funeral has expanded so that it can be up to 30 if the venue can accommodate that number at a social distance – although not all venues can. However, there are still significant restrictions in place, including some affecting the funeral service (such as not being able to sing communally) and a funeral reception is currently virtually impossible to hold on anything other than the smallest scale.
Many of our bereaved families have told us that something which they have found very difficult, although they do understand the reasons why, is not being able to have a reception after the funeral. All funeral directors operate in different ways and some help to arrange the reception and/or catering, but this is not something that Freeman Brothers currently does in any formal way (although we can, of course, offer recommendations based on our own experiences and that of our previous customers). Receptions have significantly increased in popularity and importance to our customers over the past few years to the extent that, in the months before COVID-19, it wasn’t unusual for a bereaved family to book the funeral with the availability of their reception venue in mind – and also to arrange the time of the funeral service so that the reception afterwards ‘made sense’ in terms of times.
For example, if the wish was to have an afternoon tea, the funeral would be booked for early afternoon so that those attending would probably have not had time for lunch and would be hungry enough for sandwiches as well as cake. If the person who had died had a connection with a pub, and the intention was for the reception to be there afterwards, with those who wished to do so toasting for some hours, the funeral would probably take place later in the day – and probably on a Friday in the expectation that many attendees would then not have work commitments the next day.
However, a reception is not an essential part of a funeral and not everyone has one. So, it’s important to ask why the restrictions on them have caused some people such emotional upset. This will help us think about what the reception achieves, and so consider some possible alternatives in the same spirit.
For some belief systems, gathering after a funeral is part of the rites of the funeral itself. For example, in Judaism, it is traditional to have a meal, the ‘Seudat Havraah’ upon return from the funeral service – this is at the very beginning of the week-long mourning period after the funeral which is usually, in English-speaking countries, called ‘sitting shiva’. Sunni Muslims are expected to mourn for three days during which the close family receive visitors. Hindus have a ceremony 10 days after the funeral to which guests should bring fruit. All of these are obviously formalised customs as part of different religions, but we can see in them the commonality that we would associate with receptions even when there is no set of established customs – gathering together after a bereavement to spend time and be together.
As many funeral services become less religious, it’s easy to see how some of the communal feel can be lost. For example, many people now don’t feel it’s appropriate to sing a hymn, but singing together encourages a feeling of community and shared experience. Equally, as more funerals take place in crematorium chapels, with limited time available for the service, the ability for several different people to offer their personal memories in that setting is diminished.
Funerals can, of course, be extremely emotional, and some people find emotional times very isolating. All of this was the case before COVID-19, and has been exacerbated by restrictions put in place. At the time of writing, singing is not permitted, some crematoria have shortened their service times, and there are fewer attendees than there might otherwise have been- some only present remotely, and so only viewing rather than participating.
A reception after a service enables people to chat, catch up, and exchange memories in a shared space, therefore it makes sense that even without there being limitations on funerals, this ability to join together in a less formal and more participatory way is going to be missed.
It’s difficult to think of exactly how we can replace receptions at a time when getting together even in smaller groups is difficult. It’s one thing to think of arranging an event for a later date, but that doesn’t mitigate the problem in the short term. Virtual receptions may be possible for those who have embraced the various internet meeting platforms that so many people are using, but that isn’t the same as catching someone’s eye and heading across the room to shake their hand.
Perhaps, instead, one idea might be in moving away from one-off events but towards a series of activities which can be done together – everyone agreeing to listen to a particular piece of music or light a candle at a particular time, or friends of the family all getting in touch to ensure those personal conversations can take place. Online tribute pages, such as those offered by Freeman Brothers, are a great repository for memories and photos and can be kept forever, perhaps being used as a way to trigger responses among others who are visiting the page.
As with everything to do with funerals, there is never only one answer, and I am aware that some of our customers feel grateful for being unable to have a reception as they know they would be very upset at the funeral and felt pressure to socialise when it simply was not the best way for them to cope with their grief. However, for those people who would have liked a cup of tea or glass of something after the service, this restriction has been another way in which the pandemic has curbed our activities. Our thoughts are, as ever, with those who are finding these times difficult.
If you have experienced a bereavement and require our help with any aspect of funeral arrangements, please do contact us.
Tel: 01403 254590
If you have an urgent query, please call 01403 254590. This number is answered by one our staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is the quickest way to reach us.
Tel: 01403 785133
25 & 27 Brighton Road
Tel: 01293 540000
126 High Street
Tel: 01273 831497