Funeral tourism – forever changed or changed for now?

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily changed our ability to travel to attend funerals. But could these changes become permanent?

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator for Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The company now has an additional three offices across the county, in Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint, and remains independent and family-run. With much change taking place in the funeral industry since the organisation’s genesis, as for many other businesses, Freeman Brothers has seen a significant amount of change since early 2020. The issue of travelling long distances to attend a funeral has shifted greatly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Becky explores how things have changed, and whether these changes could be temporary or permanent…

Few things have impacted the world’s population so universally for such an extended period of time as the coronavirus pandemic has. Whilst each country has taken a different approach to combating the virus, many had similar methods, such as the shutting down of businesses, limitation of social activities, and restrictions on travel within our own countries, in addition to movement between countries.

In the UK, we experienced a combination of these factors. With our first full lockdown commencing on 23rd March 2020, all non-essential businesses were closed, as well as schools; people were required to work from home as much as possible; meetings with those outside of your own household were banned (and ‘support bubbles’ were yet to be implemented); we were required to stay at home and not leave our local area. In accordance with this, funeral attendances were capped at a maximum of 10, and the funeral industry had to respond quickly.

Prior to the pandemic, very few UK funerals were recorded or livestreamed. Something that the British public had at that time yet to accept was that viewing a service online was commensurate with attending in person, even if a person’s reasons for travel could be commonly justified – for example, their main residence was outside the area the funeral was taking place in, or abroad, and even if their financial, familial or health circumstances made last-minute travel difficult.

It was incredibly common for friends and family of Deceased persons to make funeral arrangements around those who wished to attend. We would regularly be asked to delay funeral arrangements until a pre-booked holiday had been completed, or until a relative living abroad was able to travel to the UK and attend the service in person. Clearly, some of this remains preference – for some people, attending a funeral can be tied in with another reason for travel, such as for business or in order to then spend time with loved ones in their country of origin, or to help settle the Deceased person’s estate – but on many occasions it was also a matter of perceived or genuine obligation.

In addition to obligation, it was a matter of practicality – it is, after all, only in fairly recent years that livestreaming has become a viable option, particularly in locations such as crematoria or places of worship. These venues are often sited in more remote areas of the UK, and a significant number of religious and secular buildings pre-date Internet capabilities. Simply put, they just weren’t planned or built for this kind of activity, and the situation is very chicken-and-egg – which comes first, the desire or the infrastructure?

In the context of funerals, it would seem that necessity is the mother of desire, and the pandemic pushed many people to accept a ‘least worst’ option above no option at all. As with all things, there has been a transition period: in the early stages, it was a simple case of those who couldn’t attend in person being provided with a link to either stream the service live or replay the recorded version. I think that, initially, we had all hoped that the impact on funerals would be minimal, and that attendances would increase and travel would again be allowed. As the status quo has shifted, and the time period for which we’ve lived under restrictions has been extended, people have felt the pull to become more creative and engaging in order to make attending a funeral online more personalised and meaningful.

Adding elements such as these enables guests and viewers alike to feel more connected to the experience, and helps to support the idea that watching online is an acceptable method of being present. One particularly famous incident gives us a great example: much was made by the media of the fact that Meghan Markle did not attend Prince Philip’s funeral, and many were quick to jump to a conclusion regarding relations within the family. However, it is also public knowledge that, at the time of the funeral taking place, Meghan was in the later stages of pregnancy and residing in the USA. Her representatives stated that she had been advised not to travel for medical reasons, no doubt due to her increased vulnerability and how this is exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s a great example of how we should consider the feelings and safety of others, rather than insisting upon what is ‘right’ (and this was, in fact, right for Meghan, her unborn child, and arguably her husband and their son too!). It can be incredibly difficult to appreciate this when we are bereaved ourselves, and would like to have our loved ones in attendance to support each other, but it’s also important to remember that, those who are still alive have a longer-term future to consider, and their safety and comfort is also important.

One of the key factors remaining at the moment is a lack of real choice, and it will be interesting to see what happens when that eventually truly changes. Every government internationally has a slightly different policy, but it is certainly incredibly difficult to leave your home country and return again without disrupting your lifestyle significantly. For example, international travel is now possible again from England, but all destinations are subject to a risk assessment rating, meaning that we must still comply with certain rules upon our return. This can range from isolating at home for a short but fixed period of time, to a mandatory and costly hotel quarantine.

For some people, this means that international travel carries an element of risk which has never been seen before – as a country’s risk can be re-assessed at short notice, and the goalposts therefore moved – as well as lacking in practicability, due to our ability to isolate plus potentially the financial impacts of paying for testing or quarantining. Availability of transportation is another issue; airlines are currently still running minimal routes, as travel restrictions are unsurprisingly meaning that it is difficult for them to operate cost-effectively.

It’s still difficult to predict how things will happen once we reach the point of the pandemic ending, but my current guess would be the following: many more people than ever before will choose to have a simple funeral, and plan for a larger celebration of life at a more mutually-convenient time for those travelling from further away, more in line with how weddings are planned. And why not? There will always be those who favour a ‘traditional’ arrangement, but what’s clearer than ever before is that both traditions and preferences are changing – it’s now less about what’s right or wrong, and more about what’s right for the individual.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

July 7, 2021

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